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The Paula Principle

Tom Schuller is writing a book called The Paula Principle, which argues that “Most women work below their level of competence.” Schuller, an adult education specialist with impressive credentials, has been struck by the following facts:

Women have more formal education than men in most OECD countries

Women are quite a bit more likely to continue adding to their education through various continued learning and professional training programs

Women do not rise as high in organizations as men do, even in industries where women dominate.

Suitably, he is calling this phenomenon “The Paula Principle,” in order to draw a comparison to the opposite phenomenon said to occur among men: they get promoted beyond the post for which they are competent. The “Peter Principle,” which was argued by Laurence J. Peter in a book by that name published in 1969, has since become conventional wisdom.

Schuller argues that the Paula Principle occurs not only at the top, but at every level in the work hierarchy. In reading his commentary, I was reminded of a meeting we had here at the Said School a few years ago. All the staff were brought in to brainstorm about how to help women “thrive” in this environment. These female staff members all thought they needed more training to advance. At the time, I thought to myself, “They have no less–indeed, probably have more–training than the men whose jobs they would like to have, but believe the key is in more training rather than something else.” Women, I think, tend to buy into the notion that education opens doors, so if you get enough of it, an “open sesame” moment occurs for you. I don’t think that moment happens. I think you have to open the door yourself. Or develop a really great knock, as a recent film suggested.

What other people think is reflected in a poll on Dr. Schuller’s site:

25.7% of those who have voted think the Paula Principle occurs because of structural inadequacies including lack of childcare

20.79% think it happens because women are not self-confident enough

19.8% chalk the whole business up to sex discrimination (in a forced choice situation, this was my vote)

14.85% think women make a positive choice to live more balanced lives (if I knew any women leading balanced lives, I would find this reasoning more persuasive)

13.86% think it’s because women don’t know the right people

the rest, of course, don’t know or have different reasons.

Dr. Schuller’s point is not only that this situation is unjust, but that it is wasteful of talent and investment in education. He is right, of course. On both counts. It is also a tragic disappointment of hopes and dreams. And, yes, I do believe that women have hopes and dreams, the same as men do, but also want to have children and families (the same as men do). The problem is that we have structured our society in a way that this cannot happen (for the women, but increasingly for the men as well).

I was talking to Jim about this recently over dinner. I said to him something like, “You know, this is just my emotional take on it, but I feel that, back in the 70s when we were agitating for equal rights to work, the general response was, ‘OK you go right ahead, but we are not going to help you, not going to give an inch.’ They were basically trying to punish us for even trying. We went ahead and tried–what else could we do? But now the whole world is reaping the poisonous harvest of that punitive attitude.”

And–to my surprise, actually–Jim nodded and said, “Yep. That’s what happened.”


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