A friend who had swapped teaching law at university to practising law at a firm of City solicitors told me that he was going to apply to become a partner. I laughed. He had been there just 18 months, and despite his obvious talent for making money, there were plenty of longer-serving and more experienced solicitors ahead of him.
"You don't ask, you don't get," he said. He asked, he didn't get. But two years on, he became the firm's youngest-ever partner.
I was reminded of this exchange while reading the latest self-help book for women in the workplace, Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want. Books like this should be approached with caution. Even if there are such things as male and female traits, we all know that some women are more like men and some men are more like women, and it's dangerous to make generalisations.
By page five, however, I was hooked. Two students straight out of college are offered the same job for the same salary. The woman accepts the £12,500 (the book is American, and its authors clearly not au fait with starting salaries for graduates in this country). The man negotiates and raises his to £15,000. The differential widens with every year's percentage increase.
It's a hypothetical case, but the book is full of true stories from women at work and its thesis is supported by academic research into the different salary-negotiating skills of the sexes. I cringe as I remember opening the contract for my last full-time job and finding the salary was £2,000 a year more than I had been told at the interview. Either there had been a lucky mistake in my favour or I had performed particularly well that day, I thought as I hurriedly signed it.
Much more likely, the company was used to male journalists negotiating salary offers upwards, and there had been more on the table all along. Had I asked, I might have got even more, plus 11 years of higher annual increases. To test the theory, I asked a former colleague whether, around the same time, he had asked and received more than he had been offered. "Of course," he said.
The financial losses that a woman can suffer from not negotiating are truly staggering, according to the authors, Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, and Sara Laschever, a journalist. In fact, they say, these poor negotiating skills also go some way towards explaining the lingering pay gap between men and women.
Women must decide what they want, pick the right time, decide a bottom line and ask for more than they want, in order to provide wriggle room. They must go in with factual evidence about comparable salary levels and duties, and make sure that they stay good-tempered and friendly.
Don't try to do it like a man, the authors warn. "Many people believe that to succeed in negotiation, they need to state their position clearly and confidently, affirm the quality of their work and declare unequivocally that they deserve what they demand," the authors say. "Unfortunately, behaviour that seems too aggressive typically doesn't work for women and often backfires."
Using a softer style can improve the chance of success, because women are expected to be nicer. In one study, men were 50 per cent more likely to hire a woman if she did not use aggressive language to request a raise in salary negotiations. Female bosses were more likely to turn down boastful, aggressive applicants of either sex.
The authors claim that the problem for women is that their self-esteem fluctuates more in response to feedback, whether positive or negative, than a man's does, making them less likely to risk rejection or the souring of a working relationship by asking for what they might not get.
They suggest practising with low stakes, such as free samples and bulk discounts. Then risk rejection outright by haggling over the price of apples in the supermarket or the cost of petrol at the garage.
"You'll know you can ask for both the big and the little changes and you'll feel calm, confident and comfortable in your skin while doing it," the authors write. "Life will open its doors a little more easily to you. It's worth hearing 'no' now and then for that, isn't it?"
Perhaps it is... so how much am I getting paid for each word of this article?
'Ask For It', by Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever, is published on 24 AprilReuse content