In the 1960s, Professor Laurence Peter articulated the famous Peter Principle: that an employee in a hierarchy tends to be promoted to ‘his level of incompetence’.
As he looked at the evidence of women outperforming men throughout education and into the workplace, in the face of the ongoing gender pay gap and promotion statistics, Professor Tom Schuller was compelled to formulate a corollary: ‘Most women tend to work below the level of their competence.’
The Paula Principle investigates the reasons for this oddly persistent inequality, and puts forward an agenda for change. But is this a book that should have been written by a man? Several publishers thought not. And do books like this make a difference anyway?
Tom Schuller and I discuss education, equality, writing, breaking out of the ghetto and, er, Bridget Jones.
The Paula Principle website: http://www.paulaprinciple.com/
Tom on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tomschuller48
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Sign up for the newsletter, including a review of what I’m reading now and a weekly writing prompt: https://www.getdrip.com/forms/887338035/submissions/new
Apply to join the This Book Means Business mentorship programme (begins September): https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. It’s a delight to be here today with Tom Schuller, who has worked as a researcher, a teacher and a senior manager in Universities in England and Scotland, and as a senior bureaucrat at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, one of the world’s most influential international think tanks. And until recently Tom was director of Longview, a think tank promoting longitudinal and life course research. Before that, we sort of can work backwards now, from 2008 to 2010, he directed the independent inquiry into the future for lifelong learning. Before that, he was head of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at OECD in Paris. And before that he was dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education and professor of Lifelong Learning at Burbank University of London, and Co-Director of the research centre on the wider benefits of learning.
And he’s also – and the reason he’s here today, apart from all that fabulous background in lifelong learning – he’s also the author of The Paula Principle: Why women lose out at work and what needs to be done about it. So welcome to the show, Tom.
Tom Schuller: Very good to be here.
Alison Jones: Lovely to have you here, and let’s start with the Paula Principle. What is it, where did it come from, and why did you decide to write a book about it?
Tom Schuller: The Paula Principle is simply the mirror image of the Peter Principle, which some of your listeners may remember. In the 1960s a guy called Professor Peter published a book called The Peter Principle, which was every employee rises to his level of incompetence.
Alison Jones: And it is telling that it was ‘his’, wasn’t it?
Tom Schuller: It was ‘his’. Well, of course in those days ‘his’ was generic for ‘everyone’s’, but it did mean… only men in those days really had careers, and all the examples in his book were men, with one exception. And the book did extremely well mainly, I think, because people could look around almost everyone in an organisation and point to someone who was an example of the Peter Principle, i.e. had been promoted to their level of incompetence. And I was doing some work on just looking at participation in education training, and particularly in vocational training. And I found to my surprise, I knew that girls or women outperformed boys and men in school and higher education, but I had always thought that men actually took part more in vocational training. And the opposite proved to be true. So women go on adding even in the vocational area to their skills.
And I don’t know why it popped into my head, I suddenly thought, “Well, there’s a sort of real contrast here between competence accumulation that women are showing and the growth of that gap, and the fact that the pay and more importantly the careers gap is not closing. And so the Paula Principle is just the mirror image of the Peter principle, which is that most women work below their level of competence.
Alison Jones: Brilliant, And thank you for putting it so succinctly. But let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way, because this is … It’s almost the first thing you think about when you look at the book you look at the author, “Oh, was this a book for a man to write?” And you mentioned a few things about getting a publisher, and about your own difficulty finding your voice. So, let’s explore that a little bit.
Tom Schuller: Well, it is interesting. I mean, I can’t explain why no woman’s written a book before or looked at this before, and I suppose I’m just really a social scientists looking at an issue and I’m thinking, “This is interesting, significant and it’s important in terms of social equity and in terms of the economics of our society.” Yes, the two aspects you pointed to, I’ve written books before and to be honest, never had a problem in finding a publisher, even though most of those books were never going to sell very much, very many copies. Here I thought it’s something that could really have some broad interest, and for the first time I struggled to find a publisher. And indeed at least three of the refusals were on the grounds, “We can’t publish a book on this topic by a man,” which I thought was interesting. And I suppose the first time I’ve experienced what you might call discrimination.
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s interesting…
Tom Schuller: It has been a learning experience. So I don’t know why the marketing people … I mean, of course any publisher is entitled to make its own decision, but it was the marketing people, and I do find that odd actually, but there we are, that’s where we got to.
Alison Jones: Well, do you find it odd that they made the decision, or do you find it odd that the marketeers are the ones making the decision?
Tom Schuller: Both actually. Well, marketing I can understand because publishers are in a struggle, but it’s … I would have thought entirely independent of the quality of the book, that it will be a marketing ploy to say, “Hey, here’s a book by a man on issue.” Just even in purely instrumental terms, but who am I to guess what their reasoning was?
Alison Jones: It is so interesting. And actually, what you are is just a person writing a book about a thing that affects people.
Tom Schuller: Exactly, but that takes onto your second question, which was finding a voice, and that was a tricky one because obviously I can’t speak on behalf of women, and I couldn’t … I can’t talk about my own experience in this respect. I have a couple of daughters, and a wife, and lots of female friends with whom I’ve talked about the issue. But, the one thing I couldn’t do was get inside the skin of a woman and talk about my own experience. So, it was a challenge for me in the book to talk about the issues without claiming that personal experience. And actually one of the things I had to go back and rewrite the whole book, because I first wrote it as rather a sort of dry Pelican special, here’s an issue and here are the facts about it. And it just didn’t work, it was dull.
So I then carried out the interviews with about 35, 40 women and a few men, and of course that brought it to life. And their voices, I hope, come through in the book, but it’s not mine. I’m just a reflector of them and I’m drawing some conclusions from it.
Alison Jones: Yes. Their voices do you come across very strongly. It’s one of the things that makes the book so engaging I think. But there was a really interesting lesson there as well, I think, for anybody listening who’s writing a book and even has some experience of it. You know, one of your duties as an author I think is to, yes, tell your story and all the rest of it, but also you have to represent the issue fairly elsewhere. So you were almost forced into making a virtue of this, weren’t you? Being more journalistic, and being more balanced, and getting representatives from a wide range, which is one of the great things about the book. You’ve got a very wide range of attitudes and a wide range of experiences, and together they give you a very broad picture.
Tom Schuller: Well, I’m genuinely delighted you say that because one of the things about the Paula Principle is it doesn’t just apply to women at the top, or how does a female barrister become a judge, or a deputy CEO becomes CEO? And several women said to me, “You know, the glass ceiling is just such an alienating metaphor because it’s nothing to do with us. We’re never going to reach that kind of ceiling.” But they were still perfectly serious about their careers, and wanting to progress at work. And I do feel that the principle applies for women at all levels, and I think the waste of talent and the social injustice of not enabling progression to take place at whatever level of the organisation it might be, is a serious one.
Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. And also just going back to that point about, is it okay for a man to write a book like this? I think actually one of the real benefits is that it crosses that ghetto that we can so often get into, where men read books by men and women read books by women, and women write about issues that are particularly relevant to women. And men just write about stuff because they don’t see the problem. It’s actually really important, I think, that we have men engaging with these issues and men reading about these issues as well.
Tom Schuller: Yes. Well, I hope so. I mean, I genuinely hope so, and I have to say I’ve had, of course, it may have been behind my back, but I’ve had very little of people standing up and saying, “Who are you to write about this? And get back in your corner,” as it were, which may just be because, you know, it’s only people like that who … People who are willing to engage turn up to the meetings and have discussed it with me. But I genuinely feel very few have felt you shouldn’t be talking about this at all. And I do feel actually strongly, and I talk to men, I’m not sure… I wish I could talk to more groups of men, but I genuinely get invited to talk to groups of women because as I say at the end of the book, I think the key issue is about changing male patterns of work and it’s not, funnily enough, until that happens that we’ll really crack the Paula Principle.
Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. And let’s go on to that because what you’re doing, I mean, the very subtitle kind of has it there, you know, what it needs to be done about it? You want to change the world, you want to make things better because you see an inequality here. But, really, what difference do books like yours make in the world? Do you think they are primarily useful for the people who are reading them to understand their situation better and to kind of take their own actions to shape their world? Or do you think they can really change society and shape policy?
Tom Schuller: Oh gosh. Well.
Alison Jones: I know, big question.
Tom Schuller: Well, I’d love to think it would. Actually, it’s a big question but it’s a good one because increasingly I see the book as a sort of toolkit for people and organisations to think, “Well, how does this apply in our particular context?” Because, there are very few universal solutions here. The Paula Principle is going to play out differently in Saudi Arabia from how it is in Sweden. It’s going to play out differently in the finance sector from how it plays out in health or education, and even within those sectors it’s going to play it differently from one organisation to another. But what I hope it can do is enable people in those organisations or in their families to say, “How does this really play out for us? Which are the factors that I identify are the most important for us, and what could we do about them?”
And I think from the sort of reactions that I’ve had, I think that’s when it’s been most useful, is when organisations can say, “Yes, we recognise this and this. That’s not so important for us, but this and this really matters to us, and here’s what we might be able to do about it.”
Alison Jones: Yes.
Tom Schuller: So, it’s a sort of, yes as I said, toolkit. You know, a way of enabling those conversations to happen, and for individuals and organisations to find their solutions themselves.
Alison Jones: Yes, and there is a broad societal point there, isn’t there? The society is really the … Some of the stories that we tell each other and the issues to which we give our attention, so even just by raising the question and getting people thinking about it, you are doing something.
Tom Schuller: I hope so. I mean, difficult to say but I hope so.
Alison Jones: It’s more difficult to ignore than it was hopefully.
Tom Schuller: Well I think so. I mean, and I hope that the … Well, not I hope. The issues will go on, it’s not going to go away, and in fact it is growing. You know, in the UK we’ve just had the gender pay gap reporting which has produced a huge stream of discussions about why these gaps exist. And that’s going to go on happening, so my hope is that the Paula Principle will sort of burrow its way into the discourse and just help enable people to have a more coherent discussion than they might otherwise have had. And a more productive discussion maybe.
Alison Jones: Yes. You’re… in a sense, you’re giving them a shorthand for the issue as well, which is always helpful. The nomenclature that all this … Yes, the way that you name things I think it’s a useful contribution to the debate.
Tom Schuller: Exactly.
Alison Jones: It means people can move on to the next stage more quickly, which is important. And you talked about the voice of the women, and also there are some men as well that you interviewed. You use their own words a lot, which I think is really powerful and I was really struck by the fact that you use fictional characters to make your point as well, because I’ve never really seen that before. And you did make the point that it was really hard to find women engaging with work in fiction.
Tom Schuller: Yes, I’m glad you enjoyed it because I enjoyed doing it. I mean most of my writing has just been either policy stuff or academic stuff, and you can’t really mix these genres, and I just found it really interesting to do that. But when I did start systematically looking rather than just saying, “Oh, I’ve just read that. Yes, George Eliot, that might fit in.” When I started looking systematically, it was extraordinary how few books actually deal in any central way with women at work. And I suppose when you look back on it, it’s not that surprising, but … because, the books about women tend to be about relationships and families and so on and so on. But I did a little bit of research on it and very few…
I mean, I hope now that that is happening and I’m sure maybe some of the listeners to this will write in and say, “What about this, or this, or this book?” But I did test it out with my female friends who were in book groups and so on, and say, “You know, come up with some 20th-century, late-20th-century books that focus on women at work.” And they mostly went back to 19th century and the classics. So, there we are.
Alison Jones: Yes, the only one that springs to mind is Bridget Jones, and that’s not much of a model really, is it?
Tom Schuller: Yes, no. That is true. That is true. It’s a wonderful story and actually there’s lots of …
Alison Jones: There is quite a lot of quite sharp commentary actually about women and work in there, but it’s-
Tom Schuller: Absolutely..
Alison Jones: Yes, fascinating.
Tom Schuller: But it was easy going back to the … I think the group was probably … No, I did have one book by Claire Massoud, which is much more recent, but the group was a fairly extraordinarily innovative book for its time. After all, 50 years ago now, it must have come across as something very, very daring and innovative in its time.
Alison Jones: And you cite also that film principle, and I can’t remember the name of it now, about whether a film has two female characters who talk about anything other than a bloke at any point? And half the films failed, didn’t they?
Tom Schuller: It is extraordinary. And I assume someone is keeping tabs on this, and in particular … Yes, just how many have more than one woman who is not primarily just concerned with relationships? We will see, I’m sure we will see this happening, but it’s the pace of the movement that’s strange, I think.
Alison Jones: But the Paula Principle and those metrics, and all this stuff, this conversation that we have is important because it draws attention. It means this stuff can’t just happen without anybody being aware of it. And once you’re aware of it then you can do something about it. So yes, interesting. Let’s move on to writing because I really want to know what writing looks like for you as well. How do you start? When you get that itch, when you get that curiosity of, “Huh, this is interesting,” where do you go from there? What are the stages and what tools and systems do you use to pull it altogether?
Tom Schuller: Yes. Well, I’m a terrible example really. I mean, the students that I’ve taught on writing an essay and you know what you should do, which is write down the outline, work it out, and then get going and implementing that. And I, for me, it’s much more like a sort of sculpture, that sounds a bit pretentious, but I sit down and I start. And I stick bits on and I smooth it off, and I stick another bit on and smooth that of, and I see where the argument takes me. So, it’s … I like doing it that way but it’s not the most efficient way of doing things, and it takes you up odd avenues and odd ways. Having said that, actually of course I do sit down and try and assemble what I think are most relevant background facts and statistics, but I will tend to bit magpie like, pick bits up and think, “Now, that’s really … How can I work that into what I’m saying here?
So, as I say, it’s not a great example for organised researchers, but it’s the way I do things-
Alison Jones: You just have to hope that none of the students are listening right now.
Tom Schuller: I do.
Alison Jones: And when you actually, when you sit and write, are you a kind of binge writer, or one of those disciplined Trollope-type people who sit down at the same time everyday, and get up at the same time having done your 500 words?
Tom Schuller: I’m definitely not Trollopian. I do know that I need quite long chunks, I’m better at doing it in chunks, so it’ll take me an hour or two to sort of really get going. And so I need stretches of time, and then it’s the third or fourth hour that’s worth all the hours that have gone before it. And I don’t know what I did before computers, because I do go over and over. It may not read like it, but I do go over and over the text fiddling about with it, even though it’s not a novel. I mean I’m not producing a work of art, but I do fiddle around a lot with it, and kind of just jiggle things.
Alison Jones: And how much of your academic background goes into training? How do you do this? The research review, and the reading review and all the stuff that goes before it. Do you think about your … No, none of that?
Tom Schuller: No. I’ll do it as I go along. I’m afraid and I … I’m now … I mean, I’m an elderly bloke, so I’m past my career, is done really. And so I can, I suppose, give myself the luxury of doing it the way I want to do it and enjoy the way I want to do it. But of course, set against that seriously is the issue of getting the best outcome. And I now very genuinely believe that we suffer from separation of academic from policy, from literature. And I enjoy mostly most of all, the mixed mode types of books that show that the author has been delving in different, digging in different fields, if you like. Or fishing in different pools-
Alison Jones: And cross-fertilizing probably.
Tom Schuller: Cross-fertilizing. Exactly, exactly.
Alison Jones: That’s an inappropriate metaphor, isn’t it? Sorry.
Tom Schuller: Yes, sure.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. And also I imagine that, maybe you don’t consciously draw on that academic background, but it must inform the fact … Do you know what? Funny enough, many people that I work with are first time writers and they don’t actually know they can write a book. So, at least for you you’ve got that background of writing. The thing of writing is not the challenge, it’s pulling it together in the best possible way, and then as you say, fiddling with it.
Tom Schuller: It is, though, I mean some of it is a confidence thing, which is one of the Paula factors. It’s saying, “Well, I know I can write,” so I don’t suffer from that. But the bar is always being moved higher. You do want to do as well as you can, and for me increasingly, that’s, how enjoyable is this going to be as a read? And part of that is, if people don’t enjoy reading it, on the whole they’re going to get less out of the book. I mean, there are some very admirable conscientious people who will persevere, even though they’re hating the book, they’re saying, “I’m getting a lot out of this.” But I think most people need to enjoy what they’re reading, and authors should be enabling them to enjoy what they’re reading whatever the topic is. Whatever it is, you can write well about it or badly about it, and we should be trying to write well about it.
Alison Jones: That’s great. And actually I normally ask people, “What’s your best tip for a first time author?” So that’s not a bad one, is it? Is there anything else that you’d say to people who are perhaps struggling with their first book?
Tom Schuller: I’d say carry on, you can go back over it and change it. Just keep going and get something down. Well then I go back over it, and as I’ve just said, I think try and enjoy it. See how you can make … What is it about writing that you enjoy and work on that.
Alison Jones: Yes, because if you’re not enjoying it, the chances are your readers probably won’t either.
Tom Schuller: Very much so.
Alison Jones: And that actually takes us right back to the beginning in lifelong learning, doesn’t it? It’s actually we learn best when we’re enjoying ourselves.
Tom Schuller: Indeed. And the sad thing is that so many people, their engagement with education has not been one that they’ve enjoyed and that turns them off for life very often. And one of the joys of being an adult educator is you see people discovering all the pleasures of learning, and it’s a wonderful … That’s some really, really sustaining thing to experience.
Alison Jones: Yes, wonderful. I did a little bit of adult literacy work and it was such a privilege. I really loved it. Well, I was asking-
Tom Schuller: Yes. I mean, I may say, just back onto the Paula Principle, it is a very curious thing that women go on learning more throughout their lives. And one of the things I do hope that we can change is think more creatively about how we attract more men back into learning as an enjoyable thing to do. An enjoyable and social thing to do, but that’s a bit-
Alison Jones: Well, that’s a whole new podcast interview right there, isn’t there?
Tom Schuller: Yes. Yes.
Alison Jones: But yes, fascinating point. So, I always ask people as well to recommend someone that they think would be a good guest for the show. Someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books, or books in general. Who do you think I should talk to?
Tom Schuller: Well, there is a Helena Morrissey is someone who I admire greatly and has just written a book about Good Time to be a Girl. She’s a mother of nine children and was the head of Newton Investment Banking and now runs Legal & General’s finance, which I think is probably 18 billion pounds worth. And, it’s not just … The interesting thing about Helena, I think, is that although in one sense she’s completely off the spectrum with nine children and a senior job, but she talks about not leaning in, but changing the system. And talks about it in a very, I think, a very sensible way and one that is a model of how to take a sort of measured approach to change, and what you personally can know about it.
So I think that book’s just come out and I think it’d be really interesting one for many people to read, not just women and not just-
Alison Jones: Brilliant. It sounds amazing. She does indeed sound like an outlier, but what a fantastic CV? Brilliant. Thank you so much. All right, Tom, if people want to find out more about you and more about the Paula Principle, where should they go?
Tom Schuller: They can, if they Google the Paula Principle or www.paulaprinciple.com and I think they’ve got my email is on the website there. I’d be delighted to hear, particularly where people disagree or think I’ve got the emphasis wrong, or why didn’t I talk about this? I mean, I’m obviously delighted to receive complimentary remarks, but I’m also really interested in just how this resonates, or doesn’t, with people out there and the reasons for it.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you so much. That was a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for your time today, Tom.