The Paula Principle: How and Why Women Work Below their Level of Competence, by Tom Schuller

Vicky Duckworth on the injustice and discrimination that means many working women do not fulfil their potential

May 11, 2017
Source: Alamy
On the factory floor: ‘tedious, repetitive work, caught in the bind of brewing up for the male bosses’

How does gender impact on working life? In The Paula Principle, education scholar Tom Schuller focuses on women and what holds them back. It’s ironic that this book’s author is a man; it can’t help but jar that this subject is being viewed from a position of privilege – women’s first-hand stories have historically been silenced, especially those of the working class and the marginalised. That said, Schuller’s own working life has shown a strong commitment to expanding learning opportunities for everyone, at any age, and his passion for social justice is stamped on every page of a study whose clarity and well researched insights are captivating.

The title, of course, is a nod to The Peter Principle, Laurence J. Peter’s 1969 book detailing his theory that an employee – “he” was the pronoun Peter used – is promoted because of his competence until he rises to his level of incompetence. In The Paula Principle, Schuller makes the reverse argument for half the workforce, arguing that most women work below their level of competence.

The interviews and case studies he uses are striking and personally resonant. Hadn’t I experienced first-hand the negative impact of being female and working class in the workplace? Sixteen, left the local comp, head full of daft dreams. Couldn’t wait to swap socks for tights, start in the local factory. Tedious, repetitive work; caught in the bind of brewing up for the male bosses (surely below my level of competence…I’d been brewing up since I was nine), waiting for payday, spending it on weekends and laughs in town with the mates I’d been brought up with. When the promise of the weekend wasn’t enough, I went back to further education. Moving to college was about a collective identity away from the men who had managed the spaces in which I’d worked and the women who were subservient to them.

Times have changed: I hear this nearly as often as I heard those male managers calling for brews – after all, across the industrialised world, women and girls are outperforming men and boys educationally. While much of the debate presented by the media focuses on senior women’s attempts to break the glass ceiling and get that seat at the boardroom table, Schuller goes beyond a narrow focus on the highest levels of status and pay to look system-wide and he keenly explores how the Paula Principle binds women at every level in the work hierarchy.

He probes working life to expose why women are not fulfilling their potential. He leads us to consider the persistent injustice in the way education is (or is not) rewarded and the consequent waste of proven talent. The rewards in question are not only financial returns but also the satisfaction of knowing that one’s abilities are being properly engaged and a sense of progression, of moving forward. It is discrimination, he argues, that narrows women’s pathway, along with responsibilities for childcare and elder care; psychology – women are disinclined to put themselves forward; the lack of vertical networks – men tend to know people higher up the hierarchy ladder; and women choosing – for varying reasons – to stay where they are rather than aiming to progress. This notion of progression is where Schuller has paved the way for further exploration with regard to structural inequality, agency and the neoliberalisation of the workplace.

His point is not only that women being stuck in positions that do not recognise or reward their competence is unjust, but it is wasteful of talent and investment in education. He is right. This book is a poignant reminder of dashed hopes and dreams.

Vicky Duckworth is reader in education, Edge Hill University. She leads the UCU-funded research project, Transformational Further Education: Empowering People & Communities, with Rob Smith of Birmingham City University.

The Paula Principle: How and Why Women Work Below their Level of Competence
By Tom Schuller 
Scribe, 256pp, £14.99 
ISBN 9781911344018 
Published 8 March 2017

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