I’ve always been fascinated with the psychology of human behavior.
As a graphic designer, I’ve learned to recognize patterns in my clients’ behaviors to better anticipate their needs.
As a woman in business, I also know the importance of being mindful of my own behavior and recognize the role it plays in finding success.
In 2017, I walked away from a salaried job in the corporate world that I had grown to hate to work for myself as a freelance graphic designer.
Starting a new business can be a scary proposition for anyone, but I also knew going into it that as a woman, I would be faced with my own set of unique challenges—which were evidenced by some pretty depressing numbers that don’t exactly inspire confidence.
In 2020, women still represent only 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs and around 25% of U.S. legislators.
And as far as pay is concerned, on average, women only earn 81 cents for every dollar a man makes.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why women seem to struggle to obtain these prominent positions or earn a wage equal to our male counterparts, I also knew I could make definitive changes in my life that would improve my odds of success.
And it seems to be working. In just three years, I’ve more than doubled my old salary of just $75,000 per year and now bring in nearly $300,000 in annual revenue as a graphic designer and entrepreneur. I’m on track to hit $400,000 in 2021.
Below are four ways that I’ve adjusted my own mindset as a woman in business over the years to scale my income and find success in my field.
I used to overthink everything
The tendency to overthink has been prevalent throughout my personal and professional life. I tend to constantly worry about things that haven’t occurred yet and replay painful past scenarios in my head.
Meanwhile, my male counterparts, my husband included, seem to worry about nothing.
According to Psychology Today, there might be a biological reason for my tendency to overthink and my husband’s seemingly care-free nature.
A man’s brain is wired from front to back with few connections between the two hemispheres. Women’s brains, on the other hand, have more wiring from left to right, meaning the two hemispheres are more interconnected. Females also have a greater flow to an area of the brain that processes emotions known as the “cingulate gyrus.”
While there is still much to be studied on the subject, some researchers suspect these biological differences in women result in an increase of emotional reactions and emotional memories. The female brain is also more prone to general stress and ruminating on and revisiting emotional memories than the male brain. Men tend to reflect on a memory briefly, analyze it, and quickly move on to the next task.
In the early stages of my career, I spent way too much time worrying about things that didn’t matter. I worried about making a mistake, being unlikable, and stepping on toes. I would speak in a nervous high-pitched tone, I would smile and giggle, and overall I behaved like someone who had no expectation of being taken seriously.
The moment I realized I was sabotaging myself with these bad habits, in large part thanks to the book “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” (which I highly recommend), things began to change.
Sure, I might be among the women who are biologically more predisposed to overthinking, but it didn’t mean I couldn’t course-correct.
I dropped the “little girl” act and began behaving like a woman.
I spoke up in meetings, freely volunteered my ideas, quit beating myself up over every little failure, and gave myself permission to take risks.
That shift in mindset not only allowed me to make great leaps forward while I was in the corporate world, but it has also given me the confidence required to run my own business today.
I am not afraid to be assertive and direct with my clients, I stand my ground when I need to, and I don’t dwell on my mistakes. I learn from them and move on as quickly as possible.
I had to get comfortable with self-promotion
I’m sure you’ve heard the stereotype about women lacking confidence, but according to a study in the National Bureau of Economic Research, women don’t have a confidence problem—they have a self-promotion problem.
Researchers for the study asked more than 4,000 men and women to evaluate themselves on a test. Despite a relatively equal performance between the two gender groups, women consistently rated their performance 15 points lower than their male counterparts. The problem persisted even after the individuals were informed of actual performance and told that their self-evaluation would play a role in getting hired and determining a salary.
Self-promotion is an absolutely crucial tool for getting ahead in this world.
I know that no one will ever be as invested in my future as I am. That’s why I’ve learned to make my rock-star status known. I am not afraid to sing my own praises.
My unabashed ability to self-promote has opened opportunities that I would have never dreamed possible.
As a graphic designer, my ability to self-promote helped me land contracts with nationally recognized clients including the Centers for Disease Control Foundation (CDCF), Stanley Black & Decker, and Kimberly-Clark.
It’s also led to opportunities to have my story published in major publications including Business Insider and Refinery29.
While the aforementioned study couldn’t fully determine the science behind why women were hesitant to brag about themselves, some speculate it has something to do with societal norms and expectations.
In the words of the great philosopher Taylor Swift, “If I was out flashin’ my dollas, I’d be a bitch not a baller.”
While that lyric always makes me chuckle, I do think there’s a painful truth to those words.
There are consequences in the corporate world for coming across as confident if you are a woman. According to a study at Rutgers University, confident women are frequently perceived as being less likable and less hirable.
I’ve been on the receiving end of professional insults that I personally believe, had I been a man, would not have been hurled in my direction.
For instance, my last boss told me that I was “too bossy” and “too ambitious.” It’s a sentiment that’s obviously ridiculous looking back, as I’ve more than doubled my take-home income since leaving that job.
I’m living proof that the reward for learning to self-promote far outweighs the risks. The right people and the right clients will appreciate your confidence and spunk.
I didn’t know what to charge (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t enough)
According to HoneyBook’s 2019 Gender Pay Gap Report, there’s only an 11% difference between what a female freelancer makes versus a male—which sounds amazing compared to the nearly 20% pay discrepancy that exists in the corporate world. But there’s a catch—it’s mostly because we are working more.
The report indicates that women are completing up to 22% more projects on average and receiving 26% less per project than men.
The report also states that the gap exists despite the fact that 71% of the women polled had a bachelor’s or graduate degree compared to just 54% of their male counterparts.
I personally suspect the reason for this phenomenon is relying too much on what the corporate world told us we were worth.
For instance, at my last salaried position, I was making $75,000 per year. So when it came time to determine my freelance rates, I mostly just focused on (at least) matching my old salary. I liked my current standard of living and knew that $75,000 a year was enough to pay the bills, so I just did the math and figured out that I needed to charge around $35 per hour at 40 hours a week to hit my goal.
And while I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to match your old salary if you’re new to freelancing, the truth is that far too many women tend to lock themselves at a number that was likely 20% too low to begin with. This results in the pay gap from the corporate world following them into the world of self-employment.
Luckily, it didn’t take long for me to realize how ridiculously low my rate was, and inch by inch I raised that $35 per hour to $55, then to $75, then to $95—and I just recently raised it again to $120.
So how much should you be charging as a woman? While your rate may vary based on your field of expertise, offerings, or experience, you likely need to charge 20% more than you are now if you’re a woman.
I assumed I wasn’t qualified for the job
This one is also prevalent in both the corporate world and in the world of freelance. According to LinkedIn’s Gender Insights Report, women are 16% less likely than men to apply for a job and 26% less likely to ask for a referral.
While several articles out there postulate over the different possibilities as to why this is the case, I personally didn’t resonate with any of them.
For me, I know I used to skip over jobs all the time because I assumed I wasn’t qualified. If the job said I had to have experience in A, B, and C but I only had experience with A and B, I used to skip right over it.
I always assumed someone out there was more qualified than I was.
That is until I started working for myself.
When I quit my job, I knew I was going to do whatever it took to make my freelance business a success. I refused to return to the corporate world. And I certainly wasn’t going to find that success by being picky about the kind of work I took on.
I quickly realized that even if I didn’t match up 100% with the job requirements, I was often a better match than my competitors and had no problem landing gigs that, in a former life, I’d have probably passed right up.
I just explain to my potential clients that while I might not be well-versed in C, I am incredible with A and B. Over time, that approach has proven to be quite effective.
In fact, unbeknownst to me, I might have a natural leg up when compared to my male competitors that I didn’t even know about.
According to that same study by LinkedIn, women are 16% more likely to get hired after applying for a job and 18% more likely than men to get hired after applying for a more senior role.
Meaning that the odds, at least in this particular category, are actually in our favor.
Next time you catch yourself in any of these scenarios, consider a shift in your own mindset and how it might unleash potential that you never knew you had.
Tennessee native Morgan Overholt is a freelance graphic designer, owner of Morgan Media LLC and co-founder of TheSmokies.com. Morgan and her team have worked with nationally recognized clientele from all over the world, including the Centers for Disease Control Foundation (CDCF), Kimberly-Clark, and Stanley Black & Decker.
Morgan transitioned into the role of freelancer and small business owner after spending nearly a decade in the traditional corporate world left her feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Today, Morgan is passionate about sharing her story with other hopeful entrepreneurs who hope to follow in her footsteps. She has been featured on Upwork.com, Refinery29, and Business Insider.