No, I can't be your unpaid mentor: Jane Caro says

No, I can’t be your unpaid mentor.

Jane Caro
We all agree that women should be paid fairly for their work, don’t we?

We all agree that the gender pay gap is appalling and needs to be fixed. We are outraged that female dominated industries and professions are routinely lower paid than male dominated ones. And we are horrified that women on average retire with half the super of men and that fully one third of women retire with no super at all.

Yet, even among organisations that fight for greater diversity, even among feminists and feminist organisations there still seems to be a perception that being female and fighting for women’s rights means we should do lots of things for, well, love.

When I started out as a professional writer and speaker (after decades of being paid less than my male colleagues in advertising) I was tentative about asking for much money. I did a lot of things for very little and often for nothing. I was new to the game and I needed experience more than I needed remuneration but, even then, I was astonished at how often I was asked to work for free.

As I gained experience, not to mention a manager and an agent, I became less self-conscious about being paid for the work I did. I was relieved that I didn’t have to put a value on myself now that I had others whose job it was to do the fee negotiation for me, but I was also pleased that I started to earn a decent income.

Yet even as I wrote those two words ‘decent income’, I hesitated. My hesitation was born of many old, ingrained habits of thought that I suspect are shared by many women.

The first was a fear that it might be seen as boasting – big-noting myself. Men are admired for earning a lot of money and appear to feel little shame at putting a high value on themselves. Women inwardly shrivel up at the idea of flaunting their good fortune. We know only too well that we may be disliked for our success, seen as selfish, smug and arrogant.

These fears are not irrational. Hilary Clinton copped a bollocking for almost everything (but her emails…), including – shock, horror – the ‘large’ sums she had earned as a professional speaker. Weirdly, her success, acknowledged expertise and ability to attract an audience – attributes that one would think were valuable in a leader – were seen as a negative for Clinton. They were presented as yet more proof of her intrinsic ‘un-likeability’ and collusion with the big end of town.

A second fear I have when I acknowledge that I am well-paid for the work I do is that I will be accused of hypocrisy because I also feel strongly about equality of opportunity and, particularly, public education.

I have often been sneered at for living a comfortable life in a relatively up-market suburb. Apparently, the only people allowed to defend the poor must also be poor themselves. I have also noticed a similar tendency for those who crusade on behalf of our beleaguered climate to be criticised for catching planes, driving cars and not living in a grass hut.

As a feminist, I also feel a pressure to be tirelessly helpful to other women. Don’t get me wrong, I am delighted to do what I can to help but (and this is an important but) I am just one human being and I simply cannot say yes to everything.

Like anyone else, I prioritise the requests I get before I respond to them and, yes, if the offer comes with a fee attached, I pay more attention. If it is a small request – retweet my petition, fund-raiser, project etc – I do it readily.

If it sounds interesting and is a cause I believe in, I will consider it seriously, even if it is pro bono. If it offers some other reward – I’d meet someone I admired, it’s not something I ever thought I’d get asked to do, I am a fan or friend of the person who has asked – I will also do it if I can.

I am happy to chat to all sorts of people who approach me via messenger, social media or by DM, if I have the time. I often cannot reply at length. But what we also need to acknowledge is that all of this is – in fact- work.

It is emotional labour and, whether women do it in the home, in the public sphere or in their paid employment, it is too often not recognised as the work it is.

What I cannot do is endlessly have coffee with people I hardly know (or do not know at all) so they can pick my brains.

I cannot indiscriminately read manuscripts, research proposals or judge competitions. The problem with spreading myself too thin for no money is I both exhaust and beggar myself which is not helpful for anyone.

I am also setting a bad example. Women ought to get paid for the work they do. We should not feel more comfortable about asking women to do things for free than we do asking men. We should not regard unpaid work as a woman’s duty and their right to earn an income as an indulgence.

And, if you go to a women’s training course, networking event or workshop where they suggest you contact a woman you admire and ask her to be your unpaid mentor can you point them towards this article?

Thanking you, a little wearily, in advance.

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