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The Paula Principle – Part 1

by | May 19, 2017 | BroadAgenda

I’m quite often asked why I, as a man, chose to write a book about women.  My book, The Paula Principle: how and why women work below their level of competence argues that the female/male competence gap is growing at a faster rate than the male/female careers and pay gap is closing.  In other words, women are outperforming men in education and training and the difference in their learning achievements is continuing to rise, whilst progress towards equality in rewards at work is shrinking only slowly if at all.

You might expect that the idea for the book came because one of my daughters had been spectacularly stymied at work (they haven’t), or because I had witnessed egregious examples of biased promotion decisions (I probably have, but not enough to prompt me to write about it).   In fact, it was simpler and more prosaic.  I had long been aware that girls outdo boys at school, and that many more women take part in general adult education.  But I had not appreciated that women – in the UK at least – also take part more in vocational training.  Not only do we have almost three women for two men entering higher education (in Australia as in the UK) but women are more likely to continue to learn after they leave college and start work.   

So the gender competence gap continues to grow (taking skills and qualifications as a proxy for competence).  Yet this persistent acquisition of greater competence by women is simply not reflected in the way women and men are rewarded at work, at least when it comes to pay and, most importantly, career progression.  The contrast in the pace of the two trends seemed to me highly significant, both for the debate around equity and for reasons of organisational or economic efficiency.

Pondering this contrast, I suddenly thought of the Peter Principle: ‘every employee rises to his (sic) level of incompetence’, and how what I was observing was the exact mirror image. The Peter Principle was published in the late 1960s.  It’s a series of anecdotes and aphorisms, illustrated by cartoons from Punch magazine. ‘Look around you where you work,’ Peter says, ‘and pick out the people who have reached their level of incompetence.  You will see that in every hierarchy the cream rises until it sours.’  It struck a chord with so many people (and sold 4 million copies) precisely because they could look around them and see the process at work.  Most of us have, at some point, come across someone who illustrates the point. 

The Peter Principle dealt almost exclusively with men.  It struck me that we could usefully swing the focus around, to look at how women do not rise to the level that we might expect from their skills and qualifications. And so the Paula Principle emerged. 

The Paula Principle deals, crucially, with all levels of work, not just senior positions.  Several women told me that the ‘glass ceiling’ metaphor was irrelevant to them, as it relates only to issues way above them.  Of course, gender equality at senior levels is vital, for reasons of power if nothing else; but in talking to women about the Paula Principle, it became clear that it struck a chord precisely because it applies at all levels.  Most women are serious about their ‘careers’, even when these are not the traditional high status ones.

 At first I thought I could just put forward the idea and the statistics behind it.  After all, the facts are clear enough.  But I soon realised that it needed flesh and blood examples, and so I interviewed about 35 women and handful of men.  They provide not just the colour, but important insights in the ways they express themselves. 

The five factors which I put forward as explaining the PP come directly from these interviews, as well as discussions with a range of other people – again mostly but not exclusively women.  The factors are: discrimination; caring responsibilities; self-confidence; lack of vertical networks; and, controversially, positive choice.  These factors explain how the PP operates in different contexts.  They have different weights according to the variations in these contexts.  For example, the PP will play out very differently in the finance sector from the health sector.   All I am providing is a tool for exploring the issues.

This takes me to the issue of ‘voice’ – and back to the original question of how as a man I can write a book about women.  I have been careful not to speak on behalf of women.  I reach certain conclusions about what should be done – the ‘Paula Agenda’.  But these are general policy arguments, not, I hope, mansplaining.  There are times when it was difficult to know what language to use, since I couldn’t say ‘we’, obviously, and ‘they’ sounded also too distant.  Only the readers can judge whether I managed to resolve this challenge adequately.

The two principles, Peter and Paula, are to a large extent interdependent:  the more women achieve their level of competence, the fewer men there will be who rise above it.  But I believe that this is not a zero-sum game.  Addressing the issues raised by the Paula Principle might just help us all reach a fairer, and a more efficient, social economy.

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