The Eponymous Principles of Management – The Paula Principle

The Peter Principle argues that most (male) workers will inevitably be promoted to one level beyond their competence. In his 2017 book, The Paula Principle: how and why women work  below their level of competence[1], writer Tom Schuller shows how women today face the opposite scenario: their skills are being wasted as they work below their competence levels.

Schuller blends interviews and case studies with examples drawn from literature and popular culture to examine how attitudes have changed, from the advent of higher education for women in the 19th century to female dominance at all academic levels today. He also reveals how this has translated ― or failed to translate ― into the lived experiences and careers of professional women, whether they are nursery workers, council employees, journalists, or oil company executives.

Engrossing and full of everyday insights into how gender impacts on working life, The Paula Principle is a well-reasoned analysis of the obstacles that many women face, and a call for us to challenge them on a personal, organisational, and societal level.

The masculine bias in The Peter Principle is a must, for two reasons:

  1. In the world in which Prof. Peter Laurence enunciated the paradox of Peter Principle, the presence of women was not so visible as to be included in the analysis in the book – only one case of a woman in the 40 cases undertaken for study.
  2. Peter’s principle works in exactly the mirror way for women, so much so that it deserves a specific name, Paula’s principle: “Most women work below their level of competence. We can recognise the double bias in what has been said. On the one hand, the habit of not seeing incompetence, when carried by men, which makes the career proceed up to, precisely, the level of incompetence; on the other hand, the difficult recognition of female competence.

Tom Schuller puts forward five reasons for gap in the opportunities or the recognition that the genders get:

  1. Discrimination and values – the overt discrimination and unconscious bias
  2. Structural issues – the historical patriarchal structure that puts more than lion’s share of family care and household management responsibilities on women
  3. Self-confidence and identity- Rightly or not, women tend to or have been made to believe to, have different perceptions than do men with regard to their competence and how it is valued.
  4. Women and men have different kinds of vertical and horizontal social networks and use them for different purposes.
  5. Women and men make different choices about their careers, their work–life balance, and what gives them satisfaction. This factor differs from the other four, in that it describes choices women and men are free to make.

The women may opt for a better quality of life, including working life, by not subjecting themselves to the strains and stresses of working at full or even overextended capacity. They may prefer to look for jobs in sectors that provide the satisfaction of working with people. They may prefer a lateral to a vertical career. Yet how far it is a ‘choice’ in the sense of an entirely cool and objective decision is genuinely open for debate.

This principle reveals two things that should concern us all: a persistent unfairness or injustice in the way education is rewarded; and a waste of proven talent. By “rewards” I don’t mean only financial returns, but also satisfaction from knowing that one’s abilities are being properly employed, and a sense of progression, of moving forward.

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.  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, and in turn better life for women, and men as well.

The book finishes with ‘The Paula Agenda’, setting out practical, specific calls to action for leaders, managers, employees and policymakers alike. In an article in The Guardian, Tom Schuler writes,” women will only get to use their competences fully when both are able to pursue “mosaic” careers which do not conform to the conventional model of full-time continuous employment. …The competence gap between the sexes is increasing faster than the gap between men and women’s pay is closing… We all need to see equality in a more dynamic way that does not focus only on individual times in women’s working lives, but across their whole life course. Concentrating on symmetry between women and men at any single stage in life is not the best way to frame the issue…. t is a system-wide – or, rather, system-deep – principle, not the top layers only, that we need to focus on if we want to see real change.”

Additional references:

Putting the F into Future: Tom Schuller at TEDxHurstpierpointCollege

The Paula Principle How and why women work below their level of competence

[1] The Paula Principle: how and why women work below their level of competence