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September 7, 2017

Why Women Work Below Their Level of Competence

Rachel Salaman

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The Five Factors That Are Holding Women Back at WorkTom Schuller’s book "The Paula Principle" picks apart why some women don't rise through the ranks as quickly or easily as their male peers.

As we will see, there can be many reasons for this, including the obvious one, discrimination. On that topic, Schuller ran into some discrimination of his own when he was looking for a publisher. Some passed on the book because of the topic. Others passed because of the author.

"With one particular publisher, a large publisher, the editorial team was very keen," Schuller recalls in our Expert Interview podcast for Club and Corporate readers. "We'd had a couple of meetings and they were talking, 'Should we have an autumn or spring publishing date?' Then, it all went silent. I contacted them to ask what was happening and a slightly shame-faced email came back saying, 'Well, we took it to our marketing team and they turned it down flat on the basis they couldn't sell a book on this topic by a man.'"

(You can hear a clip from the full interview at the foot of this blog.)

Comparing With the Peter Principle

But, Schuller wasn't convinced.

"If you extend that principle – that only people who belong to a category can write about that category – you're cutting out quite a lot of authors in the past and in the future," he reasons.

Scribe Publications agreed to publish this landmark book, which is a complement to the 1960s bestseller "The Peter Principle" by Laurence Peter. In that earlier work, Peter describes how men only stop being promoted when they can no longer perform well in their jobs – or, in other words, when they "rise to their level of incompetence." This means that when they start to struggle at work they cease to be considered for promotion and get stuck in that role that is just beyond their abilities.

The Paula Principle explores how and why women get stuck in their careers in a very different way – that is, just below their level of competence.

The Five Factors Holding Women Back

Schuller identifies five factors that contribute to this unsatisfactory situation. These are:

1. Discrimination and values.

2. Caring responsibilities.

3. Self-confidence and identity.

4. Social capital.

5. Choice.

The last factor – choice – has generated "the most push back from women," Schuller says. He's keen to stress that this is about "positive choice." Not the kind of choice that's really no choice at all. For example, when the long hours or travel commitments entailed in a job make it impossible for a woman with caring responsibilities to consider it.

"I'm talking about where things would have been OK in all the surrounding contexts, but a woman says to herself, 'Do I need the money? Do I need the status? Do I need the hassle? No, no, no. Am I enjoying what I'm doing? Am I still growing in what I'm doing? Yes, yes. So why should I go up or change jobs?' And that seems to me actually, intrinsically, a really sensible thing to do, and probably more of us, particularly more men, would be a little bit happier if we managed to do it."

I suggest to Schuller that there might be another factor at play. Organizations benefit hugely from the skills and intelligence of women working below their level of competence, whether it's the assistant who juggles the calendars of senior managers, or the secretary who keeps the stationery cupboard stocked. Why would employers encourage these women to advance, when it might risk the smooth running of their operations?

Schuller agrees that we need to ask the question: "Is that woman happy working at that level or is she actually prevented from making the choice to move up?"

Avoiding the Paula Principle Trap

In his book, Schuller outlines a possible way out of the Paula Principle trap – what he calls the "Paula Agenda." This is a wish list with six items:

  • Reduce inequalities.
  • Prioritize universal and affordable childcare and meet the elderly care challenge.
  • Expand guidance services and mentoring networks.
  • Enable learning throughout life.
  • Design reward systems to more accurately reflect real value.
  • Take a new approach to working time.

That final point, and the vexed issue of valuing and accommodating part-time work, comes up a few times in our Expert Interview podcast. In this audio clip, we discuss whether some jobs are only suitable for full-time workers.

Listen to the full Expert Interview in the Mind Tools Club ¦ Install Flash Player

Does the Paula Principle affect you or your workplace? How would you tackle it? Join the discussion below!

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