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June 21, 2021

How to navigate gender bias at work

Written by Jack Lewis

All women have been there. Struggling to get your voice heard in a meeting, and then a male colleague repeats your exact same point and gets praised for his insight. A glance over your outfit that lingers a little too long. A snide remark about your commitment as you leave the office on time so that you’re not late for the school run.

Despite the gains made by movements like #MeToo and policy changes like the requirement for all employers with 250 or more employees to publish details of their gender pay gap, gender bias is still alive and well in the workplace. And, unfortunately, freelancers are not immune from its effects.

Compared to an average gender pay gap of 15.5% that was reported in 2020 for people in employment, the freelancer pay gap seems to be worse – not better. Female freelancers earn on average 19.5% less than their male counterparts, according to a recent study.

And while businesses may be able to implement HR initiatives and strategies to reduce institutional discrimination and bias, these types of issue can be trickier to navigate as a freelancer working for a client. In this blog, we’ll take a look at the steps you can take to deal with gender discrimination if you encounter it as a freelancer, and some ways you can try to actively combat gender bias in the workplace. This isn’t just for women either – fellas take note, and you may be able to learn something about how you can support female freelancers through your own working practices.

Listen and learn from your unconscious bias

Most of us have heard the phrase “unconscious bias”. Indeed, it’s become a bit of a buzzword in workplaces up and down the country. But behind it is a very simple concept: as we grow and learn in an unequal society, we, without realising, come to implicitly absorb beliefs and prejudices based on categories like race, gender, disability and so on. A good illustration of unconscious bias is the doctor riddle:

A father and a son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene, but the child is rushed to hospital and straight into theatre for urgent, life-saving surgery. The surgeon walks into the room, all scrubbed up and ready, and shouts out, “I can’t operate on this patient – he’s my son!”. Who is the doctor?

The answer, of course, is that the surgeon is the child’s mother. But the riddle relies on your unconscious bias – hearing “surgeon” or “doctor” and assuming that person is a man. Being aware of and understanding how unconscious bias can operate in extremely subtle ways is a good first step to tackling gender and other types of discrimination. This may make you feel more empowered to call out behaviours or comments that reflect a client or collaborator’s unconscious bias. It may enable you to recognise when you are being treated unfairly because of a personal characteristic. And it will help you be aware of your own internalised prejudices so you can actively combat them.


You probably don’t know this, but mansplaining is when a man assumes a woman doesn’t have his superior level of understanding, and so tries to patronisingly explain concepts to her, even when she is an expert in her field. Ahem.

It’s something women experience quite regularly in the workplace, and it can be difficult to know how to react when you hear it from a client – especially as there’s already a power imbalance there as you’ve been hired to do a job for them. However, freelancers can use this fact to their advantage in a mansplaining situation. Remind the client that you are the expert in your field – indeed, isn’t that why they brought you on board to help them with this project?

Some good, constructive ways to deal with mansplaining include:

  • “That comment makes me think it might be useful for me to explain my background…”
  • “I’d be happy to deal with any questions on this at the end”.
  • “Thanks for that, but I feel really comfortable on this topic/with this job”.

If you see mansplaining happening to another colleague, you can intervene and advocate on their behalf:

  • “I think [name] is the expert on this, aren’t you?”
  • “I sense that [name] will have some insight on this for us, and I’m really interested to hear what she has to say”.

Flexible working

One reason that increasing numbers of women – especially those with children – are drawn to freelancing is the opportunity to be flexible and set their own working hours that work around their home life and family. Requests for flexible working in employment can all too often be interpreted as a lack of commitment to the job, and many people feel that they experience discrimination for their caring responsibilities. As a freelancer, you should be able to work the hours that you choose and manage your own workload, providing you deliver the work you’ve been contracted to do by the agreed deadlines and milestones.

Put value on your work

Freelance women – especially working mums – typically earn less than their male counterparts. A recent study found that female freelancers are paid 19.5% less than men. Don’t be afraid to set your rates fairly for your industry average and at a level that matches your skill and experience. If you’re not sure how to approach a rate rise, take a look at our guide to upping your charges without losing clients.

Dinghy offers specialist business insurance packages tailored to the needs of freelancers. All of our policies come with Freelancer Assist – a service that will help you chase unpaid invoices and gives you access to tax, legal and counselling helplines. And having our professional indemnity, public liability and business equipment cover in place is another way to ensure that your freelance presence gives off those professional, expert vibes. Potential mansplainers, take note!

About Jack Lewis

Read more blog posts by Jack Lewis

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