Thriving in the Gig Economy: A Primer for Women

This post is based on a webinar hosted by Dr. Denise Reading. It’s the first in an ongoing series of workshops, webinars, and for-credit courses offered by the Institute for Women, Wellness and Work to help women explore freelancing, consulting, and solopreneur opportunities as a path to a satisfying and successful professional experience.  

“Gig economy” is a phrase you’ve probably heard a lot, especially in the last couple of years. It refers to the part of the workforce (more than half!) that doesn’t work full-time for one employer, but instead takes on multiple opportunities from different sources. The term got its start in the music industry. Musicians generally refer to a performance they’re hired for as a gig. That terminology has spread to other industries, and now refers to the economy made up of projects, short-term engagements, contracts, consulting, on-call work, side hustles, and more. 

In the gig economy, rather than focusing on one traditional “job,” people have a portfolio of work; they put together a number of different opportunities that enable them to have the life they want. Keep in mind that we aren’t talking about low-skill (and low-pay) gigs like ride sharing or food delivery here, our focus is on higher level work.  

Gig is a style of working that’s especially well-suited to women’s lives. In her webinar, Dr. Reading goes so far as to say the gig economy is made for us. That’s not an exaggeration.  More and more women choose to work this way because it offers so much more choice, flexibility, and opportunity than a traditional job.

5 reasons why women can thrive in the gig economy

1. Flexibility

As women, we wear a lot of hats. We’re parents, caregivers, and the ones who carry the majority of household responsibilities. During COVID, we’ve also become teachers, psychologists, Zoom experts, and conflict resolution specialists. That’s a lot to handle when you’re working full-time.

Gig work is an opportunity to balance all of those demands on our time. It’s a chance to be engaged in the workforce and generate income while also being able to go to a doctor’s appointment with an elderly parent, be home with the kids during the pandemic, or work shorter hours than 9 to 5. Someone in a full-time role would have to negotiate that kind of flex work. For a gig worker, however, balance can be as simple as taking on one less project or waiting a few weeks between contracts.

Gig also allows you to take on projects while you’re still working at a full-time job. Whether you need some extra money, you want to explore a passion or interest, you’d like to build a client base before leaving your full-time role, or you need to keep money coming in between jobs, gig work is something we can fit into our lives instead of having to fit our lives around a job. 

2. Greater equity

In many industries, women face barriers to work that’s seen as traditionally male. Gig work can be a way into industries when full-time employment isn’t an option. Here’s why: when you apply for work through the gig network (e.g., third-party agency), the people doing the hiring see your skill set first, and your name or gender second. Women can therefore more easily get into opportunities that may have been blocked to them before. 

There’s greater pay equity in the gig economy, as well. Before COVID, Caucasian women were making about $0.20 less on the dollar than Caucasian men, with women of color earning even less than that. When it comes to gig, for every dollar a woman earns, a man gets $1.04. That’s a much smaller pay equity gap, and it puts women on a more equal playing field.

3. Meaningful learning and growth

When you work in an organization, people tend to see you in terms of a particular role or skill set.  If you’re a project manager, they won’t see you as a strategist or a writer. Even if you want to learn a new skill or tackle something different, you may not be given the chance. 

Let’s say you start a side hustle while still doing that day job. You’ll build skills that could benefit you in a new full-time role or build a foundation for a consulting or freelance career. Plus, when you’re working for multiple clients, you build a breadth of knowledge and experience a single job just can’t provide. 

4. It’s an opportunity for a second career

Women are living longer, and that longevity means that when we retire at 65, we probably have another good 20 years where we can contribute to our communities and to our own personal fulfillment. Gig is a great way to explore that transition, allowing you to continue learning and contributing. The beauty of it is that focus can keep changing as you go, adapting to your interests, your passions, and your needs. 

5. Work that aligns with your values

When you can choose your clients and projects, you can say yes to the ones you love and no to the ones that don’t inspire you. It’s an opportunity to align yourself with people and work that motivate and fulfill you. If you want to help people, you can find work with non-profits, for example. If you’re interested in finance or manufacturing or education, you can focus on those industries over ones you’re less interested in. 

Plus, you can choose the people you work with too, and say yes to individuals who inspire and energize you. As a full-time employee at one company, you don’t get that choice, you can’t say no to work you don’t find satisfying or being teamed up with people who deplete your energy.

4 things to think about before jumping in. 

1: Understand the realities of gig. 

While the benefits are great, gig work also has its challenges. Can you withstand periods of “feast or famine?” Are you comfortable with the networking and hustle it takes to land the clients you want? Are you able to figure out the tax implications of being your own boss? Start by identifying your motivation for wanting to freelance/consult/be a solopreneur, it will help you see if it’s the right path for you. 

2: Determine what gives you the most joy.

“Every month, I look at the projects I’m working on and look at where I’m disproportionately spending more time than my client has paid me for,” says Dr. Reading. “I focus on getting more work like that, because it draws out my joy and passion, and it’s where I most want to spend my time and energy.”

Make a list of all the things you do now (in your work and in your personal life) and identify where you spend the most time and where you get the most satisfaction. What things make you lose track of time? What activities energize you? When you catch yourself smiling, what kind of things are you working on? These are the things that feed you and the ones you should pursue most energetically.

3: Switch to an opportunity mindset.

Do you have an employee mindset or an opportunity mindset? An employee mindset says, “I’m looking for my next job.” An opportunity mindset, on the other hand, says, “I’m looking for my next chance to contribute and bring value, for work that is meaningful versus a job that is a pathway.” 

4: Commit to investing in yourself and your long-term future. 

One thing the gig lifestyle doesn’t come with is a pension. To provide yourself with security, you must make it a priority to invest in yourself and say, “I’m going to pay myself first. I’m going to take care of my long-term security, my health insurance, and retirement.” 

See if gig is right for you

Gig is a great way to get flexibility, build skills, experience, and further your career in a way that’s not possible when you have a traditional full-time job. It’s a real door-opener for women, it enables us to learn more, earn more, and access opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise, all while enabling us to do work that fits our lives, rather than the other way around.

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About Dr. Denise Reading

Dr. Reading is an instructor at Ursuline’s Institute for Women, Wellness and Work and an active and successful participant in the gig economy. She describes herself as “a business owner, a social entrepreneur, a gardener, a rainmaker, an executive coach, an innovator, an advocate, a trainer, and an educator.” 

After spending her early career in traditional roles inside organizations, she has now developed an independent portfolio that includes helping launch the Institute, teaching courses on gig economy and leadership, working with the Southern Ohio GRIT project to drive opportunity in the Appalachian region, and helping Fortune 500 companies and second-stage entrepreneurs build a culture of success.

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