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Woman at work

The Paula Principle

Tom Schuller, Director of Longview – a think tank, believes that women continue to face several hurdles in the world of work

Tom Schuller, Director of Longview – a think tank, believes that women continue to face several hurdles in the world of work

Have you heard of the ‘Peter Principle’: Every employee rises to his level of incompetence? Peter’s insight – half-jokey, half-serious – was that employees go on being promoted for demonstrating competence until this is no longer the case; and then they sit there.

The Paula Principle (PP): Most women work below their level of competence – is the Peter Principle’s mirror-image. Around the industrialised world, women emerge from education systems better qualified than they have ever been and, increasingly, better qualified than men. In the UK, for example, there will in ten years time be about three female graduates for every two male graduates. On top of this, women are more disposed than men to carry on learning at work, so adding to this competence gap. 

Yet women do not see this reflected in their earnings or careers. The pay gap between women and men is closing, but only slowly. This is especially the case for women who work part time. There are large numbers of women part-time workers who are well qualified and ambitious, but the mere fact that they do not work ‘full time’ dooms them to a lower trajectory.  

The Paula Principle applies to careers at all levels, not just to the glass ceiling. Hundreds of clerks missing out on promotions to supervisor matter just as much as a senior executive not getting on the board.

In investigating this, I came to a rather surprising conclusion: the single most important way of undermining the PP and therefore achieving a better utilisation of women’s competences, is to encourage more men to pursue part-time careers. Cheaper childcare, anti-discrimination measures, more role models and so on, are all important. But we now need a general rethink of how working time and careers are structured – for men and women.

The Paula Principle raises issues of fairness, but also of economic efficiency and organisational performance. Which countries, and which organisations, will be quickest to act? 

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