To escape the limitations of the Glass Ceiling — that is, the systemic barriers that limit female employees’ ability to rise up the ranks in corporate environments — many women have increasingly begun turning to freelance working structures. This approach has historically been lauded as empowering female workers to craft their own career trajectories and enabling them to pursue the direction and flexibility that works best for them. But does freelance work always improve women’s career outcomes?
On the face of it, being your own boss might seem like a great way to sidestep biased managers and promotion systems, and grow your career on your own terms. However, our recent research suggests that freelance work often comes with its own gender inequities.
Specifically, while corporate hierarchies often encourage workers to specialize and grow upwardly, freelancers tend to benefit from starting with a narrower specialty in which they can quickly develop expertise and build up a client base, and then expanding horizontally into other, related domains as they advance their careers. And we found that while avoiding the corporate world may help women avoid the Glass Ceiling, female freelancers often instead find themselves hitting a Glass Wall: As they attempt to broaden their roles, female freelancers are evaluated as less competent and committed than male freelancers making equivalent, horizontal career expansions.
Through a series of studies with freelancers in creative fields, we found consistent evidence for this Glass Wall effect. We focused on creative work because freelance employment is most common in these industries, and because creative freelance workers’ clients are often forced to evaluate and hire freelancers with particularly limited quantitative information about their actual competence or commitment, leaving substantial room for bias to drive hiring decisions.
In our first study, we analyzed the careers of more than 8,000 Korean pop music (K-Pop) freelance songwriters who debuted between 2003 and 2012. We found that consistent with prior research on freelance career growth, the male freelancers in our dataset were more likely to enjoy long-term success if they expanded into multiple related domains, such as writing lyrics, melodies, or arrangements. For example, a male songwriter who debuted as a lyricist was more likely to successfully release a second song if he did so as an arranger, than if he attempted to stick to writing lyrics — and this is significant, as less than half of the songwriters were able to release a second song.
Conversely, female songwriters who expanded into a new role after their successful debut were less likely to release a second song than those who stayed in one role. We controlled for differences in music genres, songwriters’ tenures, whether they also worked as a performer, and whether they worked with major labels or independent ones, and we consistently found that unlike men, women were penalized for attempting to expand into new work domains.
What drives this effect? To explore the mechanisms underlying the Glass Wall, we asked 78 K-Pop songwriters to evaluate profiles of fictional male or female songwriters as potential collaborators. The profiles described male and female songwriters who had comparable backgrounds and experience, but who differed with respect to whether they had expanded their work roles. We found that female songwriters who had expanded their roles were perceived as having less agency than equivalent male songwriters, and that this caused them to be perceived as less competent and less committed to their careers than their male counterparts (regardless of the evaluator’s gender). This suggests that similarly biased perceptions among studio executives likely contributed to the disparities identified in our analysis of real-world songwriters’ careers.
Finally, to further validate our results, we conducted a similar study in a different country and industry: We asked more than 300 U.S.-based adults to evaluate fictional freelancers in the film industry who were described as having worked in either a single domain (cinematography) or multiple domains (cinematography and production design). And again, we found that female freelancers who had worked in multiple roles were seen as less agentic than men with equivalent experience, and these perceptions drove lower perceptions of competence and career commitment.
Of course, this Glass Wall effect is likely not unique to freelance jobs. As organizations offer employees more autonomy to shape their careers and expand into new roles horizontally as well as vertically, it’s likely that women in these corporate environments may increasingly find themselves facing barriers to role expansion in addition to the more well-known obstacles that hinder upward mobility. But the Glass Wall poses particular challenges in a freelance setting, where there are fewer resources and structures available to support workers’ lateral career growth.
Breaking the Glass Wall as a Female Freelancer
So what can female freelancers do to break through the Glass Wall? To be sure, responsibility for addressing hiring bias falls squarely on the shoulders of those doing the hiring. But our research also sheds light on practical steps that freelancers can take to maximize their chances of success:
Use a business name to obscure your gender
In an ideal world, we could all express every aspect of our identity without fear of bias. But in practice, our follow-up interviews with female freelancers suggested that obscuring your gender can be an effective way to avoid biased initial evaluations and get a foot in the door. One way that many freelancers do this is by incorporating their freelancing practice as a business, and then using that business’s name (rather than their own) when communicating with potential clients.
Communicate the motivation behind your career expansion
Again, it’s not fair that women are judged differently than men for making the same career decisions — but research suggests that explicitly communicating why you’ve chosen to expand into multiple roles can mitigate this effect, reducing potential clients’ uncertainty about your commitment to the job. As such, female freelancers may benefit from proactively and openly explaining why they are opting to broaden their professional focus.
Demonstrate competence through professional accreditations
In addition, many professional associations offer accreditations or certifications for various skillsets that can validate freelancers’ competence in skills they haven’t yet had the chance to demonstrate through real-world work experience. Completing these programs both serves as an explicit third-party verification that you are in fact able to do this work, and implicitly communicates that you’re committed enough to this new skill to invest time and effort into cultivating it. As such, especially for freelancers facing the chicken-and-egg challenge of needing relevant work experience to attract clients but having no relevant clients with which to gain that experience, completing some sort of accreditation program can be valuable.
Breaking the Glass Wall as an Organization
Beyond these individual-level strategies, there are several steps organizations can take to address this bias and support gender equity among freelance workers:
Tackle the Glass Wall bias head-on
As with any systemic bias, breaking down the Glass Wall starts with acknowledging that it exists. Leaders and managers tasked with evaluating freelancers should recognize that their evaluations may be colored by biases and stereotypes, which is both unfair to workers and likely to lead organizations to miss out on strong candidates. While hirers may be generally familiar with the impact of gender bias, they’re likely less aware of this specific bias against female freelancers working in multiple domains, so it’s critical to educate decision-makers on this effect. Then, once the Glass Wall has entered the conversation, organizations can take similar proactive steps to address it as they would with any other form of hiring bias.
Offer professional accreditations — and make them accessible
In some industries, such as real estate, cosmetics, and IT, professional accreditations are already fairly common. But organizations in many other industries can do more to support female freelancers’ role expansion efforts by offering their own accreditation programs. And critically, to ensure these initiatives actually boost equity, organizations should also take steps to make them accessible — whether that means providing scholarships, flexible scheduling, or avoiding subtly gendered language in marketing messages and program materials. Employers can also offer less formal accreditation to support freelancers they’ve worked with before, for example by leaving a positive online review or even just offering to serve as a reference for future clients.
Measure equity for both vertical and horizontal career moves
Finally, when it comes to equity among full-time employees within an organization, most leaders are already aware of how the Glass Ceiling may impede women’s ascent into top executive positions. As such, many firms already track demographic breakdowns for promotions and representation in senior positions. However, because the Glass Wall is less well-known, most organizations today don’t analyze horizontal job moves in the same way. Measuring equity for these transitions between teams or functions can help firms better understand the extent to which the Glass Wall may be affecting their organization, and offer insight into how they can better support career expansion for all employees.
. . .
As freelance work becomes increasingly common, it’s tempting to assume that the gender equity challenges associated with the Glass Ceiling simply won’t apply anymore. However, our research illustrates that barriers to upward mobility aren’t the only thing holding female workers back. For all the potential freelance work has to level the playing field, the Glass Wall still represents a substantial source of gender inequity in the new world of work. It’s up to the research community to continue to explore and document this effect — and it’s up to employers to acknowledge and proactively combat it in their own decision making.