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11 responses for when companies come for free work (especially when you have credibility)

Why is it so hard to negotiate our worth?

Scrolling through various platforms, I've noticed a recurring narrative among women—large, profitable companies expecting free labour. Over the past three years of travelling across 20 countries, conversations at dinner often circle back to finance, failure, and friendships.

Despite a credible and searchable profile, I continue to receive numerous requests for unpaid work from these corporations. According to the UN, women still face a daunting gender pay gap projected to persist for another couple of centuries. It's time for companies pledging EDI initiatives to rethink their approach.

For women, we fear failure and losing out on opportunities, so it's harder to stand up for our value. I know, because the first time I asked for a pay rise, it was motivated by a male friend convincing me to log my actions and results alongside the job description and show up for myself. One on hand that's allyship, on another, it's a shame that push was required.

Early in my career, I engaged in public speaking, workshops, and storytelling without monetary compensation, valuing feedback, networking, testimonials, and practice opportunities. As a British Asian Neurodivergent Woman, accessing spaces not traditionally ours presents challenges, where I've sometimes prioritized gaining experience over immediate payment. However, there's a fine line between skill exchange, practice, and exploitation.

Years of experience have taught me to assess opportunity costs carefully. Today, my focus is on aligning with values of representation, storytelling, inclusion, accessibility, and enjoyment. These principles guide my choices in technology and travel spaces, where career upskilling, as highlighted by recent LinkedIn data, moves away from traditional masculine traits to embrace emotional intelligence, kindness, and connectivity.

Companies want to know how to truly invest in their women, confidence and power so that they can level up in their careers, ultimately adding profits and increasing productivity.

That said, recently, in these instances, I have leaned into my masculine business first traits - setting boundaries, knowing your worth and saying no ... Because, at the start of the year, I was inundated with requests for gigs that don't serve me, my time, or my bank account, so I jumped on a trending sound on Instagram to creatively share my peace. 

What was a fun way of sharing my advice turned into 100s of saves, and people even stopped me in the street to say they saved my responses for their subsequent requests.

How do you respond to someone when you are asked to work for free?

11 responses when you are asked to work for free :

[save for later]

  1. Thanks for thinking of me. What is your budget for this opportunity?

  2. Based on widely available data, the average price for such a project is X. Can you please let me know what you have committed to for this work?

  3. Can you provide me with a testimonial, professional photos and introductions in exchange?

  4. What have you committed to a similar opportunity of this kind in the past?

  5. I'm curious - What is each colleague's average training budget internally, and can we unlock this?

  6. Based on your request, my average hourly rate is X, and my long-term project rate is Y.

  7.  I appreciate that you may not have the direct funds, so I suggest donating to X charity or Y enterprise on my behalf.

  8. I'm confused about why there is no budget when you're paying for food, drinks and people's tickets to attend; please explain the rationale.

  9. I appreciate that this may be an internal community project, but I, too, have to pay rent, and unfortunately, exposure doesn't guarantee new business; for that reason, I have outlined the time and tasks below with a financial plan for compensation. Please let me know if this is possible.

  10. Since you asked for a workshop for women to know their value and build their brand, I'd like to ask you to deliver this for free. I can understand your requirements, but I'd like to understand what alternatives of payment you can offer which can mutually benefit all parties, as right now, it seems that I am providing you with over 2 days worth of work (preparation, practice and delivery) to make you and your business look good in your inclusion practise.

  11. I acknowledge that someone else can provide this service for free, which may suit their situation. However, you asked me to know my experience and reputation. So, it would be unfair of me to offer my services for free when I can justify the quality of work, effort and service I will provide following your brief.— adapt for your tone— follow your gut— ask for help

Taking my advice (which sometimes human nature means I don't), I have negotiated budgets for travels, campaigns and IWD events in the form of payment, donations and buying my book - Unprepared to Entrepreneur, for all those attending. I also have to thank my agency, RIVA Media, mentors and members of the LMF NETWORK (Like Minded Females) for reminding me of my worth - if you don't know what to say - ask an ally!

I understand that different cultures, people, and processes may require an alternative approach, so feel free to send me your suggestions, and I can update the list accordingly. 

Plus, if you save and use it, drop me a line, as I'd love to know the outcome!


Sonya Barlow is an Award-Winning Founder of Inclusion Consultancy LMF Network, the Best-Selling author of Unprepared to Entrepreneur, and BBC Presenter of The Everyday Hustle. 

She is a keynote speaker, MC and thought leader on tech, travel and trends. She has delivered 2 TED talks, a keynote for the House of Commons, and was named UK Entrepreneur of the Year, Top 50 Women in Tech EU and a LinkedIn Changemaker. Sonya has over 100,000 social followers and her own talkshow on YouTube where she interviews changemakers, thought leaders and business folks on the future of work.


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