Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

I slapped my forehead so hard it left a welt before burying my head in my hands in shame, embarrassment and frustration. For I had done it again.

What made this situation worse was that it was being watched by knowing eyes, his grin saying everything.

“OK, then, I won’t pay you,” this successful man said, now laughing. “Do all the work for free.”

OK, let’s backtrack a bit. This person, someone I admire and have always wanted to work with, had called me several months ago to collaborate on a project. I was hyped.

Over a breakfast meeting we both realised we were on the same page and equally passionate about making the project a reality.

I went away and put my thoughts down on paper, creating a document that took the proposal to the next exciting level. Which is why the topic of money was brought up by my would-be partner, keen to keep up the project’s momentum and add structure to our working relationship.

And what did I say to his offer, a woman struggling to make a living on her own as a freelancer in a moribund medium of print, to a man well equipped to pay me?

“Oh, don’t worry about money. We’ll work something out later.”

Hence the self-flagellation and ouchy reminder I have learnt nothing over the years, allowing myself and my talents to go unrewarded so as not to seem greedy or pushy or over-confident. I was still putting being liked ahead of being paid and it pained me.

In the past I have been given charge of publications that made millions of dollars each year with the line, “We’re going to give you a chance to shine, to show us you’re up to the task.”

Like a Labrador puppy, I soaked up the compliment, promising the publishers I wouldn’t let them down, that I would give the job my very best and thanks again for believing in me.

Then, sleepless stressed months working 60-plus-hour weeks would ensue, forcing me to sit back and scratch my head, wondering why I had doubled my workload and responsibility for no increase in money. Why I had taken the pat on the head and rolled over slobbering when I should have asserted confidently, “You wouldn’t have asked me to do this job if you didn’t think I was up to it and so please pay me accordingly.”

Yet here I was, in my 40s, many jobs later, doing exactly the same damn thing.

While I have always believed this failure of mine to be so entrenched it was in my DNA, or a side effect of that second Y chromosome of my gender. And it appears statistics back this up.

A study of starting salaries of graduates from a US university (Carnegie Mellon) that found 57 per cent of male students but only 7 per cent of female students tried to negotiate a higher starting offer.

So, it is not so hard to see this starts as it continues, with statistics showing that today Australian women earn 86 cents for every dollar made by men and New Zealand women 93 cents. And it’s not just an Antipodean phenomenon but a global one, with American women earning 77 cents to every man’s buck and European women 84.

My hero in all matters work-related, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, agrees women are our own worst enemies when it comes to promotion and compensation.

As someone seen to have broken the glass ceiling, Sandberg admits she made the same mistake of placing likeability before merit many times in her career, inspiring her to write her international bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.

In the book she talks of negotiating her salary with Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. “He made me an offer I thought was fair,” she writes. “I was dying to accept the job. My husband Dave was telling me to negotiate, but I was afraid of doing anything that might botch the deal. I could play hardball, but then maybe Mark would not want to work with me. ... But right before I was about to say yes, my exasperated brother-in-law blurted out, “Damn it, Sheryl! Why are you going to make less than any man would make to do the same job? … His point was simply that no man at my level would accept the first offer.”

As it turns out, Sandberg took her brother-in- law’s advice and negotiated a much better deal for herself, one she feels representative of what a man would earn in that role. But finding out why we women do this in the first place took much exploration.

In the book she explains how Deborah Gruenfeld, a professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at Stanford University, made her see the core problem.

“Our entrenched cultural ideas associate men with leadership qualities and women with nurturing qualities and put women in a double bind,” Gruenfeld said. “We believe not only that women are nurturing but that they should be nurturing above all else. When a woman does anything that signals she might not be nice first and foremost, it creates a negative impression and makes us uncomfortable.”

Illustrating Gruenfeld’s hypothesis, Sandberg reveals that, six months after starting at Facebook, Zuckerberg gave her a formal review. “One of the things he told me was that my desire to be liked by everyone would hold me back,” she writes. “He said, 'When you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress.' Mark was right.”

While I agree with Sandberg’s sentiments, I also take solace in knowing that likeability is a strong pulling factor for both genders, regardless of confidence or qualification. 

Witnessing my mental flagellation that fateful day recently, my new business partner admitted that, when it gets to the bottom-line last push in his big business dealings, he will often hire someone to represent him to nut out the final sums.

“That way, I can keep an ongoing personal working relationship away from the back end of the business,” he admits, adding sympathetically, “I want to be liked too."