Early in her entrepreneurial journey, Margaret Brown made plans to meet with a potential male client. The situation met all of her safety standards: The two had recently met at a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, and their meeting would take place at his office in a well-known Pasadena neighborhood. But what began as an exciting business prospect came to a terrifying ending.
“I felt like he was going to kidnap me,” Brown, the founder and CEO of LA-based digital marketing firm Socialize LA, tells Brit + Co. “His very presence made me super-uncomfortable, to the point where I stayed close to the door for a quick escape.” As a new business owner, Brown was hesitant to turn down new opportunities — but after doing some work for the client virtually, she listened to her gut and cut off the business relationship.
The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based serial entrepreneur and business coach Veronica Kirin has a similar story. In the male-dominated tech space, she has experienced her share of mansplaining and chauvinism; once, after a promising meeting about an SEO and web design project, a potential client asked Kirin to fill in as his secretary. But Kirin’s most frightening experience as a woman entrepreneur in the tech world was when she was stalked late last year by a man she met through her coaching work.
“We ended up at the same bar one night, where he kept leaning on me and pushing into my bubble, even when I asked him to leave me alone. When I left that evening, I put my key in the ignition, and he was standing there, knocking on my car window,” she says. “The next day, he began to repeatedly message me to apologize. I finally messaged him back and told him it was my right not to message him. But he kept finding ways to reach out to me, even though I’ve blocked him on every social media outlet.”
In the wake of #MeToo, the Shitty Media Men list brought to light the safety threats women face in the media industry — an industry that relies heavily on freelance or contract labor. Speak up about harassment from a male editor, and you may lose a job you need to stay financially afloat. But the ripple effects of toxic masculinity extend to any scenario where a woman has to choose between her own safety and the success of her business endeavors, like entrepreneurship and the gig economy.
While self-employment affords women an element of control in their careers — many are drawn to the freedom of out-of-office work and the ability to choose which projects to take on and when — these things may also pose significant dangers. Without the legal protection of internal human resources, these women are left to fend for themselves, often at the expense of their own or their business’ reputations.
How can non-male-identifying freelancers and entrepreneurs sustainably protect themselves and the integrity of their businesses? Startups like Fiverr and Upwork aim to prevent these issues by bringing freelance exchanges to a monitored digital marketplace: For example, Fiverr has a no-tolerance policy for issues like harassment and prejudice, and should a conflict arise, its customer support team is always available to act as an intermediary. But there are several limitations to the safety buffer sites like Fiverr can provide for freelancers, especially if a business exchange extends beyond the confines of the site’s marketplace.
Sam Katzen, Director of Public Relations at Fiverr, says that although the company does its best to discourage the exchange of personal contact information and business transactions outside of the Fiverr marketplace, there’s no real way to prevent freelancers from taking their work offline, where they’re no longer monitored or protected by the site’s terms of service.
“Whenever we see people offering their contact information, we try to intercede and discourage it, since the easiest way for us to maintain safety and security is keeping everything on our marketplace,” he tells Brit + Co. “The second things get outside of our realm, there’s almost nothing we can do.”
And since the basis of Fiverr’s product is democratized access to freelance services, there’s no screening process for buyers or freelancers — technically, anyone who agrees to the site’s terms of service can buy or sell on the marketplace.
For freelancers and entrepreneurs whose work isn’t strictly digital, safety measures like agreeing to only public meetings and using co-working spaces can reduce the risk of danger. But as Brown and Kirin’s experiences highlight, even a situation that passes your own sniff test can quickly escalate to danger. This is why a partnership with others, whether other freelancers or advocacy groups, is so important for women navigating the wild west of self-employment.
Unions like The Freelancers Union and advocacy groups focused on women’s safety, like The International Foundation for Women in Media (IFWM), often offer training and support for non-male freelancers. IFWM’s Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT) for non-male journalists, for example, empowers media professionals with skills and knowledge to deal with situations of unrest or hostility in their work, from kidnapping or gunfire to sexual assault. Alison Baskerville, an international photojournalist and British military veteran, started HEFAT after noticing the lack of training for local journalists abroad — not to mention the reality that most safety training programs were led by heterosexual white men with a military background.
Though HEFAT exists to equip and empower journalists in hostile environments, Baskerville believes the same best practices and principles — self defense, personal and digital security, situational awareness, and emotional care — apply to any vulnerable population in any industry.
“Sexual harassment and violence can happen literally anywhere, so it’s important to get clued up on what to do if it happens to you. Most situations can be avoided by having a good amount of situational awareness,” she says. “Be a good ally and call out any creepy behavior toward coworkers. Always make a plan before you head out the door about where you’re going. If you’re working alone a lot and staying in hotels, don’t forget to check in with a friend so they know where you are, and use an alarmed doorstep to keep your room safe at night.”
Until we see progress in equipping women and femmes to deal with dangers posed by their work — or until the patriarchy is dismantled — Kirin recommends prioritizing safety over business and listening to your gut about clients who seem potentially threatening.
“I understand the struggle. I understand the fear and the financial squeeze. But I just don’t think it’s worth it — we can’t predict the future.”
What do you do to ensure safety in your freelance work? Tell us @BritandCo.
(Photos via Getty)