HomeLearning CenterHow the “Glass Wall” Can Hold Female Freelancers Back

How the “Glass Wall” Can Hold Female Freelancers Back

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.

Harvard Business Review

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