Why the massive gender pay gap in copywriting?

Sophie de Albuquerque

Wise Copy


Gender pay gap findings from the ProCopywriters Survey 2018

You’ll know something about the UK gender pay gap, I’m sure. You’ll have a view on it, I imagine. My own response to the recent reporting on the UK gender pay gap has ranged from unsurprised, to sad, to pissed off, to determined. So I’ve welcomed the chance to explore the gender pay gap among copywriters, as a way to take some action on a problem that can feel overwhelming in its size and complexity.

The gender pay gap

Across UK businesses with 250 employees or more, there is a gender pay gap of 18.4%, based on median hourly earnings. And the gender pay gap in copywriting? We can’t say for sure, because we lack comprehensive data.

What we know is that the ProCopywriters Survey 2018, completed by 420 copywriters, shows an average gender pay gap of 25%. Of course, the data is limited by the number of people willing and able to respond to the survey, and may be biased towards a certain segment of the population where the gap is wider for some reason. But, coupled with the broader reporting of the UK gender pay gap, we can safely say that there is a significant gender pay gap in copywriting. And that’s something worth discussing.

To get a snapshot of personal perspectives, I contacted 12 copywriters from my online network and asked them a set of questions about their experiences. Things like how they set their prices, their priorities, and their working situations. The copywriters are a mix of women and men from across the UK, mostly freelance, including at least two who previously worked in-house, and two who currently work in an agency. Some common themes emerged.

Common themes among copywriters

Imposter syndrome affects everyone that responded, regardless of gender, in some form or another. Both male and female copywriters talked about not wanting to set prices too high, in case they lost potential or existing clients. Most have upped their rates as their experience has increased. Most have done at least some work for free, usually for friends, in the early days of their career.

The way that these copywriters figured out their rates didn’t suggest any particular difference based on gender, although some used their previous in-house or agency salary as a starting point, which brings the broader gender pay gap into play.

A lot of the copywriters I interviewed ranked how much they get paid as less important than their relationship with the client, and how interesting the work is. And, of the 12, more male copywriters ranked pay as the first or second most important factor, where only female copywriters ranked pay as last on the list. Bearing in mind the gender pay gap, this hints at something interesting.

The work we choose

A female copywriter that I interviewed said “my perception is that (generalising here) men tend to go for the bigger corporate clients or tech work, whereas women are more likely to favour small businesses, charities, etc… And I think that is a reflection on motivations – I think women are more likely to be looking for something that resonates with their values (while still making enough money) rather than necessarily making as much money as possible”.

There’s a lot to be said for placing emphasis on values other than money when we work. It’s the reason many of us went freelance in the first place – we like the freedom, the creativity, the variety, the flexibility. Do female copywriters in particular place more importance on non-financial factors when we work? Across the 12 people that I interviewed, there was a slight trend that way. For some, that may be out of straightforward preference. For others, it may arise from a more complicated picture involving health, disability, or caring for family.

Who cares?

Despite small steps in progress like the shared parental leave scheme, and more and more dads sharing childcare with their partners, most of the responsibility for caring for children and elderly relatives still falls to women. This often brings with it career gaps, a potentially negative effect on earnings for those who have returned from a career break or previously worked part-time, an ongoing need to work part-time or flexible hours, and even the need to take on less well-paid jobs that can fit around family commitments.

One female copywriter describes her week like this: “I work 2.5 days for an agency and squeeze in freelance around that, generally in the evening when my kids are in bed. Occasionally I’ll take a day’s holiday or pay for an extra day’s child care to give me some extra time to get it done, if it’s worth it!”

This unpaid work of caregiving still has a ridiculously low status compared with ‘professional’ work, despite taking monumental levels of energy and involving the learning of whole rafts of new skills, the gaining of worlds of new experience. And yet it’s one of the major forces propping up our society and our economy.

Causes of the gender pay gap

Addressing the reasons for the gender pay gap, The Equality and Human Rights Commission talks about three main factors: the highest-paid sectors being male-dominated, the effect of part-time work, and stereotyping. The Office for National Statistics attributes the gap to causes including:

  • the different industries and occupations in which women work
  • differences in years of full-time work
  • the negative effect on wages of having previously worked part-time or of having taken time out of the labour market to look after family
  • formal education levels

It concludes that “a significant proportion…could not be explained by any of these factors, suggesting direct discrimination may still be an important factor”.


Several of the female copywriters that I interviewed had experienced discrimination at work. “I’ve certainly had male clients openly assume that I have children and will therefore be working to a certain pattern” one freelancer told me. “And I’ve had some very uncomfortable advances made at networking events.”

Another copywriter had this unpleasant experience to relate. “I went in-house with an agency client for a few months. I explained my commitments as a single mother (as I was at the time) and was told these were fine. Nothing in my situation changed but over the course of my time there, the (entirely male) staff became less accommodating, less friendly and more prone to having ‘socials’ that I couldn’t attend (and where business opportunities would be proposed and taken up).

Eventually, I was told my childcare commitments were an issue, and it was suggested to me by the MD that I leave before I was fired. I was also told I was a ‘distraction’ to the Account Director.”

Another female freelancer told me “I’d been a member of a networking group for some time and everyone there knew I was a copywriter. Then a new male copywriter joined and was immediately approached by someone in the group who needed copy.”

Another female copywriter and agency co-founder said “We pay in bands and are so conscious never to pay a male freelancer more, just because they ask for it. I’ve heard female freelancers apologise when I ask them their rates. And as they do this, I hear a rate below industry standard. This needs to change. We always offer more to bring everyone in line.”

How we value our work

Interested to explore the “significant proportion” of the gender pay gap that the ONS struggles to explain, I revisited the data from the ProCopywriters Survey 2018, to find out whether there is a difference in the average day rate that male and female copywriters are charging.

I found that, according to the survey results, the average day rate being charged by male and female copywriters differs quite starkly: £380 for a male copywriter and £329 for a female copywriter. Bear in mind that this doesn’t include all those copywriters who charge in a different way, e.g. by project, and that these day rates don’t take into account varying levels of professional skill and experience. But the figures give some indication of the difference in financial value that female and male copywriters are placing on their work.

So why might female copywriters be placing less financial value on their time, their skills, their work? Are some of us charging less to compete for work when we return from maternity leave? Do some of us charge less to secure the work we want from clients who pay less? Is it that some of us haven’t tried charging more yet?

Hannah Smith’s article in the Independent about the gender pay gap among freelancers is well worth a read. She believes that “People have shadows around money, complicated views around value and what they’re worth. I think it goes to the very core of how you think about yourself.”

How we think about ourselves and our worth in the world of work, and beyond, is an interesting area. How much, over the years, decades, and centuries of receiving messages both blatant and subtle, do you think we have all learned, absorbed and internalised a culture of women being somehow worth less than men, financially or otherwise, in a professional sense and beyond? How much do we all have to work against, and challenge that, on a daily basis?

One male copywriter I interviewed had this perspective. “Part of the problem, in my view, is the premium placed on men’s specialness in aesthetic and professional endeavours… that might translate into a willingness to hire women for lower-paying content generation, but choose men for more creative stuff. For freelancers, that would also be exacerbated by lifestyle limitations, e.g. it’s easier to fit a bit of online research around a baby, less so with an agency meeting in central London… We know from sources like the 3% Conference that there’s a glass ceiling in ad creative, although it’s changing.”

How we rate ourselves

Laura Barton writes about confidence in an article for The Guardian, saying: “girls are raised to believe that being smaller is preferable; in a hundred thousand ways we receive the message that we should be quieter, thinner, less demanding, in case we are deemed bossy, or our views too strident… To ask for a pay rise, then, is demanding; it says I am worthy of more – and to women, who have spent their lives being told that they should be less, this is conflicting.” We might know these messages are bogus, and still have to deal with the ingrained ideas, the unconscious biases and expectations in ourselves and others.

Barton goes on to quote Katty Kay, presenter of BBC World News America: “Evidence of women underestimating their abilities is comprehensive and across the board… It exists in sports, it exists in politics, it exists in business, it exists in the military… One of the most reliable social studies you can do is to give men and women a scientific reasoning quiz… Men tend to overestimate their abilities by more than 30%. Women routinely underestimate their abilities.”

As one female copy editor I spoke to said, “I’m a junior copy editor who’s been that way for much too long. I currently don’t have the credentials or client base or confidence to raise my rates.”

After years of fighting to get the vote, fighting to be taken seriously in the workplace, and fighting a daily onslaught of discrimination, everyday sexism and sexual harassment, why on earth would all women be as routinely assured of their financial worth as their male contemporaries? While many women may feel confident of their worth, and many men may share that confidence, it’s clearly taking our culture time to catch up with that.

Where do we go from here?

How do we tackle the gender pay gap in copywriting? It’s not just about female freelancers upping their prices, says Hannah Smith. “Shrinking the gender pay gap among the self-employed is not as simple as women asking for more money, it also requires clients to be willing to pay them what they are worth”. This is a systemic issue as well as a challenge for individuals.

One of the copywriters I interviewed puts it well. “A gender pay gap isn’t ‘women’s problem’. It’s everyone’s problem, because an overly masculine copywriting profession is impoverished culturally… More to the point, it’s not serving clients as well as it could, and it’s not helping its members either, because it’s preventing talented women from getting to the jobs and rewards they deserve.”

All of us need to be involved in this. So challenge your own biases as well as those of others. Speak up where there’s discrimination. Encourage others to speak up. Encourage each other at work. Women to women, men to women, women to men, men to men. Take courage, have confidence. Root for each other, employ each other, call on each other for support, challenge each other, and start enacting the change and the growth we want to see. It’s the only way these things happen.


4th June 2018

James de Albuquerque

Extremely well written and well researched. Especially loved the last paragraph

4th June 2018

Dawn Kofie

Thanks for highlighting that everyone has a part to play in closing copywriting’s gender pay gap. And for showing that it’s not just a matter of women being more confident and “leaning in.”

5th June 2018

Irene Triendl

Great post, and so important. Really like your point about women being brought up to be thin, small, not-in-the-way, and how it makes it extra hard for us to claim our space confidently. We’ve got so much behaviour to unlearn.

28th June 2018

Helen Beckingham

Spot on! You’ve just raised my daily rate. Thank you.

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