For 10 years, Hattie's been getting the same salary in a small firm. Her boss is sympathetic to the problems of a working mother, but now a junior position's been filled by a woman on much more money. How can Hattie screw up courage to ask for

a rise?

Ten years seems an awfully long time to live on a sum that has, in terms of the cost of living, been getting continually smaller and smaller.

Did Hattie keep her mouth shut because she thought she was of no economic value? It's funny the enormous number of women who are so lacking in self- esteem that they would almost pay to have a job. And certainly women in highly important roles, such as actually seeing that the office runs OK, can mistake their role for motherhood and feel, deep down, that it is not right to ask for extra payment. Wages for housework has always seemed a batty idea to me; but some women feel that wages for being mother hen to the firm is also rather odd, and though they know intellectually they should get paid, emotionally they feel surprised and grateful that they get anything at all. Add to this the family atmosphere of Hattie's small firm - that her boss is very considerate to any problems with her children, allows her time off and so on - and a woman can often be bamboozled into feeling that it is just as good to be paid in kindness as in cash.

However, finally the worm has turned. If Hattie had been getting a bare 2 per cent a year since she started she'd be 35 per cent better off now, so she can use that sum as a guideline. Perhaps she should estimate the saving she's made in child care and balance the figure up.

The next step is to confront her boss. This is where she must be very careful. People who stomp into bosses' offices whining about how unfair things are, and claiming they're being exploited, may possibly get the rise they want, but their complaints leave a nasty taste in everyone's mouth. It takes two to do the paso doble, anyway, and Hattie has to take a fair bit of blame for the situation since she's been a mouse for so long.

How she phrases her request is crucial. I suggest she makes a date to see her boss and then goes in with rather a sheepish smile on her face. "I must be the most forgetful woman around," she should say with a winsome smile, "because in all the time I've been here I've never asked for an increase. It seems to me that since I haven't asked, the least I could expect would be to be paid the same as the new woman you've employed, or perhaps 5 or 10 per cent more to reflect my seniority."

This way, she takes responsibility for not getting a rise and avoids confrontation.

What will he say? If Hattie is of economic value her boss may well appreciate the way she approaches the situation, and cough up. If he's been regarding her as a tiresome old bat for years and has just been exploiting her, he'll tell her that he can't afford any more and Hattie will have an idea how much she means to the firm.

Asking requires two things. A clear idea of what she wants, and courage. I once made eight appointments to see an erratic female editor, seven of which were cancelled. At the eighth she gave me a thumbs-down. It was humiliating, but at least I'd asked. And I left as soon as possible afterwards.

what readers say

Shock your employer and ask for more

You know the only solution for you is to approach your employer and to ask him for an appointment to discuss your situation. My situation is very similar to yours and when I finally popped that difficult question his first reaction was: "You are not leaving, are you?"

I have three young children and a husband who frequently travels abroad. I was very pleased to find a job locally where the atmosphere was very positive and understanding towards the combination of motherhood and work. I started this job three years ago and it became quickly apparent that I was able and willing to take on more and more interesting and responsible work. So my brief expanded but a raise in money was never mentioned.

Then a freelancer was hired to take over part of my more interesting work and was paid more per hour than I was per day! That did it for me. Like you, I was facing a very difficult decision because in the end, it is hard to combine motherhood with work.

This is what I did: I scanned all the papers for job advertisements and made a note of similar jobs and the salary. I wrote to one and got as far as an interview. That gave me the confidence to approach my boss. I set myself a date by which I had to ask him for an appointment. I admit it was in the last two minutes before I dared to do it. What happened was amazing: the moment I opened my mouth on this subject he was the one who became nervous and embarrassed. We had at first an open discussion to assess what we wanted from one another and for me it has worked out brilliantly: the freelancer is gone, another person is hired to do the administrative part of my job and I am left with doing only the interesting work. I also work less hours and received a pay rise.

So Hattie, you are much more valuable than you think. I wish you luck!

C Maynard Smith, London

It's your duty to demand a better deal

Yes, of course you're being taken advantage of; and I've been there as a widowed parent in the 1950s. Unofficial flexitime is seen by your employer as his benign "quid pro quo" - but always in his favour. He thinks he's doing you a favour, feels good about it, and is therefore off the hook.

In the Seventies, as a daughter caring for elderly parents, I found a totally different attitude - which gave me freedom within limits of contact hours to attend the inevitable crises.

It's your bounden duty in the 1990s, and not only for your own sake, to tackle your boss, P.D.Q. about an official flexitime policy and a regular pay-review structure. However small the firm, both of these arrangements can be made openly and without any emotional blackmail.

Anne Crocker, Bath

Accept that it may be time to move on

As a former manager (and employee) I know that bosses, like everyone else, take those close to them for granted. Your grievance will probably be greeted

with genuine surprise.

Plan a date by which you will raise the issue of a pay rise. Prepare carefully, looking at advertisements for comparable jobs to gauge your market worth. You may want to apply for jobs, on a confidential basis, to get you in a positive frame of mind and give you a fall-back position. In the period before the discussion, do not sulk, simmer or "work to rule". Be especially cheerful, industrious and smart.

When the appropriate moment comes, keep it factual and unemotional, don't give ultimatums and make it clear that you don't wish to ambush the boss into an instant response. Cite your worth in terms of the market and don't make too many comparisons with colleagues, which will only make you feel mean and your boss defensive. Don't be fobbed off with how flexible the firm has been. This is what businesses have to do these days to hold on to valuable employees who happen to be parents. Come to terms in advance with the fact that if you get nowhere, this may be time to move on.

Karen Ludlow, London SW18

Next week's dilemma

I have a daughter of 14 who is becoming very greedy. As a single parent I find it hard enough to pay the bills, and have always kept her well dressed, with occasional trips out to theatres, events and so forth. But she's lately been out with new friends who have tons of cash and she's become very demanding, asking for pounds 100 for a shopping trip and saying I don't love her when I can't do it. I have told her to ask her father, who has paid nothing towards her upkeep.

I'm lucky to have two part-time jobs, but this means no sick or holiday pay. Lately I've been crying, and so miserable I've had to take days off sick, so we are even worse off. I get family credit but I dread this ending when my daughter leaves school. What can I do?

Andrea

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora . Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning. And if you have a dilemmas of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.

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