Name: Jill Suit

Job title: Marketing Manager, Bloggs plc

Age: 29

Time with company: 5 years

No of promotions: 2

Yearly trips abroad: 2

Bonus scheme: pounds 500

Company car: Metro

Salary: pounds 25,000

Name: Jack Suit

Job title: Marketing Manager, Bloggs plc

Age: 29

Time with company: 5 years

No of promotions: 5

Yearly trips abroad: 5

Bonus scheme: pounds 1,000

Company car: BMW 3 series

Salary: pounds 40,000

iona, 33, is a successful lawyer living in Leeds. She is dedicated to her firm, works long hours and gets on well with the people in her office. Confident and ambitious, she has no doubt in her mind about where she wants to be in five years time. Last year she was made a partner, and her long-term plan is to move to London as a senior partner. Fiona is a high-flyer, part of the Nineties brigade of young female professionals who view their career as a right, not a privilege.

There's nothing unusual in that - until you ask her what she gets paid. Is it any less than a man in her firm at the same level? The assertive front begins to falter. She laughs resignedly: "Of course it is. It's so commonplace around here it's boring even mentioning it. A legal executive here is on pounds 2,000 more than me and he's only been here a year. I'm a partner; I've been here twice as long and I get pounds 22,000.

"When an assistant solicitor joined three months ago, he instantly got more than a woman at the same level who's been employed for two years. And I never get to handle corporate clients or go on as many important business lunches - the assistant solicitor does all that." Not to mention the partners' golfing weekends from which she's automatically excluded.

What seems strange is that Fiona tries to justify the situation, convincing herself that she enjoys some sort of advantage. "It makes me feel quite secure. I haven't got the same responsibility as my partners so I can hide in their limelight, bask in their glory if they do well but also watch them make mistakes, knowing I can't get the blame."

It seems scant compensation for being treated as second best. But Fiona looksshocked at the suggestion that she might challenge her bosses. "No way. If I asked about the difference in salary I'd be out on my ear. I'd never have got this far if I'd made an issue out of things like that."

At the beginning of last week former personnel director Christine Esplin accepted pounds 140,000 - a record amount - in an out-of-court settlement for making just such an issue out of her difference in salary. Esplin, 48, kicked up a fuss when she discovered the male merchandising director was earning much more than her - even though he had joined the board at the same time.

Esplin told her company, QS Familywear, that she would take her claim to an industrial tribunal. When she returned from a holiday, they informed her that she had lost the confidence of the other directors. She was, as Fiona would put it, "out on her ear".

One might assume her pay-off was so high because the level of prejudice she experienced was exceptional. Maybe it was not so unusual. Last Thursday Helen Bamber, a City broker, was awarded pounds 81,000 compensation for sex discrimination. She was earning pounds 43,000 as a Euro-bond dealer while a male colleague got pounds 170,000. Next week an employment tribunal will hear the case of Joanne Connaughton, former director of music with the Roman Catholic diocese of Hallam in Sheffield. She left an pounds 11,000 job only to discover that her male successor had been offered pounds 9,000 more.

According to research by the Institute of Management, the average female manager earns pounds 28,642 - almost pounds 5,000 less than the average male.Women directors are paid only 72 per cent of the male average. It's not so surprising that this sort of prejudice exists among Esplin's contemporaries. But it is when you look at a younger generation of go-getting, power-lunching female executives.

They're the group who should supposedly be breaking through the glass ceiling. But will they find this any easier than their elders? One might assume this group would be outraged if men in the same position enjoyed higher wages and more perks. In fact, they are likely to just grin and bear it.

Emily, 34, is a management consultant who used to work for a small London company. She got on well with her colleagues but noticed quickly that any mention of salaries was taboo. "Talking about it with each other was an instantly dismissable offence," she says.

"They'd take you to one side and say, `We're giving you an extra pounds 900 a year, but don't tell anyone else.' Of course I didn't." A year later Emily discovered she was on about pounds 8,000 less than four of her male counterparts. "The whole thing was so unequal it was untrue. But because it was performance related pay, I didn't feel I had a good case. I knew if I did stand up they could say, `Sorry, but you're not as good'."

Some men can find these situations embarrassing, too. When Paul, 33, a computer consultant, discovered he was on pounds 2,500 more than his female colleague in exactly the same job, he felt awkward. "It was a male-dominated company but I didn't want her to look at me as part of some privileged club because I was a man. That's probably what she thought. Maybe she was right. But I wasn't going to start complaining." As another man points out: "If it happened to me, I'd hardly turn round and say `pay me less'. It's up to a woman to ask for more."

Last year, Helen, 28, a marketing executive, did just that. She now earns the same as her male colleague Ian - no thanks to her boss. Like Ian, she joined the company as a graduate trainee and had worked her way up. "We were both given appraisals - our manager told us what marks he'd given us in each area of achievement. Afterwards Ian and I compared our scores - they were exactly the same. He'd even ticked the same boxes and our overall comments were similar."

The only difference is, Ian was given a 6 per cent pay rise and she was offered 2 per cent. Unlike Fiona, Helen took action. "I was so upset. I'd put in as many hours as Ian. We worked together well yet I was being undervalued. So I went straight to my personnel manager, who argued it out with my boss. Now we're on the same wage."

Jane, 29, a journalist with her own TV column, only discovered how underpaid she was after she left her job on a tabloid newspaper. A friend and colleague admitted to her some months later that he'd been on at least pounds 4,000 more, even though he was two years younger. And he got the hard news stories while she had to check the TV listings pages. "I was furious but by then it was too late. I know that if I was male, I'd have risen up the ranks like a rocket," she says. "As it was, I was given the fluffy, soft features to cover - and the pay was an insult for the work I put in." After she left, the paper brought in two men to do her job - and paid them both more.

It's hard to tally these anecdotes with positive predictions that the face of future employment is decidedly female. One study by Warwick University's Institute for Employment Research reports that female employment will rise by more than 600,000 by the end of the Nineties while male employment will fall. Perhaps the sheer quantity of women workers will dictate change - although one wonders how, when attitudes seem so entrenched. "There's a whole ethos around why women work," says Scarlett MccGwire, author of Best Companies For Women. "It's a hidden agenda that still assumes men support the family and women work because they want to. That is reflected in their pay packets."

It isn't just salary that highlights the yawning gap between male and female expectations, but all those other symbols of power that men demand as a right. Mandy, 27, a sales rep, ended up telling her boss where he could stick his Vauxhall Corsa. She had been working for a print production company dominated by male reps. "I was one of about three women working in a very laddish atmosphere. The boss was quite young and clearly thought he could fob me off. Perhaps other women had let him think he could get away with it." Mandy decided to set a precedent. "In my second week he showed me my car. All the other execs had flash VWs. When he pointed to this measly Corsa in the car park I thought he was joking." He wasn't, so Mandy quit. "It was humiliating because the difference was so obvious. In terms of prestige, it might as well have been a Reliant Robin. They either thought I was stupid, or didn't care."

Now she works for another company and drives a new BMW. Her defiance seems unusual. Maybe younger women are more reluctant to rock the boat at such a crucial point in their careers. Or perhaps they're less confident than men at demanding better pay. Mandy, like Christine Esplin, lost her job to make a point, but the sacrifice has paid off. It should prove to women like Fiona that success should always mean more than "basking in the glory" of male colleagues.

unequal opportunities

Women earn 28 per cent less on average than men for comparable jobs in the UK. Men in full time work earn an average pounds 374.60 a week whereas women in full time work earn an average pounds 269.80 a week.

Women's pence-per- hour earnings in comparison to men's increased from 71 per cent in 1975 to 80 per cent in 1994.

It will take at least 50 years for women's and men's wages to reach an equal level if the gap carries on narrowing at the present rate

CHRISTINE ESPLIN: former personnel director on a salary of pounds 42,500. Last week she accepted a record settlement of pounds 140,000 from her former employers after complaining that a male colleague at the same level was earning "substantially" more than her

HELEN BAMBER: a City of London bond dealer earning a salary of pounds 43,000. She discovered that a male counterpart was earning pounds 170,000 and last week won pounds 81,000 in compensation from an industrial tribunal