It’s easy to fall into a financial rut in any profession – but especially so in the arts.
And it often starts with that first job. Mine was at an independent publishing house in London. My modest salary was enough to cover my rent, with a little extra for everything else. A distinct upgrade from student life, I took the bus to my beautiful office near Notting Hill, where I learned about the intricacies of book publishing, from what it took to design a brilliant cover to how to write a punchy blurb.
In time, I made the jump from Production Editor to Commissioning Editor at one of the house’s imprints. I sipped champagne at literary award ceremonies, worked on translating critically acclaimed books into English, and fell in love with art and theatre.
I grew tremendously in those years — except financially. But that was OK I reasoned, I was starting out in an expensive city, and could manage easily enough with a little scrimping and saving. All in all, I had a grand time.
When I moved to Mumbai five years later, I accepted a mid-level copy editing role and the basic remuneration that accompanied it at the Indian edition of a global fashion magazine without negotiating. I’d moved countries and needed to establish myself in a new market, and was living rent-free with my parents, with only a few personal expenses to take care of. I was 26 — I would catch up.
I did well over the next decade, graduating to Deputy Editor at the magazine. But except for one substantial hike fairly early on, every other raise I got ranged from 5–15%. My baseline salary being low, this meant incremental growth during a key phase of my career.
By the time I hit 30, the idea of advocating for yourself was au courant, and that’s what I did, highlighting my achievements, the additional responsibilities I’d taken on, and my changing needs and expectations. But appraisals followed a familiar routine. My work was valued and praised; the revised scope of work acknowledged; I was a top performer and was given the top raise possible for that year.
It grated, but on the other hand, I genuinely loved the creative nature of the work I did. Plus, the perks were great (hello, Biz Class to Australia, Bali, London, the Czech Republic, Italy, tickets to the hottest tables in town). My job gave me stability at a time when the rest of my life felt tumultuous.
Until I got married, that is — after which I had to confront some blunt economic realities. Many of my arguments with my husband were about money, and it was clear that the long-term health of our union depended upon us building a secure financial future. But how to do this during a pandemic?
It was only after I had my baby that a natural break from work made sense. I embarked on a consultancy project after a gap, excited about the potential of the role and the flexibility it offered me to WFH. I accepted a salary that matched my previous salary on paper.
This turned out to be a short professional stint. As a breastfeeding mum of a nine-month-old at the time, I was physically and mentally exhausted, and doing much of my work late at night after my baby slept. I fretted constantly about the time it took to commute to meetings at the other end of the city; I felt anxiety at the thought of rescheduling meetings if my son was unwell. I also continued to take on more responsibility at work to ensure the overall system functioned smoothly. Suddenly the same salary, plus an infant, and minus the benefits of being a full-time employee, meant that the maths wasn’t adding up.
Once more, I advocated for myself — this time more vociferously. I’d proven my worth, and was better prepared, having benchmarked my salary against the industry standard. But no dice, the conversation didn’t go as I hoped.
My confidence rattled, I had to ask myself: How had I built a career over 16 years that was so rich and diverse in experience, that had brought me such joy, with an excellent network of contacts, only to be paid relatively little? Did my salary reflect my worth? This time around, would I make a bold move and walk away, or would I stay?
I walked away fairly recently, without a roadmap for what would come next. But I did know that my time and experience came at a premium, and that the criteria for any new project I took on was that it had to excite me and pay me well.
It was a subtle but important internal shift that’s triggered something in my external reality – like the universe got the memo, too. The opportunities coming my way are more lucrative now; I’m pivoting in new directions that have the potential to creatively satisfy me and empower me financially. It’s a feeling I’d like to get used to. Like Beyoncé rapped on ‘Apeshit’: “Gimme my check/Put some respect on my check.”
Shikha Sethi Chowdhary is a Mumbai-based writer, editor and consultant.