In between my junior and senior year of college, I spent a very hot and humid summer doing research at Princeton University.
My research topic was the life’s work of Czech artist and the father of Art Nouveau, Alfons Mucha. Not particularly life-altering for the world at large – although it was the first time I ever got paid to do something that I loved and would gladly have done for free. (But I wasn’t about to tell Princeton that!)
One of my housemates was researching Women in the Labor Movement. (I wish I could remember her name because I’m SO all about giving credit. But alas, it’s been years since then and I just can’t. Sorry!)
When we had to do our final presentations and I heard what her topic was, I must admit that I wasn’t very excited… I mean, at first glance, the title didn’t seem like much of a blockbuster or a tear-jerker.
But once she got going, it was just the type of thing that made my blood boil.
She talked about when women first came into the job market in the “Rosie the Riveter” days during WWII, how any jobs that the women happened to be good at got reclassified as “unskilled labor.”
Because, their logic went, if a woman is good at it, it must not be that hard.
Sadly, she said, many of those classifications are still in force today, especially in the helping professions or any industry where “soft” skills are at the forefront.
The more statistics that she rattled off, the angrier I got.
Even today, if men and women are doing exactly the same job, there are still many places where the women get paid a smaller salary than their male counterparts.
Case in point: Mika Brzezinski wrote in her book “Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You’re Worth” about how upset she was to learn that her costar of the Morning Joe was earning 14 times what she was.
Similarly, Dee Dee Myers wrote in “Why Women Should Rule the World” about how upset she was to learn that a junior colleague was earning $10,000 more per year than she was, as White House Press Secretary.
Those are both prominent high-power ladies with established personal brands. What gives?
Sadly, this problem is alive and well the speaking industry today.
When I was still working at a speakers bureau, I once spent the better part of an afternoon researching a list of 25 authors who had been recognized on a list because they had the potential to change their readers’ lives.
I was mortified to find out that the lowest paid female author’s fee ($5,000) was one-20th the price of the highest-paid male author’s ($100K).
Unfortunately, I couldn’t just tell her about that discrepancy, or tell her how much it pissed me off to learn that, because it’s considered taboo and highly unethical to tell one speaker what another speaker earns, just like you’re not supposed to talk about salaries and regular workplace.
They can tell each other what they earn, directly — but it’s considered bad form for an unrelated third party to share that info.
I shook my head in dismay and observed a moment of silence for this great travesty. She was on the same awesome-author list that he was, and he was charging twenty times what she was. Tragic. Just tragic.
Along the same vein, in one of the women’s business networking groups I belong to, my friend Denise once asked why it seems that male speakers get more credibility and prestige than females speakers, even if they both talk about the exact same topic.
This could be one of the reasons why: most women don’t know the industry metrics, so they don’t know what to charge.
And because they don’t know the metrics, they pull numbers out of thin air, or they ask their friends what they’re charging.
In my experience, rookie male speakers are just as clueless about establishing their value as rookie women are, so any men reading will still have something to learn from this post.
I can count on two hands the number of female speakers that I researched that month whose fees were 5 figures or above. That number dropped significantly when I got into the $20,000-plus zone.
Whereas on the men’s side, I could easily find at least 30 candidates on any given day in the 5-figure plus range.
This is not counting celebrities in the movie or television industry or ex-politicians. Most of them aren’t truly “working” the speaking circuit anyway; they just get called in to tell a good story. And people listen and pony up those high prices because they’re famous.
So they keep their fees crazy-high to discourage too many invitations, actually, because their schedules are already so busy. They don’t really want to book many speeches because they don’t need the income. Period.
(And honestly, I’ve seen client evaluations for some celebrity speakers, and often times, they’re not as good as those for the “regular” speakers. Famous name does not always equal excellent speaker.)
People value what they pay for, and often the perception in their mind is: the more they pay for it, the more it’s worth.
Now, you’ve got to be pretty awesome to command those 5-figure fees AND still get the rave reviews afterward, whether male or female. So this is NOT saying people should just hike their rates for the hell of it.
No, you’ve gotta have the chops to do that. It’s just that many speakers who DO have the chops (and particularly WOMEN speakers), DON’T do that. Sadly.
Want me to make you even angrier? Let me tell you about another trend I noticed in the industry…
Many events geared at women in business hire speakers for low cost, or expect them to volunteer their time and speak for free. Some won’t even cover the costs of transportation and lodging.
This is regardless of the level of the event – everything from the small local chapter event all the way up to state or national-level conferences that charge high prices for admission.
Personally, I feel like it’s a great disservice to the talented and brilliant women who take the stage when they’re asked to do so free of charge.
Worse yet, certain women’s groups ask speakers to pay a fee to join their organization in order even to be considered as a presenter. And with that joining fee comes no guarantee that you’ll be selected. The event is literally pay to (maybe) play.
Now this could be a chicken and the egg issue, because the question that follows is this:
Is the root of the problem that female speakers can’t get the same rate as their male counterparts because most of the events featuring women speakers as the main stage keynote won’t pay them?
Or… Is the problem that the female speakers can’t get on board with their own value and commit to not working for free?
Now don’t get me wrong! Most certainly, there is a time and a place to give freely and out of the goodness of your heart, with no expectation of anything in return. Generosity is a beautiful thing and I truly believe it enriches your spirit. When you’re in a financial position to do so, which not every professional speaker is.
You just can’t do that all the time otherwise you’ll go out of business faster than you can say “broke.”
It’s hard to stand firm on your numbers when the audience that says they love you won’t honor your value. But it’s even harder when YOU don’t honor your own value.
And that, my dear, has got to start with you. If you don’t draw that line in the sand, it’s really hard for us to do it for you. And you are worth so much more than you realize.
What do you think? Have you encountered this problem in your career?
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