For anyone interested in social change, one of the most testing questions is this: just how fast is it reasonable to expect things to change? In every OECD country women have overtaken men in achieving qualifications, at every level. In Australia, 60% of graduates are women, and this is not untypical. In a genuinely meritocratic society, we might expect to have seen rapid progress in women’s careers, as they put their higher qualifications to work.
In every OECD country women have overtaken men in achieving qualifications, at every level.
This kind of change can’t happen immediately: the fact that there are more female than male law or medical students can’t immediately mean that there are more women consultants or judges. But surely after a decade or two there should have been significant change in career trajectories, and in pay equality. There has indeed been some progress, and women do have more choice than they used to. But it has been slow – and much less than their superior qualifications might lead you to expect.
So why is this competence lead apparently not rewarded in the workplace?
I’ve been asking women (and a few men) what they think the reasons are for the Paula Principle. It seems to rest on five main factors, though these can be categorised in different ways. A critical political and organisational challenge is to identify which of these factors are most significant in your own workplace or sector.
Two of them are particularly familiar. First, discrimination still exists. It is often less overt than it used to be, but it still routinely occurs. Secondly, child-rearing is a very powerful influence. Growing equality in the early part of women’s and men’s careers is often not sustained once children appear. Gender pay gaps are hugely wider for older age groups. And given demographic changes childcare is now joined by eldercare as a significant influence on carers’ careers.
Third come psychological reasons, notably a lower degree of self-confidence. Women are more likely than men to identify parts of a job that they think they cannot do (incidentally, this is part of the reason why they engage more in vocational training – to fill those competence gaps), and so they won’t put themselves forward for a job or a promotion. There is some merit in going for it even if you can’t be sure you’ll succeed; but it certainly seems to be a characteristic that men have in far greater measure.
Fourth is a lack of vertical networks: knowing people who work at levels above your own. Men tend to associate with men and women with women, and since there are more men than women at higher occupational levels, this helps them on. This isn’t about nepotism. It’s just that men learn more quickly about job openings, and they learn the language of occupational success from these networks. This reinforces the circle.
Finally – most interestingly but also most controversially – there is positive choice: where women could get a new job or a promotion but actively decide not to. I call a ‘positive’ choice one made without the usual obvious constraints. So when a woman decides not to go for a job because life would be too difficult at home, that’s not a positive choice. But when she decides not to go for a promotion because she doesn’t need the money or the status, and she enjoys what she is doing and is still growing in it, then that seems to me to be a very rational decision, based on good healthy values. It’s the kind of decision which might make many men a lot happier if they were able to make it.
These five factors will play out differently in different workplaces and for different people. My hope is that the Paula Principle enables us all to reflect on and discuss how far they apply to the contexts we know – and then to decide on what might be done about it.