You’ll ruin your reputation

Emma Parnell
4 min readAug 22, 2022
The background is split diagonally in half with pale pink and pale blue. A series of 3D yellow stars run along the split line. Over the top if a semi-transparent speech bubble with the words ‘You’ll ruin your reputation’. In the bottom left is a yellow lozenge with the word Joy.

How often, as a woman who runs a business, have you been told not to do something because it will ruin your reputation? How often have you held back from saying something you believe for fear of burning a bridge?

A few years ago I would have been the same, I think. I would have started Joy, and my journey as a freelancer, thinking it was better to just keep everyone happy. After all it’s a small industry and people talk. I would have held back for fear of reducing my earning potential and having a mark against my name.

But that’s what women have been doing for decades, centuries even. Falling in line and keeping quiet.

I don’t want to build Joy on that foundation.

I have no doubt that by writing these weekly notes I’ve already upset multiple people. Some people probably don’t engage with me because they think I’ll write about them. That’s ok. We don’t live in a world where everyone has to get on with everyone else. But I would like to live in a world where women feel confident, free to stand up for what they believe in, valued and compensated accordingly.

The UPFRONT community is continuing to educate me in this space. I’ll be honest this was a community I wasn’t sure was for me, but the more I engage, the more I’m reminded how unique and necessary it is. I’m part of about 4–5 different networks, yet this is the only one that has a very specific niche. There are certain questions I would only post there and I would have nowhere else to post them if it didn’t exist.

This week two things came up in relation to my not feeling valued or compensated accordingly. In both instances it was private sector agencies I was dealing with, a pattern I’m starting to notice and become increasingly frustrated by.

Firstly I should say I’ve worked with, and done talks for, many fantastic private sector agencies. I’ve been offered pay (without asking) by several to do internal talks. I’ve been paid to contribute to bids. There is plenty of good practice out there.

But there is also plenty of questionable practice. Here are two examples:

  1. A while ago I was asked to do a talk at an agency’s away day at short notice. I asked if there was a fee and I was told no but that the owner would tweet about it. I decided to do the talk for two reasons. Firstly I was keen to practice my talk in person before delivering it to a much bigger audience a few weeks later, secondly I needed photos for my website to promote my talks and they offered to take some. The owner did not tweet. I was reminded of this situation this week for reasons I won’t go into.
  2. I was asked to do a podcast. I said yes not realising it was being recorded in person somewhere it would take me over an hour to travel to from my house. This would be four hours of my time that I could sell to someone else. I asked if there was a fee and was told the agency didn’t have a budget for marketing.

I always give opportunities like this careful consideration. I didn’t set up Joy to get rich or get paid for everything I do. This is not my motivation in conversations like this. I do a lot for free. I offer free mentoring sessions and talk for free at community events. I’m earning well from my consultancy work so quite honestly the fees I get for things like this are fairly minimal. For me this is about the principle. I am prepared to ask in the hope that by doing so I can change the way organisations operate. Then women who don’t feel comfortable asking for a fee won’t have to — instead they are offered payment up front.

I have to point out I’m in a privileged position to say no and challenge publically. I am white, straight and financially secure. I have a wide network and a visible profile that means I can afford to take these risks and still run a profitable business.

In both of the situations I mentioned I was told it was not ‘appropriate’ for the agency to pay contributors. I wonder how the white men on the other side of these negotiations interpreted this word?

I interpret it to mean you’re ok for the world to continue to undervalue women. You’re ok for people to work for free. You’re ok for profit making organisations to prioritise maximising profit above and beyond anything else.

I’d call this inappropriate. But that would probably be a bit risky for my reputation.

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Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.