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As a woman, I feel uniquely qualified to share my thoughts on what it is like to be a woman, on this, the International Day of Women. For if the last few months have taught us anything, it is that we all have a story to tell. Even if your story, like mine, is that you’re white, middle class, did not go to private school and have never been skiing.

It would be wonderful if there was no need for a ‘women’s day’, in the same way that one day in the future I hope there will be no need for International Nutella Day and we hear no more about Blue Monday. But for now, in a world where women do not get equal pay at work, are underrepresented in the media and social programming sustains a hierarchy that consistently places men at the top, one day to focus on women – both pride and prejudice – doesn’t feel like too much to ask.

For god forbid women ask for ‘too much.’ Or indeed, ask for what is fair.

When I was 26, a colleague let slip he had joined the company on a salary that was significantly higher than mine. In the thousands of pounds per year higher than mine. Yet he was less experienced than me, had a different job title (manager rather than director) and fewer responsibilities than me. Furthermore, I was his line manager. I was managing him, but he was getting paid more than me. How could this be fair?

I went to my boss to point this out.

I can’t remember exactly what she (yes, my boss was a woman) said to me, but I was fobbed off with some platitudes about the requirement to pay a premium to hire people and how my salary would be looked at in the next salary review – a mere 11 months out. It’s one of the overriding regrets of my career that I left it there. I’d said my piece, I didn’t get the answer I wanted but I didn’t fight on either. I assumed she would do right by me. Yes, I know – never assume. Even the sisterhood can uphold the prejudice that men are worth more than women.

It’s often said that one of the reasons for the gender wage gap is that women don’t negotiate as much as men do. That’s a huge simplification as there are many other factors at play but, as a focus group of one, I can attest to that being the case early in my career. But as someone wise once said, ‘sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.’

Here’s what I learnt: three principles that aren’t purely for negotiations but can be applied for most situations at work and in life.

1. Be ready.

Be in command of the facts. Be clear on what your goal is. Know what you will concede and where you are not prepared to compromise. And then get into the right mental state. Women are often accused of being ‘emotional’ – which is aggravating and unfair. Fend that one off at the pass by being open, warm, flexible and polite. And consider the issue from the other person’s point of view so you can anticipate and respond to how they may react.

2. Propose, don’t complain.

My ‘negotiation’ never got off the ground because it was a complaint, not a proposal. Our conversation could only move forward if I had made a proposal. I talked about the discrepancy in pay, I shared how unfair I felt it was but I didn’t propose what I wanted. I waited for my boss to make the first move. She didn’t. Have the confidence to make the first proposal. It has power in it – don’t give that power away.

3. Keep going.

Sometimes it can feel like the world of work is a war of attrition – a prolonged period of conflict during which each side seeks to gradually wear down the other by a series of small-scale actions. Keep an eye on the end goal. If this is really important to you, you’ll find the energy and focus to get there but you probably will need to get rid of some other stuff in order to do so. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

It grates that 20 years on, I still remember that feeling of unfairness. Yet, in the great scheme of things, isn’t this an insignificant story? Surely there are many, many greater injustices in the world than this? Well, yes of course, there are. But this is a story of acceptance. I accepted what I had been given. I didn’t question it. I didn’t challenge enough. It’s a story that’s been playing out across business for decades, only now women are saying ‘enough.’ We’re no longer accepting the status quo. I’m older and wiser now. I’m helping other women find their voice, to grow in confidence, influence and impact. Women who won’t be as accepting as I was.

And that’s a different story.


Louisa Clarke leads Caffeine’s Fast Forward Female programme – a mix of individual coaching and peer group workshops designed for companies that recognise the importance of gender diversity and want to support their senior female leaders by giving them the means to accelerate their development. #pressforprogress



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Louisa Clarke

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