November 4, 2013 — This year, I made a big career change. After seven years in the traditional labor force, I hung up my business-casual attire, set my alarm for 8:30 rather than 7:00 am, and said goodbye to office jobs for good. I had finally made the decision to launch my own business as an independent writer and marketing consultant.
For the most part, it’s been an incredibly rewarding transition. The biggest, most surprising challenge has been how drastically my client list has changed since I struck out on my own.
As a traditionally employed office worker, I worked exclusively for social-justice-oriented nonprofits, where nearly all of my supervisors were women and many of my coworkers were queer and/or people of color. As a young, queer femme, I was respected, valued, and encouraged in these environments. But when I went into business for myself, my new client list suddenly got straighter, whiter, and much more male. This was not a problem in and of itself, but it was hard to adjust to the fact that many of my new clients saw me more as a spunky young gal than a fellow professional to be taken seriously.
One such client was wildly enthusiastic about my work—at first. He loved my writing and was so jazzed about hiring me that he paid me up front. Awesome! But when I presented him with my standard contract, he refused to sign it. He wanted a more casual working relationship than that, and, since he had already paid me, what was the big deal, anyway? A chat with his receptionist soon revealed that he had signed similar documents for other independent contractors—all of whom happened to be men—on numerous occasions. Although he valued my work, he also clearly saw me as less than a serious businessperson. Formal agreements and tax returns were for the big boys, not for me.
He’s not the first client I’ve encountered who has this attitude, and he won’t be the last. So how can I help improve the workplace for self-employed women like me, even while working from home? By being unfailingly courteous yet assertive, and rejecting the notion that women should be passive and deferential in professional situations. I try to lay the foundation for a mutually beneficial relationship by making it clear to my clients exactly what they can expect from me, as well as what I expect in return. In short, I am a Catalyst: I am always creative, innovative, and looking for a solution—and I never back down.