One of the curious features of the current economic mess is the way employment appears to have held up. We have worryingly high levels of youth unemployment, but given the flatlining of the economy over several years, it is at first sight surprising that overall unemployment is not higher than it is. But underlying this are crucial issues of productivity and efficiency in our use of skills, and there is a particular gender angle to this.

One of the most remarkable social trends over the past decades has been the way women have shot past men in their educational achievements. At every level, and in almost every subject, girls and women have overtaken boys and men. This is true for at graduate and now postgraduate level.

But women’s superiority in qualifications is not reflected in the workplace. This contrast, between competence on the one hand and reward on the other, reflects what I have called the Paula Principle: that women tend to work below their level of competence. It is the mirror image of the so-called Peter Principle, coined by Laurence Peter in the 1960s,
which said that employees rise to their level of incompetence. (At the time, only men were
thought to have careers.)

The PP applies at all levels. We hear a lot about the glass ceiling, and the gender distribution of top jobs. But beneath this are hundreds of thousands of women who are not progressing as they might. Clerks who do not make it to supervisor deserve our attention as much as managers who do not get to board level. It is a matter of economic efficiency as well as fairness.

True, the gender pay gap is shrinking, and at graduate level young women entering the
labour market have reasonably equal chances. But in the first place the pay gap is
shrinking only slowly – all the more so when one considers how rapidly women are moving
ahead of men on the competence front. When you look at part-timers the gap remains
huge – some 40%.

Secondly, whilst it may be the case that at entry into employment there is broad equality
between well qualified women and men, this does not last over their careers. Women add
to their initial competences at a higher rate, as they take part more in training than men do.
But this continued investment in their (already greater) competences does not pay off as
much as we would expect. Men’s careers continue to have a steeper upward trajectory
than women’s. The PP applies with particular force at the later stages of working lives – a
particular waste as we’re all supposed to be working longer. Productivity has dropped by
some 13% in recent years, and this is part of the reason.

What drives the Paula Principle? There are five main factors. These will play out
differently in different contexts – ie they will vary according to the type of sector women
work in, and according to their specific employment circumstances. So this is an invitation
to LFIG members to apply these five PP factors to their own work environment and
experience, and see which ones they think apply most strongly. (You can vote on the
website – see below.)

First, while overt discrimination has diminished, covert discrimination
remains, sometimes powerfully so. It starts with the way young women are still
channelled away from some occupations, and carries on in all kinds of subtle and less
subtle ways. It is visible in professions which you would think would be particularly careful
about discriminating, such as law and academia.

Secondly, childcare and increasingly eldercare. The last Labour government made huge
strides with its Surestart initiative, providing quality and affordable childcare. This is now
being starved and dismantled, with the result that childcare in the UK is hugely expensive.
It is a particular deterrent to women at lower occupational levels, for whom employment is
effectively taxed at enormously high levels.

Thirdly, women lack self-confidence in putting themselves forward for jobs or for
promotion. (I should of course stress that all these are generalisations.) My conversations
with recruitment agencies show how women will often not go for a job if there is 20% of it
that they think they might not b able to do, whereas men breezily assume they can

Fourthly, women lack the vertical networks which would bring them into contact with
people working at higher levels. These are the kinds of contacts – perfectly legitimate
ones, we’re not talking about nepotism here – which provide information, role models and
contacts about promotion opportunities .

The fifth factor is rather different. Women make positive choices not to go further up on a
career ladder. This may be because they like what they are doing, are good at it, and feel
themselves to be still growing in the job. Or it makes for a good work-life balance. This
differs from the other factors since it represents a positive way forward, rather than a
barrier to be removed.

Tom Schuller has held senior positions in several UK universities, and with the OECD. He is currently finishing a book on The Paula Principle

Women and Skills: The Paula Principle
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