My company, Story Imprinting, is a small, women-owned business that delivers training to organizations on storytelling, leadership, communication and executive presence. I can’t tell you how many calls we get from large, well-resourced organizations that would like us to speak for a women’s leadership conference or luncheon, or women’s initiative group but have a budget of zero dollars. These calls typically come from women in the organization who are expected to spend their social capital to get speakers and trainers to deliver free content. If an organization is going to claim that they value the contributions of women or any specific group of people, and are committed to transforming their culture, they have to start with a financial commitment.
Asking a marginalized group to solve systemic problems of exclusion perpetuates the system these exact organizations are claiming they are committed to change. Talk is not merely cheap; it’s free! Lots of organizations leverage the PR of programming that purports to create more diversity, equity and inclusion without financially investing in meaningful change.
Many of our coaching clients have been physically and emotionally exhausted by developing programs for their organizations addressing DE&I issues for LGBTQI, Women, Black, Latinx and API populations. They aren’t compensated, but they are tasked with the heavy emotional labor and time-consuming work of organizing and shaping these programs. Many professionals want to do this work because it’s so important and others feel that there’s a silent judgment if they don’t elect to take it on. But no one should be asked to do this work without compensation. Asking employees to do work to advance the image of an organization without pay is insulting and exploitative. It expresses the root of these struggles, which is that these groups are in fact not valued, seen or respected.
We’ve also found that many of our clients aren’t able to address the real issues of exclusion and inequality because in addition to being asked to work for free, their organization often doesn’t want them to bring up anything unpleasant or uncomfortable. The content is often compromised and rarely focuses on real, hard truths that need to be examined for companies to truly initiate meaningful change. As a result, while organizations are asking their own employees to educate privileged people on how to be more inclusive, they appear to also want to ensure the audience isn’t challenged too much or made to examine tough issues too carefully.
A lack of financial support and equity can be seen in other areas of business as well. Many of our female clients have said that while golf tournaments and sporting events are financially supported by their firms for business development, things like spa days to court female clients or other events organized by women are not. For someone to advance in professional services, they must build a book of business. But if they aren’t given the same budget for client acquisition as their other colleagues, their efforts are greatly compromised. This creates an economic and opportunity gap. Who decides that golf is worthy and wellness programs or spa days are not?
I’m very aware that publishing this sort of piece may indeed diminish rather than expand our opportunities, but this is not a business decision. This is an issue of social justice. We have to say “no.” We have to ask about budgets. We have to stop discounting ourselves or believing that if we do this for free it’s a “great opportunity” or its “great exposure.” If you’re going to do something for free, future opportunities and exposure need to be measurable and specific.
Our firm has been hired by many organizations who have budgeted for women’s leadership and don’t expect us to work for free, but we continue to get calls from other organizations that start the conversation with, “We would LOVE to have you, but we have no budget.” And we are still working with lots of clients who are exhausted by the unpaid work and emotional labor they’re doing inside of their organizations in addition to their own job.
Change is not free. It comes at a cost. Right now, the wrong people are paying.