I had been asked an awkward question. So awkward that I didn’t really know why it was being thrown at me. A few weeks ago, purchase I was sitting in a scruffy converted mill in Bolton. A small fashion brand had invited me to pitch a social media strategy to them. It was going well, I knew one of the guys already from a previous job and I felt comfortable. I had a sharp white blazer on, I always feel good in that white blazer. One of the three men I was pitching to, however, was much older than me, and everything from his self-assured slouch to his rapid hand gestures told me that he was used to being in charge of every room he entered.
“So what exactly is your tax status? Are you a limited company? Do you have a certificate on the wall? I take it you have an accountant?”I’m a freelance writer and occasional online marketer, and I’ve been successfully working for myself from my flat for about 5 months. I’ve been in many pitches and meetings before. I’ve had relaxed coffee meetings with business owners who I now send funny, sweary emails back and forth with, and I’ve sat opposite CEOs and business owners who boom and spread out and stay so distant that they must be enjoying it. They always have a bigger chair and I’ve noticed that they try little unnerving tricks if they’re not too sure about you. It’s less of a pitch and more of a ‘see how you cope with this’ session. This inappropriate and unnecessary tax interrogation was one of those tricks.
Becoming self-employed has been the most fun, brave, terrifying and feminist thing I’ve ever done. I rely on myself for everything – money, connections, a daily routine. If a client bails, I have to take responsibility. If they love my work, I gladly take responsibility. It turns out this ‘in at the deep end’ stuff is working really well for me. If it’s a choice between sink or swim, I’ve fashioned a sturdy raft out of seaweed and driftwood and am sunbathing on top of it.
Women are generally raised to be placating and amenable. We’re unattractive to many when we brag or shout or swear. (Many men in pubs have apologised to me when they say even the tamest swear words, as if their crudeness would make me dissolve like the witch in the Wizard of Oz) It’s not a hard and fast rule, you will have female friends who do brag, shout and swear. We all notice things that our mum, grandma and female colleagues do to appease people though and we quietly, automatically learn from it.
Being self-employed has taught me when to be placating and amenable and when to be tough. My politeness gets me jobs, it endears me to people. When you represent yourself you can’t throw strops or sound defensive, you have to give clients space to be dicks sometimes. You have to nod and be understanding and reassure them. I’m good at this and I like that I’m good at this.
There’s a point where I let my outward femininity harden though. I now find it easy to look someone in the eye, while they sit in their big chair, and let them know that they don’t intimidate me. I did the same thing in this mill in Bolton. I smiled warmly at his odd, loud questions and straightened the collar of my white blazer.
“I’m a sole trader. I don’t have an accountant, I don’t need one. Shall I talk you through the next bit?”
I finished the meeting, went home and they emailed me later to tell me that they wanted to work with me.
Written by Helen McCarthy