Know Your Worth with Becca Gurney
What happens when one woman looks around her field and notices the leaders are mostly men? If that woman is Becca Gurney, she starts her own design studio, and creates a place that chooses to hire women, pay them fairly, and find clients ready to do the same.
Becca is a Washington, DC-based graphic designer, art director, and founder of Design Choice. She’s built an agency focused on social justice issues that’s vocal about fair pay and offering work those who are often overlooked in the field—women and people of color.
The hardest part is knowing what you’re worth and then sticking to it. I do a lot of research to understand what my worth should be and a lot of that research involves knowing what men who are doing what I’m doing are charging.—Becca Gurney, founder of Design Choice
We chat about:
- How Becca makes a conscious choice to look for new women and/or people of color to work with on projects, instead of hiring the same people over and over—and why you should, too
- The truth behind being asked to work for peanuts all the time—even when you’re the founder of a design studio—and the importance of turning down work that doesn’t value you and your expertise
- How to build a supportive network when you’re just starting out as a freelancer
- Why keeping politics out of business isn’t required—and can actually help guide your work to new places
- How to figure out what your male peers are making so you can be sure you’re being paid what your work is really worth
- Design Choice, Becca’s design studio
- She Freelances, a new site for finding freelancers for hire in the DC-area (and if you are a freelancer in DC, add yourself!)
- The conference organizer who complained about speakers asking to be paid for their work and got ratioed on LinkedIn for having such a Bad. Take.
- Why Eva PenzeyMoog deserves all the stars—and cash—for her talk on designing against domestic violence
- Why it’s important for us to share what we make, how we ask for it, and which conferences treat speakers best.
- Why Karine Jean-Pierre is the woman we all need in our corner.
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Go to getharvest.com/strongfeelings to get 50% off your first month.
[Full transcript coming soon!]
Sara Wachter-Boettcher If you need to track time, send invoices, or manage projects, then you need Harvest. It’s my favorite way to keep my business running smoothly, and it’s made for everyone from solo freelancers to big companies. And if you also need to keep up with your team’s workload and figure out how to schedule work fairly and efficiently, then you should check out Harvest Forecast. It’s all at getharvest.com/strongfeelings, where you can try it free, and then get 50% off your first month when you move to a paid account. That’s getharvest.com.com/strongfeelings. [theme music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out] Hey, everyone, I’m Sara!
Katel Ledu And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL We are talking to someone really special to us. Her name is Becca Gurney, she’s the founder of Design Choice, a Washington DC design studio that’s focused on hiring and paying women, and the creator of She Freelances, a new directory about women…who freelance! We love Becca for lots of reasons, not least of which is she designed our logo! When we were moving from No, You Go to Strong Feelings last winter, she was incredible because she helped us evolve our look. But she’s not on the show today just to talk about our logo—thank god—she’s here to talk about building a design agency specifically focused on social justice issues, and how she got comfortable being vocal about fair pay.
SWB Ohh yes. So, speaking of fair pay, before we get to Becca, I would like to start out with maybe the biggest fair pay drama to hit my personal timeline last week. Katel, do you know what I’m talking about here? [KL sighs] I call it Big Disappointment.
KH I do and whooo boy, this is a doozy. Okay, we’ve got to start with how this unfolded.
SWB Okay. So, this was a whole drama around a conference called Big D that’s a design conference in Dallas. So, big Dallas, big design—Big D.
SWB I have some questions about the name. [KL laughs] It’s been around for a lot of year, I think over a decade. And I was actually their keynote a few years ago, so I’ve been there before. So, late last week, the organizer of Big D got onto LinkedIn of all places and wanted to complain about something. Katel, can you read from his LinkedIn post because I just think it packs [laughs] so much in.
KL Yeah, this is choice. Okay, so he writes:
As a conference organizer, I continue to be amazed at how many people ask for airfare and hotel accommodations for a 50 minute talk—a 50 minute talk! [laughs]—newbies and professionals alike. Here is some advice from a conference organizer and industry speaker:
- Don’t ask us for travel fees unless you are a keynote.
- Do thank us for being selected as a speaker.
- Don’t tell us we are cheap because of our travel policy. [both laugh]
- Do attend as much of the conference as possible.
- Don’t change your talk after being accepted.
- Do be flexible with your talk description.
- Don’t submit a talk unless you will pay for your travel.
- Do be willing to work with organizers on your messages—okay, there’s two more. [SWB laughs]
- [laughing] Don’t tell us you have a special message. We all do. [laughs]
- Do understand when organizers lose patience.
It is a privilege to speak at a conference. You should be humbled and honored by it. Check your ego at the door. Never forget we have other speakers that will pay for the travel, work with organizers, craft their message, share their stories, express their gratitude, and show up. I prefer to work with flexible, grateful, humble people anyway. Just some advice from an industry speaker and conference organizer.
And then there are hashtags at the end.
SWB [laughing] The hashtags are where I died! [KL laughs] Hashtag leadership, hashtag design, hashtag conferences, hashtag egos! [laughs]
KL I mean!
SWB Okay, so there’s a lot to unpack here. Like all of these messages around like, “oh, don’t change your talk after it’s been accepted, but do change it if we tell you to.” And “do let us tell you what your messages should be.” I’m like, “what?!” So, you want to have all this control and give me nothing for it and I am basically a slave to you to show up and give this talk for free at an event you’re charging money for?!
KL Ugh, it’s just—
SWB Fuck that.
SWB Okay, so this blew up all over and I just want to say that folks were not on his side, [KL laughs] which was something that was very reassuring to me. A couple of my favorite comments—one was like, “you’re asking people to do work. You should be paying them to do said work. If you aren’t, it’s exploitative and you’re only going to end up with a privileged subset of people speaking at your conference.”
SWB Which I think is really huge.
SWB That’s a huge and important detail, right?
SWB If the only people you have at your conference are the people who can afford to put in all of that time, and energy, and effort, and then travel there and do all of this for free, that is not going to be representative of the community you want to serve.
SWB The other one was [laughs] “I wasn’t aware one could get rationed on LinkedIn, [KL laughs] but you’ve gone and done it! [both laugh] Umm…yeah.
KL So, I mean, I guess we should also acknowledge that he has since apologized.
SWB Yeah like…under a lot of pressure.
SWB I will say, personally, I would feel a lot of reluctance to go back to that event or to suggest it to anybody else, but you can make of that apology what you will. But as a past speaker there, I was actually a little bit shocked to realize that non-keynotes weren’t even getting their travel expenses covered—that is not at all something that I had thought was happening when I was speaking there. And it made me realize something that I’ve started doing in the past couple of years that I don’t think I was doing at that point, which is I’ve started asking people questions not just about codes of conduct, and how they ensure diverse speaker lineup, which I’ve been asking for a while, but I also started asking people things like, “what is your system and policy for compensating speakers?” Even if I am negotiating something specific if I am going to be a featured speaker or a keynote, I want to know what they’re doing for everybody, and if that is something they do standard across the board. Because I realized that this kind of disparity was happening a lot and I didn’t always know about it. And I was focused first on making sure that I was okay, but now I feel like I’m in a place where I need to be able to do more than that.
KL Yeah, totally. I mean, I think that’s brilliant. It tells you how they are operating.
SWB Yeah. And I feel like in some ways, it’s sort of the least I can do. I realized there was a lot of lack of transparency at these events—that they’ll pay people who ask, but they won’t tell you that they have any money—
SWB —and they’ll make you feel a little bit bad about asking as a way to subtly discourage you from asking, but then if you press them on it, they’ll give you some money. And that ends up just privileging people who are more experienced, and more confident, and people who have the most context—the people who understand the system the best. And that means the people who are already the most supported by the system, which means the people who are the most similar to the people who were there last year. It just perpetuates this cycle of having privileged people who tend to be white men up on stage all the time.
SWB Then I was also thinking about how many events have really started to make an emphasis on having a diverse speaker lineup, and particularly [laughs] to take pictures of non-white speakers and plaster them all over their website because it make them look better.
KL Oh yeah.
SWB And then I was thinking like, “okay, so if your website is 75% people of color and those people of color are getting 10% of the revenue…” [laughs]
KL I mean…
SWB I have a problem with that!
KL Yeah! And to me, it just feels like this looks Iike such a game—such an obvious game. And it clearly does not lead to equity. [laughs]
SWB No. So, I feel particularly close to this whole blow-up because not only did I keynote there, so I have some experience with these organizers, I’ve been to this event, I mean, I replied to that LinkedIn comment and I was like, “I regret being at your event because this is wholly unacceptable to me.”
SWB But I am also friends with a woman who was selected to speak there this year, her name is Eva PenzeyMoog. And her and I have been talking a bit recently. In fact, we were talking last week prior to this about her speaking career. She was asking me about things like, “how did you start asking for somebody to cover your travel experiences” or asking for honoraria to have a little bit of a speaking fee or a stipend. And she’s doing this really amazing work. So, her talk is about how tech is used in domestic abuse and violence scenarios—
SWB and how our design choices can enable that. And then she’s talking about designing to avoid that. And she’s talking about it in all of these unexpected places where all kinds of different products and services could be used in domestic violence scenarios, and this is something that people just need to understand, wherever they work.
KL Right. And so, clearly important.
SWB Super important. And she’s also doing a great job with it! This is something she’s really been working on. She’s been speaking at a few local events, she has this awesome talk, and people want to have her talk! So, she keeps being invited, but nobody’s paying for it…typical! So, I think, pretty fairly, she doesn’t want to go broke giving this talk, even though she really thinks it’s important and she values it as a subject, she is like, “it’s expensive to go to these places!”
SWB And her company might help her some or whatever, but she’s like, “this is starting to add up.” Trying to pay for whatever—little cabs and dog sitting or whatever—all this shit adds up.
SWB So, we’re having this whole conversation over email about it the day she gets accepted to Big D, and so she decides she’s going to ask for some money [laughs] that morning.
KL [laughing] Yeah!
SWB [laughing] And then that same day, this guy posted that on LinkedIn, and I was like, “oh fuck.” I felt a little bit bad because I had given her a few basic numbers I had heard about from other places—
SWB —or that I had seen myself when I was earlier in my speaking career. I had kind of talked about some things I thought were typical, and she’d requested this little bit of money, and then it just blew up and I was like, “I feel really bad that your very first time [laughs] that you’ve taken this advice has resulted in this! [both laugh]
KL I mean, the whole thing is so absurd.
SWB Right. So, I suspect it wasn’t just about her—
SWB —because they probably sent out a bunch of speaking invites that day and a bunch of people probably asked about travel expenses because it’s very, very typical for conferences to cover them in design and in tech.
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB It’s not true for everywhere, but in design and tech, it’s very typical for conferences to cover those. So, [laughs] it maybe wasn’t just her, but she was definitely one of those people [KL laughs] and it was a little bit deflating for me to not have this—I was trying to advise her as best I could and not have it work out great. [KL laughs] Except! It made me really glad he posted about this publicly because it meant that he looked bad because he was roasted!
SWB Instead of what I think often happens, which is her ending up being positioned as “difficult.”
KL Yeah… I mean, a lot of people started responding to this, not just disagreeing with it and saying this guy was wrong for how he was handling this specific instance, but pointing out the fact that the way he’s running his conference business is gross and hurting people. And the people he supposedly wants to attract, like you touch on, and to have represent his conference are the ones being impacted. So, something else I saw happening was a few women tweeting what their terms are for speaking gigs and stuff like that, and even putting out an open offer to answer questions from folks who weren’t sure what they should ask for. So, people we know like Tatiana Mac were doing this. Our friend, Laura Kalbag, who has been on the show before, she was saying, “contact me if you want advice or if you want to see a copy of my terms.” And I’m sure this happening a lot more, but I was listening to Sooo Many White Guys with Phoebe Robinson—this is one of my favorite podcasts—and she was interviewing Reese Witherspoon recently. And while Reese was talking about the production company she started, she was like, “I always say to other women who are trying to work on tv and in movies, ask me what I made on something and I will tell you. I will tell you what my rate was and what my compensation was.”
SWB: I mean, same policy. [laughs]
SWB I don’t think I’m being paid as much as Reese Witherspoon. [both laugh]
KL One day!
SWB [laughing] One day. But I will. I feel like it’s really helpful to start being more transparent about this stuff. And it’s hard—you always want to put it into context to sort of explain the broader picture of how it fits into an event or how it fits into an industry or whatever, but I think people really need those data points.
KL Yeah! And okay, so I know I’m not on Twitter that much, so maybe I just didn’t see it, but while I appreciate men also coming down on this guy, I want to see more men offering to share what their compensation is. What are their terms? What are they asking for—and getting—that women aren’t—
KL —because it’s all so secretive!
SWB Yes! I mean, I want to hear that from some of our male listeners. If you are a man, and you’re listening to this podcast, and you do public speaking, send us some data points! Because we can keep it anonymous if you want—or not if you don’t care—but people need to know this stuff.
SWB It’s really hard if all of your data points are coming from other women too [laughs] because then you don’t really know what the comparison is.
SWB So, I would really appreciate it. That’s really what I was trying to help Eva with before this all blew up—just letting her know, “here are some numbers I’ve been offered.” Okay, some events when you’re starting out will cover your travel expenses or they’ll give you a flat stipend of $500 to cover travel. Or maybe they’ll give you $500 or $1,000 as a stipend plus the travel expenses. I mean, it kind of really can vary a lot, but just knowing what’s out there…
KL Yeah! You’re like, “here are some examples, some real world examples.”
SWB And there’s multiple ways that this can shake out and there are reasons that events might not be able to pay, but usually those reasons are things like it is a nonprofit community event where tickets are free or cheap and where they specifically have a system set up that is meant to be like you’re part of this community and you kind of give back to the community. I speak for free that are local community organised events where it just makes sense—
SWB —to do it for free.
SWB But anyway, this is the kind of info that I really wish that I had had when I started speaking and I just didn’t know who to ask or what to ask or if it was okay to ask. And it’s really hard to figure out when you’re just sort of stuck in the dark.
KL So, you’ve been speaking for a while now, and you say you still speak for free at community events, but did you speak for free more often earlier on? Because so many speakers are told they should do it for “exposure.” Is that true?
SWB I think occasionally it might be true, but I think that that’s not where I would put my default stance. [laughs]
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB Because I think that that’s often what an event wants to sell you on because they want you to speak for free because it’s good for them and they make money off of you that way. I think it’s way more often exploitative. And I definitely spoke for free more often when I was first starting out and some of those experiences were valuable, but a lot of them were not as valuable as I thought they might be. So, for example… [KL laughs] did you know that South By Southwest, which makes mucho bucks—
KL So much!
SWB So much money. Did you know they don’t pay anybody?
KL I feel like I remember that from way back when, but that’s shocking!
SWB And I think it’s like they don’t have to because they have this brand and people want to speak there. So many people submit because they’re like, “oh, this is going to be so important for my career, I’ll do it anyway.” I still think it’s exploitative. Just because you can get people to do things for free, I don’t think that it’s necessarily okay to ask them to do it for free. But that aside! I spoke there in 2013 and I said yes pretty readily, but it did not exactly work out the way I had envisioned it in my head.
KL [laughing] Oh no!
SWB Okay, so I’ll tell you about it. So, in 2013, I was asked to give a workshop there. And this was the very first time they were doing a workshop thing at South By, so it was new to them. And they still weren’t paying for it, and I was like, “okay.” I think I finagled an extra all access pass so that I could bring Will and we could go to the music festival after.
SWB And that was cool, I guess, but it was not…worth it.
KL Not cool enough! [laughs]
SWB Because it was a full day workshop. [KL sighs] So, an eight hour workshop, which takes a lot to have the material for, right?
SWB And it was totally unpaid. I thought this was going to be very visible because it’s South By Southwest and it’s going to look good. And I also thought it would be a great opportunity to get my first book, Content Everywhere, which had just come out, into their bookstore because their bookstore sells a ton of books. And I was like, “okay, this will be worth it!” So, I say yes, and then I find out that the workshops are being held a bus ride away [KL gasps] from the rest of the events, so you had to get on a bus to the venue at 8 o’clock in the morning, which obviously everybody wanted to do at South By Southwest where they were out at 2:30 in the morning at like sponsored parties where they were getting free drinks.
KL In Austin? Definitely.
SWB Right. And! Okay, so the workshops you had to pre book a ticket, but you didn’t pay for the ticket, it was included in your badge, but you had to book it in advance. So, it quote unquote “sold out” immediately and there was like 300 people on the waiting list just because people signed up for everything.
SWB But then you sign up for stuff and then you don’t go because you don’t have to because it doesn’t actually cost you anything to sign up.
SWB So, half the people who had RSVPed did not show up for that 8am bus. And then there was this huge waiting list of people, but if you were on the waiting list, would you get on an 8am bus hoping to get in?
SWB Hell no!
SWB So, then I get to this venue and it’s like the basement of a hotel. [KL laughs] I mean, it was a fine conference room, but you’re in Austin in March and it’s sunny out and everybody wants to be on the patio drinking a margarita. And here you are from 9am to 5pm in a basement windowless conference room.
SWB And I was like, “what am I doing here?” [laughs]
KL [laughing] It’s terrible!
SWB So then! I go up to the bookstore where my book is supposed to be, and I’m excited, and they have a book signing slot for me. It’s like, “come meet Sarah at this particular time” or whatever. My book isn’t there.
SWB And I’m like, “what?” also—also what I said. And they were like, “ohh yeah… we tried to order it, but it’s back ordered, it’s not in print.” And I was like, “this book just came out, it is definitely in print.”
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB And I’m like, “well, I connected you with the ops person at the publisher who could fulfill the orders months ago,” and they had apparently never followed up on that email, they had checked some Barnes and Noble database. And I’m like, “I don’t understand any of this,” but nobody had ever told me there was a problem. At no point was anyone like, “hey, we’re having trouble getting your book.”
SWB At which point, I would have solved this problem.
SWB So, it just wasn’t there.
KL Oh my god.
SWB And so…I had also made plans to meet up with people during the book signing. People I kind of knew and knew from Twitter and I was like, “well, come by when I’m at this book signing!” So, then I had to stand there [KL laughs] at the book signing and there was no books! [laughs]
KL You’re like, “hi…”
SWB Because I wasn’t sure who was going to show up to say hi.
SWB And it wasn’t a lot of people, it was like three or four people who I had specifically—
KL But still.
SWB —promised I would be there at that time.
SWB Because it’s so hard to meet up with people there because it’s just such a zoo!
KL Yeah! Yeah!
SWB Anyway! I know that South By Southwest is still a huge deal to a lot of people, but fuck all of that.
SWB It was very exploitative and it was pretty awful.
KL I mean, that sounds awful. I remember going there for the first time in—oh my gosh—2007 and thought it was very cool, [laughs] but—
SWB But I think that’s when it was very cool!
KL I mean, maybe. But even then, I feel like I then started to see a lot more of its guts because I started knowing people who actually spoke or did panels there and it sounded just not good. Are there times you’ve gone into a speaking engagement or something like that when you thought it was going to be a good setup terms wise, but turned out to just not be the case?
SWB Oh gosh. I mean, I have regrets. [KL laughs] I won’t get into all of the details on them, but there was one recently that was very clarifying for me. So, I was invited to give a talk at a school, and after accepting and sort of agreeing to the date and all of that, they were like, “okay, so here is your schedule. You’ve got to be there at 9am because you’re going to be guest lecturing in this class and giving a talk to them, and then you’re going to have a coffee with this dean, and then you’re going to have a Q&A with this other class, and then you’re going to have this other meeting with [KL laughs] these other professors, and you’re going to have lunch with students, and then some more meetings. And then you’re going to give your big talk in the evening, and then there’s a dinner.” And I was like, “wait, hold on, what?” I thought that we were doing a talk and this is all being sprung upon me. This feels like I’m interviewing for a professorship, which is kind of the gauntlet they put you through. And I was very much not interviewing! [laughs]
SWB The other thing is that I had planned to be away from home for one night for this, and they were making the schedule in such a way that there was no way I could actually do that. It’s going to take me two nights away—it’s basically almost taking three business days to do this. And so I pushed back on that and they pared it down a bit and were like, “well, we found you these flights, you can get home that night.” But it wasn’t really that I was getting home that night. It was instead of a nice, direct flight home, which existed—
SWB —it was a stop in Chicago and getting home at 2 o’clock in the morning.
KL I mean, no.
SWB Right. [KL laughs] So, that would have been the right answer, but I felt like [sighs] I felt like couldn’t push back again. On the one hand, I felt like these people were trying to sort of wring everything they could out of me. I’m being paid to speak and, therefore, they needed to extract every ounce of energy and ideas they could get from me during this time period. And it did not feel like my comfort was at all in their consideration. I think people often forget that you’re a human when they buy something from you.
SWB When they buy a piece of your time, they think they’ve bought some sort of inanimate object, but I’m still a person! [laughs]
KL [laughing] Yeah, exactly! It’s too much and it just sounds kind of unreasonable. And what I always think about is how do they think they’re going to get your best in this scenario?
SWB Like that I could just be my best for fourteen [KL laughs] straight hours?
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB I can not actually do that. But my big regret is that when they told me they paired the schedule back a bit and like “here’s your awful flight home, don’t worry, it’s fine,” I didn’t want to say no because I didn’t want to be perceived as “difficult”—like I talked about earlier with Eva. I didn’t want to be perceived as difficult, I didn’t want them to feel like I was handing them a rider [KL laughs] where I was like, “I need 64 fluffy white towels and”—
SWB And this is something I’m still kind of chewing on because I think women are so often treated like they’re difficult when they express needs or when they advocate for themselves. When they want anything, they’re perceived as being difficult or asking for too much. And when I look back at things that have been miserable for me—all of the times when I’ve been still on the trip for an event and been like “why am I doing this”—
SWB —it’s usually because other people didn’t respect my boundaries and I didn’t feel like I was allowed to reiterate them or enforce them. And that’s something that I’m going to be a lot more careful about. It wasn’t that this particular event was so bad, it was just that it hit me. I was like, “wait, I could have said no again.” I felt like I’d already said one no and I didn’t want to say another one. [laughs] But no, I could have said, “no, that sounds miserable.”
SWB “Please don’t make me miserable.”
SWB And I don’t have to be miserable!
KL No. And I mean, granted, I think it’s very easy for me to sit here and say, “no, [laughs] that’s a no,” but I totally get what you’re saying and I think that’s fair! Okay, so this is why I really love what Becca talks about, which is choosing to work with more women, more often.
SWB Yes! I mean, same. Women make me miserable a lot less! [both laugh] [short transition music plays]
Interview: Becca Gurney
KL Becca Gurney is a Washington DC-based graphic designer, art director, and founder of Design Choice—a design studio that asks organizations to consciously choose women for their creative work and to pay them fairly for it too. She’s been a friend of our show from the very beginning and we’re so excited to catch up. Becca, welcome to Strong Feelings!
Becca Gurney Hey, thanks for having me. I’m excited to chat with you.
KL So, Becca, this is not your first appearance on the show. Way back in the very first episode when we were No, You Go, you gave us a little clip about starting something new. Can we start by going back and playing that?
BG (clip) I was looking around at the leaders in our industry, which was mostly dudes, and I didn’t feel successful or empowered. The AIGA Census data came out and women in my area at my level are being paid $20,000 less a year than men. And so, hey, I don’t feel successful or empowered. And the moments that sparked any sort of a feeling that felt good were the moments that I was with women talking about being fucking unapologetic women and how could I do that through design. And Stacey Maloney was in a bunch of those conversations and we said, “fuck it, let’s just do it. Let’s be unapologetic women asking to do work and to be paid fairly for it” and we started Design Choice.”
KL Okay, so that clip totally had us pumping our fists in the air and “Unapologetic Women” even became the title of that episode. So, can we start by hearing more about that? Can you tell us more about what you were seeing out in the world that led you to launch Design Choice?
BG I think partly as a freelancer, it’s like I design in a box—I am in my room by myself. And I wanted to be something more than that. But I also want to be respected at the table and it was like combining those two things. So, figuring out people to collaborate with and trying to have a voice at the table or a seat at the table and not having to bring our own folding chairs. So, in talking to the different women that are in my circle, whether they’re designers, copywriters, illustrators, photographers—figuring out ways to collaborate. So, starting Design Choice was the culmination of a lot of those conversations that yeah, were kind of inspired by the actions that were happening around the election a couple of years ago and that are still happening now. And being in DC where we first hand see a lot of those actions and we hear a lot of what is happening in the world of politics, and women’s rights, and equality, and racial equity. So, I wanted to do bigger projects, be thought of as not just a freelancer, but as somebody who could help be your consultant and your partner on a project that can bring in other people so that we can create a whole big ad campaign, not just like one little brochure. And to do that, I partnered with a lot of women and collaborated with different women, and I chose women to do that. So, we could all come together and say, “hey, we’re really talented, we’re experts at what we do, we’re professionals, we can do this work, and you should pay us.”
SWB Yeah. So, something that’s very interesting about that to me is this simple message of “you should pay us” is also sort of radical because you talked about in your quote when we first chatted with you about how men in your area and at your level were being paid so much more than women. And I’m curious, as Design Choice has sort of grown and evolved, how has that played out? Do you feel like that message of making the specific choice to work with women and the message of needing to pay women fairly—do you feel like that’s been playing out in your client relationships and is that something that resonates with people?
BG I think the idea resonates with people, and the want for equity resonates with people, and in actuality, I don’t think they walk the walk. So, when you say, “hey, you should hire a woman for that, I can put you in touch with somebody,” they’re like, “yeah, yeah, yeah, but I know this dude.” And so I take it upon myself to do that. If I can hire a photographer, if I can hire an illustrator to help me on a project and to collaborate with me on a project—so, I’m asking for projects that I can’t do everything on. And I don’t have a team here with me at Design Choice; I create a team for that project and I consciously say, “how can I find not men to do this? How can I find different people and try to even expand my network and try to get out of like ‘I know a really great illustrator, I could just go to her for everything.’ But can I find other people and give other people chances?” And that’s my goal with Design Choice, but do I think it’s happening out in the world? I think everybody wants that to be but doesn’t actually do it. And so it still is this constant ask of saying, “you do need to make a conscious choice to do that.” And that is why that’s part of the name of Design Choice—it has to be your choice. You have to choose it. You have to choose and seek out women or seek out people of color. Seek out nonbinary people, seek out trans people, and say, “I’m going to pay you to do this because I believe that you should be paid and should be able to have work and do work.” And I also still think that women are often expected to—and I see it every day. People ask me to do free design work or really cheap design work, or they’re just surprised that I cost what I cost. And that is just a battle—literal battle—every day.
SWB Yeah, I’m curious about this because I was thinking a lot about how hard it can be to negotiate as a woman—that there’s a lot of bias about how women are perceived when they negotiate or when they ask to be paid versus how men are perceived, and how easy it is for women to be considered. pushy or aggressive, and how deeply we’ve been trained—including women ourselves—have been trained to sort of expect other women to be accommodating. And negotiating and asking to be paid well or to be paid fairly sort of flies in the face of some of that training. [laughs] So, I’m curious, how do you handle that and how do you handle people’s reactions to you when you’re advocating for fair pay and you’re advocating for what you’ve said is a very reasonable price?
BG [laughing] I mean, I have the non-apologetic approach to it, but I will say that when I take that approach, I have the privilege of a life partner that is supportive and the privilege of a life partner that can handle paying our mortgage if I have a bad month. So, I can say, “you don’t respect me; I’m not going to take this job.” And that is a privilege that I get to do. In the end of the year, I have always made up whatever job I didn’t take because I didn’t feel respected or think—or know actually—that they were not going to pay me what I’m worth. But the hardest part is really knowing what you’re worth and then sticking to it. I do a lot of research to understand what my worth should be and a lot of that research involves knowing what men who are doing what I’m doing are charging. And that is hard to get out of people—individuals do not tell me. But using the AIGA salary survey is useful and knowing a few people and a few agencies around here, I have been able to ask—knowing a few women, specifically, working in agencies that are privy to the information about pitching and proposals, knowing how much they charge so that I can get a basis of where I should be because I’m not quite just a freelancer if I come in with a team. And holding strong that, you know, I started fifteen years ago at a junior level position. And at a junior-level position in design in in-house at a nonprofit, I sometimes had to manage our freelancers and our freelancers were making $95 an hour…fifteen years ago. So, I always go back to the question and this always helps me say my rate is a good rate because in fifteen years, should there not have been just a simple standard of living raise for freelancers in the district?
SWB Yeah, and I think this is really interesting when you mention that men won’t talk to you about what they charge or what they make, but I think that would be so valuable. And that’s something I’ve definitely looked for in my life—trying to find men who will talk about those things because otherwise, it’s so hard to figure out where your data points are. I find myself just sort of amassing lots of data points that help me feel comfortable knowing what to charge or also having a sense of where industry rates are for different things. But I think that that’s hard to do and I think for so many people, they don’t feel like they have access to that. Is there a way that you found has been helpful to start having those conversations even just with other women?
BG I teach, also, at American [University] and I ask my students—my students are overwhelmingly women, so they, as my students, are like, “I don’t know if I should apply for this job. They say I should have all these qualifications.” Or as women consultants, they’re like, “I don’t know, I charge this much.” And I’m just like, “what do you think a man does? What do you think they do?” They just do it. A man just applies for a job whether or not they are qualified. So, to my students I’m like, “this person who is graduating with you, do you think they’re applying to the job?” And they’re like, “yeah.” So, I’m like, “so then just do it! It’s a suggestion and you can suggest that you are that great also.” And with rates I do this. I used to freelance fairly regularly with a very small agency here that was run by two men. And I knew how much they charged and how much they pitched in their proposals, and I wrote some of their proposals. And however much I would pitch in those proposals is how much I should be pitching for mine or Design Choice’s. And I always come back to well, if the dudes would do it, why can’t I do it? Why can they get more? Why are they seen as worth it and we’re not? We’re worth it.
SWB Have you ever found though when you do take that advice from a man about how to ask for more that you’re not perceived in the same way that a man would be?
BG Absolutely. I was approached by somebody in a justice organization who was for equity for a rebranding exercise. And they were asking a bunch of agencies to pitch and to do a proposal with pricing. And I was like—whenever you get a proposal, you’re like, “hey, how much is your budget, just so I have an idea.’” And this guy was like, “I’m not going to tell you.” And however he said it, I was like, “he’s playing a game with me.” The game is who is going to say it first—how much work can he get out of a person for the least amount of money? So, throughout the conversation, I tried to figure out scope, I tried to figure out all these things that I could get a hint of what the budget was and he just was like, “no.” And I went out of that conversation just being like, “that was horrible. And that made me feel really like my expertise is not valued, and it made me feel Iike he was just trying to take advantage of anyone he can take advantage of. And it’s this justice organization that was very pointedly asking people of color and women to bid on the job. So, I decided to decline to bid on it because I was like, “it just feels so wrong, this game.” So, I followed up and I said, “I’m not going to bid on it.” And I wanted to explain that this justice organization wouldn’t be transparent in any way about their budget because that is how women and people of color who are usually paid less because they are valued less and they don’t know anything else. If you have never been paid more, you don’t know to ask for more. Or you might only ask for a little bit more because you don’t know there’s a lot more that could be had. He was really taken aback by it and he still wouldn’t tell anyone his budget. And he kind of argued with me about whether or not it was right to be transparent…in a justice organization…about money. [KL laughs]
KL I mean, [sigh] it’s so great that you were in a position where you were like, “I’m deciding to not bid on this and I am going to explain the reasons why” and I think that helps that conversation so much. But it’s the truth—so many people aren’t in that position.
SWB Gosh, I also just think there’s a lot of people, myself included, who can start to feel like, “oh, I shouldn’t be too pushy because this organization is quote unquote ‘doing good’.” And it’s like, “why am I being so difficult with this organization that’s trying to do good?” And I’m like, “no, actually, if they want to do good, then they need to be going about this more fairly.” And I’ve totally been in this scenario, Becca, where it feels like people are trying to be as sneaky as possible. And to me, I realize that it’s not that I need to have everything 100% transparent all of the time in the early parts of a conversation, but if I get that sense from people, it made me realize that that’s not a good or healthy partnership for me.
BG Yeah. It was actually very hard. It was like a two week long process of me figuring this out and consulting with a lot of people. Consulting with the people who were going to team up with me on this and we were all in these conversations that were just so heart wrenching in a way that it questioned myself. And in the end, I feel good about my decision, even though it was very much worked I wanted to do. I wanted to do that work. And I had friends who were bidding on it and I was like, “I hope you get it. It’ll be a really good project and maybe you had a different experience with this person.” But it made me a question a lot of things and I tried to start a lot of conversations in the freelance community here in DC about pricing, what are ways you could get budgets out—we just started all these conversations. And all of the women were like, “oh, I feel you. I have been there where you’re just like, ‘I think this dude is playing a game with me.’” And you question would a dude play a game with a dude or will they only play a game with a woman? And I tried to ask the men in this freelancing community, who are very supportive, and none of the men could really answer that because they were like, “just bid what you think you’re worth.” And I was like, “yeah…how do you figure that out? What do you do?” And it was just like something they don’t really think about or explore is what I got out of it. We’re all laboring over “what should I do? Will I seem pushy? If I tell this guy that I’m not going to bid on this, will I just be a bitch? Like some overreacting person?”
SWB Oh my gosh, “am I an overreacting bitch?” [KL laughs] is the question I’ve asked myself—
SWB —so many times! [laughs]
BG But it was like this internal struggle this whole two weeks where I was like, “I don’t want to be an overreacting bitch, I don’t want to be a bitch. I still want this person to think I’m an expert at what I do, but will that overshadow me?” It’s so unneeded.
KL And the mental and emotional load that we carry around just doing that work goes completely unpaid and it’s not even considered, so it’s just like ughh. So, speaking of building up a freelance community, we saw that you just launched a new project for other women who work for themselves called She Freelances, so we’d love to have you tell us about that. What is She Freelances?
BG She Freelances is an online database of women freelancers here in the DC area and its goal is to put us out there so people could make that choice. I mean, I hear countless times somebody needs a project manager, somebody needs a web designer, somebody needs a logo made, and they just put it out in the world to see who they get instead of pointedly going somewhere. And they could say, “oh I need a logo made” and I can just go to this site and find people who are designers.
KL Yeah, this is so awesome. So, it’s sort of like a directory of these freelancers who are doing all sorts of different kinds of creative work in DC. And how are you getting people to join the directory? How do people get involved?
BG So far, I’ve just been posting it on local listers here and some of the different Slack channels that are out there for designers and other creative folks and just through my system of freelancers. But anyone in the DC area could sign up because they just have to go to the website and click on that join button and fill out a little form. It’s super easy because there’s not really a high barrier to entry.
KL Do you feel like there’s a need for a directory like this in a city like DC?
BG I mean…
KL [laughing] Yes?
BG Don’t we need it in every city? In every town? In everywhere? It’s very similar to Women Who Draw—that’s what inspired it. You know, there’s the Disabled List, there’s black writers lists, there’s all of these lists because we should be choosing to go to them and find the people we want to find so that we do break out of our normal networks.
KL Do you feel like there’s a future? Like an evolution of She Freelances?
BG Uhhh… unclear! TBD. But over this past year where I have been talking to freelancers and I have been talking to people who hire freelancers, and I have been building the site with a freelancer, and I’m thinking about what are other resources that could be there. Besides this is a great resource to find freelancers here, what other resources do freelancers need? And some of that is taken care of through the Freelancer’s Union, but on the Slacks and the Facebook groups and all of that, there’s all these questions like, “what kind of timer do you use?” It’s Harvest, everybody. [all laugh] You know? It’s like, what tools do you use or whenever there’s a call for like “how do I answer this email?” Recommendations for answering emails or weird requests from clients, whatever that is. So, hopefully, She Freelances could grow into some resource like that. The other aspect of She Freelances is we are all running a business. So, I sometimes say I’m the founder of Design Choice as an agency, I sometimes say I’m a freelancer; it depends who I’m talking to. And every, single freelancer is a business owner. They are running their single person business or they’re running a two person business with a buddy. That expertise is also a thing—that you can run a business! You are simultaneously doing the work and running a business. And so creating resources for that, but also shedding light on that.
SWB You know, it’s interesting as you talk about this—as you talk about both She Freelances and Design Choice—you talk a lot about having sort of an explicitly political bent to it. And I know you work with a lot of organizations that are working on social justice issues. And I’m really curious, a lot of people have been taught to keep politics out of business and I know that’s something that people have said to me over the years—I don’t think it’s advice I ever really followed and can’t really imagine following it now, but I’m curious how that has played out for you? How and when did you decide that you couldn’t really separate the things that you cared about in terms of social justice or politics or whatever you want to call this from the work that you were doing?
BG I think in some sense, that has always been me. And with Design Choice, in the same way that I’m asking people to choose women to do work, I wanted to choose the work I wanted to do instead of sometimes just take work for the money. Sometimes I do that, but [laughs] I try really hard not to. I want to be conscious of and be pointed in what work I want to do. And yeah, lots of people tell me not to be political and over the years, as I become more firm in my beliefs, and more educated, and maybe more enlightened about different people and different struggles, I just want to help those struggles. And I can’t not. And again, I am in a space of privilege to be able to choose that, and to not choose like, “I just want that job for money.” To very pointedly say, “I will not take some jobs and I will take these other jobs.”
SWB Yeah! I love that. And I think it’s really helpful to think about what can you afford to do. Not everybody can afford to make some of the tougher choices that I might be able to afford to make. So, therefore, I feel a greater responsibility to make those choices and I hope other people do too where and when they can. And I’m wondering, on the other hand, is it also sometimes kind of freeing to be so clear about your point of view and to not be afraid of letting people know that’s where you stand, even in business?
BG I want to say yes to that. It feels good when I hold strong to my belief system and to my want to be a helpful and not harmful person, but it is definitely hard to watch friends or coworkers or past collaborators think I’m too radical for them. And that is not freeing. I don’t want to lose people in my life, but I also don’t want to bring along the people who are not seeing all of the inequities and don’t want to see the inequities because it doesn’t serve them.
KL So, you started Design Choice a couple of years ago now. What have you learned about running a design studio like that with this kind of focus?
BG The good parts have been being able to hold strong to my beliefs and I think I am helping. I think I am helping my clients with their messages, I think I am helping organizations do what I think the world should do. And I think that goes back to a previous question because that is freeing, that feels good, that is energizing. That makes me want to come to work every day, it makes me want to do work even when it’s hard, it makes me want to connect with people, and that is awesome! And the drawbacks of owning my own studio is often I’m like, “ugh, if only I had a man at the table, I would win that job, I could get paid that much, people would respect me more.” And that definitely doesn’t feel good, but I just kind of take that in stride and then go back to my network of women creatives and then we do some kick ass work that we’re proud of.
KL That’s the best way to rally against that. Okay, so you’ve been working for yourself for a long time. Is there anything you wish you’d known when you first got started?
BG I think the advice I would give to someone starting their own thing right now, whether it’s freelancing or some other endeavor, is to find a network of people that are in a similar place, in a place more advanced, and have already gone through it. So, you have people who are going through what you’re going through, and you have people who have already gone through it. And I was lucky to find that in multiple places along my path. Some of that came through some coworking spaces and then as I moved on into working in different spaces and meeting different people, I have created that network of people that I can ask advice from. So, having that network of people is always I think the most important thing because you always need that support. Especially if you’re starting your own thing, you feel like you’re in it alone. You’re doing it by yourself—you know, I sit in a room by myself every day and do work. And you just need other people. Even introverts! And I am absolutely an introvert, but I need other people. I need other people throughout my day just to say hi, if not ask a question to of like pricing or how can I answer this email better or whatever that is. And my other piece of advice is to know that it is a risk. It’s not easy.
SWB Becca, we are just about out of time, so before we go, can you just tell us a little bit more about where folks can follow your work? Where can they hear more about Design Choice and She Freelances?
BG Design Choice has a website at designchoice.studio and She Freelances has a website at she-freelances.com. And at She Freelances, you can either peruse all the freelancers of if you go to the join tab, you can join up.
SWB Awesome! Well, I’m sure we have some freelancers who want to join and some folks who would be looking for designers. Becca, thank you so much for being here today!
BG Thank you! [short transition music plays]
Promo: Inflection Point
SWB Hey, everyone, if you like Strong Feelings, you are going to love the podcast we are sharing with you today. It’s called Inflection Point with Lauren Schiller and it’s all about radical women telling honest, powerful stories. This season Lauren is talking with amazing people who are transforming the systems as we know them. Like activists you may have heard of—like Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler—but also policy makers you maybe haven’t heard of yet—like people fighting for family leave and guaranteed income or entrepreneurs using technology to end sexual harassment. Each episode, you’ll hear a story of how change gets made and come away with new ways of responding to whatever the world throws at you. So, if you want to hear how women rise up and how radicals do things, go to Apple Podcasts. RadioPublic, NPROne, Stitcher, or wherever it is you listen to shows, and subscribe to Inflection Point with Lauren Schiller. [short transition music plays]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
SWB Okay! It is time for the fuck yeah of the week and I have a big fuck yeah this week!
KL Oh my god, give it to me.
SWB Okay, so you know how there were a lot of democratic primary events in California last weekend?
SWB Did you see the video from Kamala Harris’s event?
KL Oh my god, yes. Please recount this for anyone who has not seen it. [laughs]
SWB So, let me just be clear—my fuck yeah is not for this video. [KL laughs] Because this was at a MoveOn forum, and on stage was Kamala and two other women. And this white guy with a beard and long hair in a bun—you can just picture him—jumps on stage and he comes at Kamala and he tries to take over the mic. He was wanting to talk about animal rights, which…I don’t…this is not about that cause, right?
SWB This is about this particular action. And it was really scary, to be honest, because like where was security?
KL Oh my god, I can’t even. My palms are sweaty just thinking about watching it play out.
SWB Yes. I mean it was just like over and over again, this guy is refusing to cede the mic—
KL And like grabbing!
SWB And nobody’s coming out to help! Anyway. One of the other women on stage with Kamala was Karine Jean-Pierre, the moderator. She’s a political analyst and she’s MoveOn’s spokesperson. And she just moves in [KL laughs] and puts her body between Kamala and this guy. I have never seen someone move so fast in a dress and heels.
KL [laughing] Oh my god, I know! And you can’t help but think like where is this going? I hope it’s going to be fine.
SWB I know! But she was just like, “not today, motherfucker.”
SWB Not today.
SWB So, I’m still mad that Kamala was out there with no security, but Karine is definitely my new hero. So, fuck yeah to having a woman like that having your back!
KL Uh yes! Also, [laughing] the part at the end where another host gets on the mic and was like, “thank you so much for your big ideas, sir.” [laughs]
SWB You can hear the air quotes in it!
KL [laughing] Yes! Okay, I very much agree with this fuck yeah.
SWB: Well, that’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer, check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Becca Gurney for being our guest today, and thank you for listening! If you liked our show, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And get Strong Geelings right in your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and plays out]