Books in brief: The Paula Principle by Tom Schuller

An examination of the evidence that women tend to work below their level of competence
February 14, 2017
The Paula Principle by Tom Schuller (Scribe, £14.99)

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“Every employee tends to rise to the level of his incompetence.” So runs the wisdom of ThePeter Principle, the 1969 sensation that suggested that workers are promoted through the ranks of organisations until they reach a level beyond their ability.

In The Paula Principle, Tom Schuller examines the evidence that women tend to work below their level of competence: in most developed countries, women outperform men at all levels of education—including university, in-work training and skills development—yet this does not translate into greater professional advancement. For Schuller, this indicates a problem “in the way we reward competence”—an obstacle to equality as well as a waste of human capital.

Literature on women at work has become a crowded marketplace over the past few years. Though Schuller’s analysis is careful and nuanced, much of it covers old ground—and not always as engagingly as the issue has been covered before.

Where he shines is in his solution, arguing that the gap can only be closed if all of us—but especially men—rethink our approach to professional life, abandoning the relentless pursuit of vertical career paths in favour of “mosaic careers.” These might include more sideways steps, part-time work and breaks.

The path to equality thus far has involved women converging on traditionally male employment patterns, Schuller argues: now is the time for men to move towards traditionally female ones—to improve equality and work-life balance, and to make better use of our resources.