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If you want me to sit on your panel about empowerment, you should pay me

Jessica Evans
AFP

It’s that glorious time of year again. Emails that read something like: "We find your work just so uh-mazing and in-spira-tional. Can you please come and speak at our event? It would be dre-amy to have you there. PS we don’t want to pay you."

Brands and businesses boldly wave the empowerment flag to reach out to women all over the world and ask us to do something where we compile all our best work, wit, wisdom, expertise and hand over all our years of knowledge, FOR FREE. Panel speaking, speed mentoring, speaker guest slots, you name it – all things unpaid, and all in the name of sisterhood. Insert here power-to-the-people fist emoji.

I’m not interested in doing it, and it’s not because I’m mean-spirited or don't like helping people. In fact, helping people probably motivates me the most in life. But when I’m working, I expect to be paid.

When I do turn down unpaid events on International Women’s Day (IWD), the company in question usually acts confused and somewhat sassy – like, how dare I be so arrogant as to place financial value on myself? They want to champion women, but heaven forbid, not that much. They want to encourage self-worth in women, but not that kind of self-worth.

Caring about earning money for work you're doing isn’t the same as being entitled, lacking integrity, or not being very kind. I’m a professional creative, not a hobbyist, so when those brands ask me to essentially do a consultancy gig for free while they're cashing in £50 a ticket for a venue that holds 1,000 people, it doesn’t empower me one bit.

For the past three years, I have continually been asked to sit on panels and be a guest speaker at so-called empowering IWD events. Whenever I asked what the fee was, at the very best, they replied with, "There isn't a fee, but we can offer you pay in the form of a ticket for the day." Translation: there is no pay.

Tempting, but no thank you. I think I'll pass on being a part of the Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists gang, while the organisers exploit women as they preach about equality and feminism.

Those organisers putting on “inspiring” panel events who haven’t paid one of their event contributors for the day will also send out messages to the younger, less established women in the audience that they should work for free for exposure and experience, and that they will need to do this in order to leap onto the next stepping stone.

They are encouraging and normalising free labour. It’s wrong, unprofessional and needs to be challenged until we are able to stamp out this harmful culture, one that only dilutes and damages creative industries.

The irony would be semi-enjoyable if these brands weren't racking up huge profits while exploiting unpaid workers, dressing their events up in buzz-phrases like “self-care”. When it’s convenient, these companies, who practice something very different to what their marketing preaches, pop their feminist hats on and take advantage of the idea of equal pay, while embodying the very opposite.

Those businesses are part of the very problem that many women and men all over are trying to fight hard against. The messages conveyed by their events are contradicted by the way they actually operate their own business. These mixed messages get confusing – and they also cheapen genuine, brilliant campaigns for women.

It happens all year round, but around this time especially. There's nothing like using IWD as the perfect hook and segway to make money. There is so much hypocrisy in the advertising and sales world, where businesses cleverly reposition themselves to be seen banging a drum for whatever is trending at that time and cash in on it.

These brands piggy-back on IWD to sell us a day of feminism fantasy, in the form of panels on “How She Did It” – and even worse, at seminars on “How To Negotiate Your Pay At Work”.

If I’m working at an IWD event, I want the authentic experience. I want real social change, not just an event that looks and smells like female empowerment, but tastes like inequality and exploitation.

So to this year’s event organisers: can you please put your money where your mouth is and do the very thing that your whole event is about. After all, there’s nothing more empowering than being paid for your work.