The Digital Nomad Wage Gap: It’s Not a Level Playing Field

Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

The gender wage gap is alive and well in the digital nomad community. Our recent survey of 2,520 self declared digital nomads revealed a troubling reality: 

In spite of the other progressive aspects of the digital nomad movement, we found a significant and obvious pay gap amongst nomads despite isolating the variables of age, hours worked, education, and job roles between men and women.

No matter how you slice it, men are getting ahead faster than women.

52% of women digital nomads make less than $3000 a month, while 31% of male digital nomads fall into the same bracket. At the top of the scale, 23% of female digital nomads earn more than $5000 a month, while 43% of male digital nomads make more than $5000 a month.

Let that sink in for a minute. Nearly twice as many men are in the top earnings tier. And there are  over 20% fewer men in the lower group.

Stories like Esther Inman’s illustrate the problem, in the workplace in general, all too clearly:

“The reason I quit my first job in tech was because they kept giving me more jobs to do (people would quit and i would take over their work long term) but would never pay me more. I tried to ask for a raise and they offered a JOKE of a raise when I was running the entire department. The final straw was when I found out the male guy on the team that did NOTHING made double what I did. Sure he had been in the industry longer but the unfairness of this was too much.”

I wanted to believe the digital nomad community was different. These are our people, you know?  The progressive ones. The folks who’ve figured out how to leverage it all forward towards freedom. The ones who know how to live life on their terms and live it large. The dreamers. The doers. The chain breakers.

But even amongst digital nomads, the gender wage gap is obvious. And it’s significant.

The Wage Gap Among Digital Nomads: Men vs Women

52% of women digital nomads make less than $3000 a month, while 31% of male digital nomads fall into the same bracket. At the top of the scale, 23% of women digital nomads earn more than $5000 a month, while 43% of male digital nomads make more than $5000 a month. 

So, what’s the cause of this disparity? Is it age, education, job roles, or perhaps hours worked?

Spoiler alert: even when we isolated each of the above, the wage gap was still obvious.

Age

The vast majority of digital nomads are either Millennials or Gen-Xers, with only about 13% over age 55, and there isn’t a great deal of difference in the age breakdown, by percentage, between men and women.

About 40% of us are between 25 and 34 years old, and the next biggest chunk, about 22%, are between 35 and 44 years old. Digital nomadism tends to be an early or mid career choice.

In the first stage of career development, between 25 and 34 years old, both men and women are likely to be making less money than in their middle career years where experience amps earning power. In the first age bracket only 16% of women and 27% of men are likely to make more than $5000 a month. That eleven point difference is a big pill to swallow.

The sickening part is still to come.

In the second stage, between 35 and 44 years old, in our powerhouse career years, when we’ve got our shit together and we’re flying ever higher, the wage gap doesn’t change. At. All.

Sure, in this stage of life 35% of digital nomad women are making good money, but guess what percentage of our male friends are in the same bracket? Yep. 46%.

Education

Interestingly enough, the other metric, besides age breakdown, which is almost identical across gender lines is level of education.

Within the digital nomad community, the percentage of women with advanced degrees is almost exactly the same as men. Unsurprisingly, level of education was strongly correlated with earning power. Stay tuned, because we’ll be writing more about this.

What didn’t track consistently was the amount of money made by men and women at the same educational level. Women with an advanced degree can expect to make less than their equally educated male counterparts. By a lot, actually.

We have men and women in the digital nomad community of similar age and experience, having made very similar life choices, with almost identical educational backgrounds, and yet the men are, in every single financial category, ahead of the women. Does that seem right to you?

Job Roles by Gender

Is the wage gap just a result of women working in lower-paying fields? When we examine the overall breakdown of job roles, it looks possible. More men are in development and management, typically higher-paying fields, while more women are in the relatively lower paying marketing, customer support, and design roles.

However when we look at each job role by gender and income, we see the same wage gap across the board.

Men in customer support are far more likely to earn more than women.

Men in design are also far more likely to earn more than women.

It starts to even out a little when we look at development, management, and marketing… but still, men’s income in each field is significantly higher.

Takeaway: though a higher proportion of our male respondents work in typically higher-paying fields, that does not explain the overall pay gap. In each and every reported field, men were significantly likely to make more than women.

Hours Worked per Week

If it’s not job role, what about hours worked? It’s true that men are more likely to work 40+ hours per week, while women are more likely to work 39 or fewer.

Hours worked does correlate with income, however isolating hours worked doesn’t get rid of the wage gap.

Women in our dataset still make less than men, no matter if they work 20 hours or 40. Hours worked isn’t the culprit for the wage gap, either.

Factors and the Path Forward

So… what’s to blame?

Vivienne Egan, co-host of the Nomad + Spice podcast makes a good point:

“If you’re working solo it’s so hard to gauge what to charge, and women don’t push it like men do. I went and did some contract work in a corporate firm a few years ago and they nearly doubled my day rate overnight – it’s interesting to me that I had to return to the ‘normal’ world of work in order to get a real hand on the value of my skills.”

“Sidenote: I was talking to my friend who’s in senior management at a non-profit the other day, and she told me that she can hardly have a conversation with the men she manages without them asking for a pay raise (and it’s like… if you want loads of money, don’t work at a non-profit), while the women NEVER ask.”

The obvious observation, and one that How We Make Money, on the Nomad + Spice podcast delves into, is that we women need to learn to ask for more.

And what about all of these progressive companies that are actively fighting the wage gap? I work for Tortuga, it’s the most equitable team I’ve ever worked with; over half the team are women. We are paid fairly. Aren’t there models out there for other companies doing the same?

I asked Fred, CEO of Tortuga, about this, here’s what he had to add:

“When we started hiring at Tortuga, I had no plan. We didn’t have a system for setting salaries or ranges. Every hire and negotiation started from scratch. I didn’t feel confident in this ad hoc process being effective for Tortuga or fair for our prospective hires.

In retrospect (small sample size alert), men were more likely to negotiate or push back on an initial offer. Women were more willing to make the first offer and less likely to negotiate. When a candidate named a number, the process was easier, but it never felt “right.” Those were cop outs, not wins.

I knew that we could devise a fairer system that wasn’t a function of the candidate’s willingness or my ability to negotiate. Our goal was to make salary setting fair and easy. We wanted to get it right but also to get it done quickly then move on to the real work.

Inspired by Buffer’s transparency around salary formulas, we built our own at Tortuga based on average pay for a given role, level within that role, and tenure at Tortuga. The formula is a work in progress but is designed to minimize biases and to be equitable for the entire gender spectrum.”

Thanks Fred. I was one of the first team members added. Right out of the gate, three and a half years ago, without that scaffolding in place, my experience and skill set was valued in the interchange. Twice, since then, we’ve renegotiated the deal; once to move from an hourly arrangement to a salary, and then once to increase the scope of my project. In both cases Fred has erred on the side of generosity and creating wiggle room in my pay rate. As a result, I’m highly motivated to make sure the company gets as much bang for their buck as I can provide. Fred’s approach to the wage gap (and complete lack thereof within Tortuga) has created a culture of loyalty and efficiency. I know I speak for the other women on the team when I say that the relationship currency created through equitable valuations in the workplace is a powerful thing, and we appreciate both the level playing field and the shared space at the decision making table, within our respective roles.

Katherine Conway has been location independent, working for a variety of clients, over nearly five years and she had this to say:

“My primary clients (Public Persona and Bluffworks) have both been great about ensuring I am paid good rates for my time and that my work with them is productive beyond just financial compensation (ie: portfolio, professional growth). I know that the founders (Sarah Ancalmo and Stefan Loble, respectively) are conscious of both women’s issues & being fair with all their employees and contractors, but I wouldn’t say that the gender pay gap has been an explicit factor in my rate conversations with them.

I’m not sure about the community itself being necessarily helpful or productive (not to start a fire, but read the recent Digital Bromad article on a tech blog). Because I’ve gotten my clients through word-of-mouth and networking, most are more focused on hiring me for my skill set – being a woman or my lifestyle as a digital nomad don’t seem to be significant factors either way.”

She’s right about those companies. And I’ll vote with my dollars, hard and fast, to get behind the progressives in this world. But the article she cited makes some great points too. Not the least of which is that the digital nomad community finds its roots in the likes of The 4-Hour Work Week with it’s thinly veiled neocolonialist leanings and privileged presuppositions. And the dudes who buy into all of it?

Well, the term “bromads” was coined for a reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that the technological advances of the last decade and a half are the single biggest tool we have, as women, in getting the upper hand on all of this patriarchal bullshit and leveling our own damned playing field. And yes, thanks to the diligent effort of my mother’s generation, and her mother’s before her, I have a significantly better chance at getting a seat at the table. But what we, the “weaker sex,” are born knowing is that the world is stacked against us and we’re expected to suck it up and deal.

I really wanted to believe the data would come out differently. When we did the survey of 2520 people who self-identified as digital nomads, some part time, others full time, our marketing team talked about our hypotheses. I waxed optimistic about my experience over the past ten years as a digital nomad and how making real, career style money was possible, in complete freedom.

I had a slightly smug and self-satisfied feeling as we talked about how I scaled my income from a $10K a year side hustle that had allowed me to invest the time I needed to in raising my four kids, to six figures in a little under four years, still working only part time. Due in no small part to the freedom to run my own damned show, set my own schedule, work on my terms and value my own work appropriately. Digital nomadism was working for women, because it was working for me. I was the proof in the pudding. The playing field must be leveling, because a middle aged mama could leap frog what should have been the catastrophic atrophy of her career that comes with motherhood.

Wrong again.

The other thing that women need is a fair shake. I don’t know anyone asking for an advantage, we simply need to not have ten, twenty, or thirty cents of every dollar shaved off the top of our collective value based on our socio-economic start in life, the pigmentation of our skin, and our lack of a penis, to be blunt. As one of the female minority who seems to have elbowed her way into the room, based solely on the brass lady balls I inherited from my paternal grandmother, I’m absolutely incensed every time I look around and find myself surrounded. Again.

And before you start with your late middle aged boomer rap about how having babies took me off the field, let me remind you that procreation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The assignment of primary parenting duties to women, as a culture, didn’t either. Maybe it’s true that women are drawn to less lucrative careers. Or maybe it’s that certain careers have been systematically devalued, financially, because the system was rigged to incentivize men as breadwinners and women as hobbyists in their career fields of choice. Don’t even get me started on the inequities my sisters raising children alone, as single parents, are battling against, uphill. It’s appalling.  

What we come to learn, even though we’re told it’s a merits based system, is that the whole system is rigged, culturally and corporately, against us. But what has become clear, as we have combed through the data on the digital nomad community, is that even the box breakers are perpetuating the system and women are making measurably and consistently less than their male counterparts, from Bangkok, to Zagreb, on the beaches of Bali and Costa del Sol alike. Perhaps it’s meant to be easier to swallow when accompanied by a 10 Bhat margarita against an Instagram perfect sunset.

I’ve got news for you, boys, it’s not.

And we’re coming for you.

On that note, we could explore the possibility that the traditionally “feminine” qualities have been undervalued, devalued, and downright mocked in, and by, persons in positions of power.

Women are too emotional, too hysterical, too unpredictable, too soft, too kind, too… whatever it is to close deals, negotiate well, stick with a task, or understand the complex nuances of business layered under the thick cigar smoke and whiskey breath bullshit of the old boys club. Please. Not only have feminine women been patted on the head, en masse, and sent off to make the grown ups coffee, any man with the conscious enlightenment to embrace the power of his inner feminine has been made the laughing stock of the boardroom. “Show no weakness” equates to, “quit acting like a girl,” all too often.

This, my friends is what we call toxic masculinity, and in case you haven’t noticed, it’s hurting our boys too.

I was laboring under the delusion that the digital nomad crowd was different. Yes, there’s some sleazy bromad sexist bullshit out there; one in every co-working space. But those guys were the exception, right? And embracing the freedom of location independence had empowered us, hadn’t it ladies? We were writing our own checks. Building our own empires. Valuing ourselves, finally. Keeping up with the boys, and sometimes passing them like they were standing still. Apparently not.

I’m sorry to report that, contrary to my fondest hope and sincerely held belief, the numbers indicate that the gender wage gap is alive and well among the privileged digital nomad elite of the workforce. You might have a drool worthy Instagram feed, sister, but that dude photobombing you is making bank faster than you are.

I was so sure digital nomadism was one answer. And maybe it still is, but it’s clearly not “the” answer, and it might be nothing more than another illusion, a pretty thing dangled in front of women that is the promise of “having it all,” which, incidentally, I think is the biggest lie we tell ourselves and our daughters. Perhaps it’s my naiveté speaking in thinking that there are answers at all. Perhaps it’s an uphill fight with marginal gains, but no level playing field on top. History would indicate that’s so. Women, since time immemorial, have been fighting for shit, getting bits and pieces of it, and then discovering that there’s just more distance between us and them. Perhaps I am just a whining, discontent, man-hating feminist who is never satisfied. Perhaps I’m just being a bitch about the wage gap thing; after all, it affects me a lot less than most of my peers. What’s my problem?

My problem, dear readers, is our problem, and that is that approximately 51% of the population, which is female, is receiving less pay, for equal qualifications, and equal work. 

We female digital nomads pride ourselves on our independence, determination, and grit. We are our own rainmakers. We are committed to living our dreams. So let’s commit to closing that wage gap for ourselves, shall we?

Let’s commit to:

Asking for more money

Before you quote a price, Google what the average pay, using Payscale or Glassdoor is for that job. Aim higher. 

Delivering higher quality outputs

I never want to get a gig because I’m a woman, or get paid better because someone is compensating for my lack of particular genitalia. I want to make more money because I earn every bit of it and my value is indisputable.

Negotiating like the boys

Ask for more. Counter offer higher. Don’t be afraid to walk out of a room. Your value will follow you out and find you.  Don’t know where to start? Stanford’s Center for Women’s Leadership’s Margaret Neale talks about reframing the concept of negotiation. Be sure to click through to the additional resources for book and article suggestions if you want to delve deeper.

Rewriting the rules of the game

Who said toxic masculinity is the paragon to be emulated in positions of power? No. Bring the overwhelming power of the feminine straight into the board room and to the front of the room. This quote from Forbes brings it home:

“Companies with more women in leadership positions are significantly more profitable; women, as a rule, have better focus on long-term priorities and better risk assessment. And let’s be totally mercenary here; women drive a solid 80% of purchasing decisions in the United States. This is a market you would think companies would want to be connecting with. And according to a 2007 study, Fortune 500 companies within the top quartile for women’s board membership reported 42% higher return on sales and 53% higher return on equity.”

Insisting that space be made

Let them mock. Let them violate rule number one and show themselves for what they are. Insist on your space and your value in the room. Hold that line. With blood and tears on your face if you must. Until space is made, what fills it will not have value.

Partnering with enlightened and impassioned men

Men who understand that the privilege and power they were born into gives them the ability to dedicate themselves as change makers. Support them in restructuring how the world works and in dismantling their own power for the advancement of the whole. Interested in what that looks like? Check out Bill Proudman’s work through his organization White Men as Full Diversity Partners; it’s a game changer.

Supporting organizations that lift up and empower women

Ladies Get Paid is an example — they’re “the place to kick ass in your career and find the women who will help you do it.” Recently, Ladies Get Paid was sued for gender discrimination by an organization that targets female-and-nonbinary-driven organizations. They’re holding an iFundWomen campaign through June 12, 2018 to pay for legal fees with some great benefits (including a shirt designed by the amazing Lauren Hom). We’ve already donated and hope you’ll join us. 

Growing our businesses and advancing our power

Financially and otherwise. Have you set clear financial goals for how much MORE you’re going to make this year as a digital nomad?

Not sure where to start? Watch this. I’ll wait.

Katherine put it well when she said:

“I think it’s easy & appealing for the digital nomad community to focus on optimizing our individual lives, careers, and selves, which is definitely important, but it’s also critical that we examine how we exist as a community & our impact on the world around us. In our case as DNs, we are literally all over the world, having significant impacts on local communities, economics, and cultures as well as each other. While there is a need to ensure that women digital nomads are being compensated competitively with our male counterparts, the significant gendered and general challenges that our community faces probably are less about earning power and more about other intersectional (and international) issues.”

Agreed, Katherine, the wage gap isn’t just about dollar signs, that’s only a symptom.

“Hopefully that makes sense,” she continues, “It’s complicated & I’ve been wrestling with it for the past few years, so I’m always a bit nervous about putting it into words & miscommunicating the ideas that I still don’t quite have fully formed.

But I guess that’s kind of a perfect example – I don’t want to ask for more money until I’m 100% sure I deserve it; I don’t want to speak up about issues or concerns until I am 100% sure I know how to enunciate my opinions perfectly and fairly. Is it my experience as a woman that can make me subject to imposter syndrome at work and in my earning power, and is that same issue what makes me doubt my opinions are valid and fair elsewhere? I’ve been a digital nomad for almost 4 years & on 5 continents (and I’ve literally written the book on how to do it), shouldn’t I be able to form and share some opinions by now?”

Who better than the grande dame of the digital nomad movement to have the last word?  Lea Woodward coined the term “Location Independent”  over a decade ago and she’s been quietly doing the work of helping people figure out what location independence means for them, ever since. Not only the career break, flash in the pan, nomadic jaunt that has become a sexy ideal, but in the long term lifestyle sense that allows one to ebb and flow with life and it’s responsibilities. From carefree adventures across Southeast Asia, to parenthood, to deep humanitarian work, to middle age and elder care, when it comes to that. And for most of us, it will come to that.

I expressed to her my frustration and despair at realizing how profoundly wrong I had been in my unbridled optimism over the state of affairs for female digital nomads. In her usual grounded and thoughtful way, she summed it up nicely, as she has from the beginning:

“The fact the numbers show there’s still an issue with the wage gap in the Location Independent and Digital Nomad community is not surprising to me at all. For two reasons:

With kids around and any travel in the mix, there’s always got to be some division of roles and responsibilities.

Despite all our feminist rhetoric and talk, what I see around me is largely what has always been… the man earns the income and the woman takes primary responsibility for the home and children. There are of course exceptions – and I include myself in this having set things up very differently with my then-husband, who also now has exactly 50% responsibility for our children, as we both financially support ourselves and them separately/individually. But this does seem to be an exception since by and large it’s the women/mothers who take primary responsibility for the children. So from that position, it’s NOT and never will be a level playing field from the start when it comes to the practicalities of needing time, space and energy to focus on careers and earning an income, never mind adding any travel into the mix.

Even without children, I see and experience in the work I do with ‘professional’ women a chronic lack of self confidence in the work they do and the value they have to offer, across the board. 

Again there are exceptions but what disappoints me is the lack of strong, female role models who do compete income-wise but who do it in a feminine versus masculine way.

Again, despite all our ‘posturing’ and rhetoric about feminism, equality and strong women, we often look at female role models who emulate men or use the more masculine qualities to succeed, instead of finding and drawing upon the more feminine qualities to succeed.

Specifically, in the Location Independent and Digital Nomad world, we are awash with male role models who are ‘killing it’. There are few women who are doing it ALL – kids, work, travel, home-making etc because in some ways it is just not possible to have the time, energy and wherewithal to do it ALL. And do we actually really want that?

On top of (or perhaps underneath) all of this, is a systemic mindset/attitude and structure that, as women, we are constantly fighting against which does not make for a level playing field at a foundational level.

So with this trifecta of challenges – a lack of time/practical need to divide roles and responsibilities as a woman in a family unit, a common and chronic lack of self confidence/value/worth in women AND a system which perpetuates these and is set up to favour the more masculine qualities and measures of success – it makes it pretty damn hard to level the playing field.”

 

Appendix:

The Data

Methodology

We surveyed the following audiences:

  • Workfrom’s email list
  • Remotive’s email list
  • Tortuga’s email list

We also ran ads to the digital nomad interest group on Facebook linking to the survey.

Sample Size

Total survey respondents: 4,887

Respondents in reported sample: 2,520

  • Filtering method for reported sample: respondents who work remotely AND who travel for leisure while working at least part-time (i.e. trips that are not “business trips” but aren’t vacations either)

Note: we had 28 respondents in our filtered sample who identify as non-binary. We’re excluding those respondents from this data not because they’re unimportant, but because 28 respondents isn’t enough of a sample size to draw meaningful conclusions. We’d love to call upon an organization with an audience of nonbinary nomads to take these learnings and build on them with their insights.

Gratitude to Taylor Coil, Fred Perotta, Esther Inman, Viven Egan, Katherine Conway, Lea Woodward, Angela Rollins, and Garrett Haas for their valuable contributions. 

 

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