When it comes to the way American women want work to fit into our lives, COVID-19 has put an exclamation point on a declaration we’ve been making for decades.
Much has been written about the Great Resignation, with millions of people — particularly women — abandoning the traditional workforce because of pandemic pressures. A lot of those women became their own bosses. More than half the newcomers to self-employment last year were female, according to a new report, which cites the caregiving burden that women disproportionately bear.
This is no aberration. It’s an acceleration of a trend that dates back at least 20 years in the U.S. workforce.
A 2019 study found that, in recent years, women have made up an increasingly large share of independent contractors.
Why is this shift happening? Frankly, it works for us: 72% of self-employed women say our mental health is better when we are our own bosses (compared with 64% of men). About the same percentage have a better work-life balance, and nearly as many earn the same as or more than in traditional jobs.
“72% of self-employed women say our mental health is better when we are our own bosses (compared with 64% of men).”
What millions of American women want is clear: to be fully in control of the hours we work, the rates we charge, and the projects we take on.
But current anti-independent contractor trends in labor policy are making that difficult.
The past few years, there has been a push to change laws and regulations in ways that make it much harder, if not impossible, to work legally as an independent contractor.
California’s Assembly Bill 5, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2020, has set a worrying precedent. The language says, among other things, that independent contractors cannot be in the same line of business as companies that pay them. That was a problem for many freelancers, including writers, photographers, musicians, and more. Proponents of the language say it will lead companies to convert their independent contractors into employees who can then form unions, which is the ultimate goal. Instead, in California, the law caused many self-employed people to lose income and clients, as companies didn’t want to be fined for using freelancers.
Unfortunately, the California law sparked some copycat versions in other states, and a version in a federal bill called the PRO Act.
Women have been among the loudest voices speaking out in opposition. It was a woman, Karen Anderson, who created and continues to run the Facebook group Freelancers Against AB5, which was created after California’s Assembly Bill 5 became law, and has swelled to 18,500 members who documented hundreds of affected professions. A group led by female freelance writers from New Jersey (including me) has continued to speak out about misguided attempts to threaten independent contractor careers in this way.
We are regularly frustrated by lawmakers who simply don’t get it. In 2019, a group of independent contractors gave hours of testimony in Trenton, explaining why our careers need protecting. But in December, two male lawmakers cosponsored a bill to protect independent contractor status for just one profession: the Garden State’s golf caddies. Jon Bramnick (now a state senator) said the bill was important to maintain operations at the No. 1 golf course in the world (Pine Valley, which only began allowing women to become members last year). The New Jersey Legislature moved the bill without a single dissenting vote. (Gov. Phil Murphy pocket vetoed it.)
Some of the pushback we get is pretty sexist. After the 2019 hearing in Trenton, then-Senate President Steve Sweeney compared us to Russian operatives trying to interfere with elections by purveying “hysteria.” More recently, on Twitter, a writer who covered labor issues for the New York Times told his more than 56,000 followers that women like us are simply “hysterical.”
This thinking about those of us trying to protect our choice of independent contractor work shows a lack of respect for women, in particular, who are smart, hardworking, and successful as our own bosses.
If the Great Resignation and the shift of even more women into self-employment does nothing else, it should be a clarion call to lawmakers, regulators, and thought leaders that it’s time for them to do a Great Rethinking about the need to protect all independent contractor careers.
Kim Kavin is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey and is the cofounder of Fight For Freelancers, a coalition that works to protect independent contractors.