Academy of Management Journal

Female Freelancers Face a Glass Wall

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3 May 2023

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As the gig economy grows, successful freelancers are branching out, offering more services to attract more work. But women who want to expand their areas of expertise have fewer opportunities to grow than men due to gender biases, according to an Academy of Management Journal article.

“In the Great Resignation, people are looking for new opportunities outside the traditional career. We need to be thinking about how we can fight against these biases and level the playing field so everyone has an opportunity to grow,” said Susie Lee of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Lee of Michigan State University and Susie Lee of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology are coauthors of The Glass Wall and Gendered Evaluation of Role Expansion in Freelancing Careers.” After evaluating freelancers in creative fields in Korea and the United States, they found that women were more likely to be viewed as less competent and committed than their male counterparts.

“When women engage in lateral role expansion within professional careers, they face a glass wall, an invisible barrier that limits their work opportunities due to a gendered evaluation of role expansion … and such difference undermines the perceived competence and commitment of female freelancers,”.

In comparing Korean songwriters, the authors found that women were far more likely to be typecast as lyricists or composers, as opposed to gaining opportunities to do both.

“All the female songwriters I met found difficulty in working as both music writers and lyricists instead of specializing in just one,” Lee said. “In freelancing, that ability to do more than one thing is a very important aspect of their career.”

In a study of the U.S. film industry, 313 participants read a resume of either Steven (male) or Sarah (female), who began a film career as a cinematographer a few years after graduating from university. In a no-role expansion scenario, the cinematographer continued to take on projects solely as a cinematographer. In a role expansion scenario, the cinematographer had recently taken on a production designer role in a new project while working as a cinematographer in another project.

After reading the resume, the participants reported their perceptions of the freelancers’ authority, competence, and commitment. Role expansion had a negative effect on all three of those qualities for female freelancers compared with male freelancers.

Key points of their findings in the Academy of Management Journal:

  • Progressive role expansion helps captures new work for male freelancers but not for female freelancers.
  • People perceive less, a psychological term for a sense of control or authority, in women’s role expansion than in men’s.
  • Agency is integral to freelancers’ perceived level of competence and commitment, two critical factors that influence work opportunities.

“The bottom line is you may make a good living as a specialist. But opportunities are far greater for generalists, who can expand their roles and generate more revenue streams,” Lee said.

Gender stereotypes may contribute to those perceptions. “Women are perceived to be communal and are less likely to take charge than men. Women are also considered to be more emotional than men, which gives the impression that they are more irrational, unreliable, and lacking self-control,” the authors wrote.

For example, women might miss out on opportunities to build more skills because they are sometimes viewed as less committed to their work and more committed to family.

“In choosing freelancers, commitment is non-negotiable. Freelancers who don’t follow up can derail a project,” Lee said.

One strategy freelancers can adopt in breaking through the glass wall is to present themselves under a gender-neutral name of an incorporated organisation to direct prospective clients away from their gender and toward their work portfolio.

Business leaders should keep in mind that:

  • Hiring managers who want to find the best freelancers should understand that their evaluations of freelancers may be tainted by gender stereotypes.
  • Undervalued female generalists present significant opportunities for organisations that can hire them and help them thrive, gaining a competitive advantage for their organisations.
  • To prevent from arising, policymakers can develop or accredit licenses that help freelancers, especially women, affirm their efforts to acquire new work roles. Licensing could help female freelancers signal their competence and commitment.

Lee said examining the nuanced career paths of freelancers can help organizations navigate an evolving workplace.

“As opposed to traditional career paths where one advances by climbing up the corporate ladder, people pursuing these new forms of work can advance their career independent of organisations, allowing them to not only move across firms, but also remain outside of organisations so that they can shape their own career paths,”.

Related Academy of Management Journal article : Should Women Pitch More Like Men to Win Startup Investments?

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