“What would I do with the extra money?” she asked me, eyes widening at the prospect. This was a younger friend’s reaction when I informed her she was being woefully underpaid and advised her make the business case for a £10k pay rise.
“Those words would never come out of a man’s mouth,” I fired back.
And it’s true. But until this week, I had no idea just how early the rot set in. A new study of nearly 4,000 British sixth formers, in all types of schools, has found girls are limiting their career options from the off by going for low-paying but 'worthwhile' jobs in organisations such as museums and charities.
This is while boys hunt down the roles promising fat wads of cash, buoyed by a sense of confidence that apparently has deserted the girls, despite their often flawless grades.
The clever people over at Oxford University have been investigating the pay gap between men and women at an interesting moment; directly after college and university – aka a long way off the baby-making years, when all odds should be evenly stacked.
In doing so they have also discovered that by the time girls are teenagers, they are already internalising gender stereotypes that end up dictating the rest of their lives. Invisible cultural forces mean boys are still seen and see themselves as breadwinners – capable of tough jobs with difficult hours and generous salaries. This is at the same time many girls shy away from hostile working environments (which then remain male-dominated) despite the financial spoils.
While some have celebrated the findings, claiming victory for proponents of work-life balance and ‘following one’s dreams’, I don’t see much to crow about - but not for the reason you may suspect.
Of course I loathe the idea that girls are in any way restricting themselves based on a set of outdated principles and earning less because of it.
However, they are not the only losers in all of this. Far from it. What about the boys?
Boys who may not want to be bankers, accountants, strategy consultants, are grinning and bearing it anyway, primed for a life of dependence.
It’s all very well bleating on about the need for gender equality, but it must cut both ways. If men aren’t free to follow their dreams, and the undemanding jobs, as much as women are – where’s the parity in that?
Society no longer allows for a single income household, certainly not for most average earners.
The reality in most heterosexual couples is that both parties have to work, but if the de facto expectation remains that men will be the breadwinners, that’s an even bigger pressure than it was before.
A male pal, who went straight into the City after university, recently said to me of his pregnant wife: “I just wanted to make sure I was earning enough by this point of my life to give her the option not to work.”
While he is an absolute gem of a gent, what about him? Why wasn’t the offer reciprocated?
Perhaps it was. His wife is successful in her own right, but I have a hunch their salaries don’t compare and this was the deal from the off.
We know now that long before women try landing one of the greatest jobs in the world - becoming a mother - they hold themselves back, based on the cultural limitations they have absorbed from birth.
So what to do?
In the UK, it’s unseemly for anyone to speak of their ambitions or desire to earn well, but it’s especially so for women, never mind teens.
It’s not easy but our girls must grit their teeth and override these unspoken gender stereotypes, with the same iron will that secures them straight As. And act like no one else is going to pick up the tab. Ever.
Their men’s mental health and future mortgages are counting on it.