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  • Annette Corbett

Women that contract: the (painless) pathway to promotion and equal pay - with quotes from Barbie



#TLDR? Skip to the final section


“I’m a man with no power, does that make me a woman?” - Aaron Dinkins


The problem with the patriarchy


If that sounds like an audacious, sweeping statement, ask women what they really think of International Women’s Day. Does this rallying cry each year represent tangible progress for womankind or is it mostly propaganda? LinkedIn posts this past IWD would suggest the latter.


“Where are the women leaders?” asks GWL Voices, an advocacy group for gender equality. In its 2023 Women in Multilateralism report, “a male dominated landscape” permeates 33 of the world’s largest multilateral organisations. In 80 years, women have held leadership positions for just 12% of that time.


Gender inequity has rather a suckerpunch quality doesn’t it? You see it coming but you can’t quite believe how it feels in the pit of your stomach when it actually lands.

But this chapter excerpt (or book, for that matter) isn’t about changing the status quo.


“I’m not adventure Barbie, I’m stereotypical Barbie!” - Barbie


Write your own ticket


It’s about a new narrative of which you’re the author; where you create a level playing field with greater autonomy over how (and where) you work, the income you command or reaching those coveted heights of your profession.


And it starts with contracting (a wildly misrepresented - and underrated - way of working). I mean, no one ever starts out on their career journey wanting to contract. It usually presents itself as a last resort option if: (a) you’re desperate to leave your current role, (b) were made redundant or (c) are returning to work after a break.


And yet, in this parallel world of contracting, the hiring process transcends so many of the impossibly high (and oftentimes biased) standards, levied at permanent candidates. You know, the requirement for years of proven experience in a particular field - accreditations, qualifications, swiss army knife of skills - all assessed in one (or multiple) wretched competency based interviews. That’s assuming you even get past the recruitment systems which reject you for an absence of “key words”.


“Basically, everything that men do in your world, women do in ours” - Barbie


Getting hired because of exactly who YOU are, and all you can become


My journey into the world of contracting was a completely refreshing experience. Approached by an agency about a day rate contract, I was asked if I’d be interested in a platform manager role offering a generous, flat day rate (that’s one rate of pay for the successful candidate, irrespective of race, religion, colour, age or gender). Only two things mattered. 1. I could do the job. 2. I was a good fit for the team.


This was a pretty big step up for me professionally and involved a skills set (coding) I had very basic knowledge of, management of multiple platforms (as opposed to one lowly intranet per my track record back then) and working in investment management (completely unknown territory). And in a surprising development, this too, was a male dominated landscape.


So, to summarise, was I interested in a 40% salary hike, notwithstanding the absence of the typical benefits package offered to permanent hires, a promotion twice over and a one stage interview process of just 30 minutes with no competency based dialogue in sight.


Where do I sign?!


In the world of contracting, mountains are sometimes moved for you. That was 14 contracts ago.


“I am Kenough” - Ken


Why impossible is only a word or a thought but not a limitation


Richard Branson coined the saying; “if somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.”


I had a terrifyingly steep learning curve in an environment that moved at pace, working with colleagues who were exceptionally skilled. I also reported into a manager who was quite possibly the most challenging woman I’ve ever worked with (more about her in possibly my favourite chapter, “Horrible Bosses”).


I assure you, there was nothing exceptional about my professional background, that made that recruiter reach out. Just a set of congruous skills alongside a few, that were wildly parallel.


I say this because, as women, we question our ability all the time, and I want to be clear this quirk of fate which changed my entire professional outlook, was driven by nothing more than chutzpah. Because, of course, I was terrified I wouldn’t make the cut. I’d somehow be found out and returned to the status quo with no get out of jail card.


“You guys are not doing patriarchy very well” - Ken


Transcending the barriers of permanent work


Fast track promotion isn’t all that contracting has to offer. You can sidestep into a different discipline or industry, if you’re unsure what direction to take (midlife crises aren’t just for the menfolk). My work has traversed industries which can be difficult to break into: legal, engineering, telecommunications, construction, finance, consulting and public sector.


One freelance role took me on a twilight journey through the world of marketing and editing (but aligned to my content background) while another launched me into the world of public sector (an entirely different experience from my private sector background) in my first role as Knowledge Manager. That was another steep learning curve in which I had to course correct constantly, adjust to the most hierarchical of structures and adapt to agile working, which felt to me at the time like having a plan in the morning, only to be told about the new plan in the afternoon. Essentially the plan was, there was no plan.


The real significance of that public sector role was my first rodeo as Knowledge Manager. Despite years of knowledge management experience, attending at least six interviews for the exact same role (but, permanent), I would always reach the final stages only to be told I hadn’t made the cut. I thought about giving up a dozen times or more but I kept trying. People will proffer an opinion of your capability, status and credentials (or lack thereof) which might knock you perilously off course.


You might start to believe the hype. Well don’t. Don’t let anyone tell you can’t. If the doors you’re knocking on aren’t opening, knock on different doors. But don’t be defined by someone who knows absolutely nothing about you.


“Some things have been happening that might be related. Cold shower. Falling off my roof. And my heels are on the ground” - Barbie


The (inevitable) small print


An important caveat to mention is that not all my 14 contracts have been gloriously, career defining moments where I’ve seamlessly swept aside societal and corporate barriers. Some of those contracts simply bridged periods of market inertia or allowed me to experiment with something untried that I thought I’d like or be good at. Sometimes they were simply all that was on offer. But almost always every time I contract in a new role, I’ll enhance my soft or professional skills in some way.


While it isn’t always a glamorous runway of sublime opportunity, and sometimes, nothing more than a means to end, I look at these less fulfilling layovers as part of a journey. My learning arc.


While the potential for financial benefits is often significantly higher for contractors, compared to permanent roles, contracting income can vary depending on experience, skills, and market demand. Its important to consider that as a day rate contractor, you won’t receive the typical core benefits of pension, healthcare, holiday and sickness pay which you will need to supplement yourself, although some inside IR35 roles can provide a pared down version of these.


An initial move to fixed-term contracting can sometimes be a good way to test the waters. You’ll likely see less increase in salary but will retain all those benefits and, importantly, adjust to working with an end date, which is sometimes judged to be the most unsettling aspect of contracting.


“She may have started out as a lady in a [bathing] suit, but she became so much more” - Narrator


5 reasons to consider contracting


  1. Higher potential earning

  2. Faster promotion cycles

  3. Greater flexibility

  4. Exposure to diverse opportunities and development

  5. No salary caps

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