Book Review: The Paula Principle by Tom Schuller

‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ Professor Henry Higgins famously asks in ‘My Fair Lady’. Well, Professor, it’s a fair question. I’ve often asked it myself. Why can’t a woman earn like a man, or progress in her job in the same way as her male colleagues? It is indeed baffling.

And another Professor, Tom Schuller, has put a lot of thought into this.

The Peter Principle was famously proposed by Laurence Peter in 1969: ‘An employee rises to the level of his incompetence’, ie is promoted until he fails to perform. (Note the telling use of ‘his’.)

The Paula Principle states its simple corollary: ‘Most women work below their level of competence’. 
 This book is all sorts of interesting.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that this is a book on women’s experience written by a man. Schuller himself felt a bit queasy about this: he says in the Preface: ‘As a man writing primarily about what is and isn’t happening to women at work, I’ve at times struggled to find an appropriate voice.’ But, he says, ‘I do care strongly about fairness; about treating complex issues with respect and curiosity; and about contributing to a better public debate.’ He brings in the voices of 40+ women from a wide range of backgrounds to illustrate his points, neatly avoiding the risk of ‘mansplaining’ the issue.

He also admits in an endnote that he struggled to find a publisher: the book was rejected ‘more than once’ on the grounds that a book on this topic by a man would not sell. Which is worrisome, because this is an issue for everyone — not least because there’s a massive economic cost involved — and we need men as well as women making the case for change.

Schuller identifies five factors underpinning the Paula Principle: discrimination and values, caring responsibilities, self-confidence and identity, social capital, and choice (that last one’s important if we’re to reduce the number of demotivated, underperforming Peters, too).

The book finishes with ‘The Paula Agenda’, setting out practical, specific calls to action for leaders, managers, employees and policy-makers alike.

Why does it matter? This is not simply about compliance and PR, although that’s certainly an issue, with the compulsory reporting on the gender paygap now a very public measure of a company’s profile. It’s been demonstrated over and over again that companies with gender-balanced executive teams outperform those dominated by men on pretty much every metric, including profitability and return on equity. As working lifespans increase and companies are under ever more pressure to innovate and perform, companies simply cannot afford to have half their workforce underutilised.

Schuller doesn’t mention My Fair Lady at any point, sadly, but he does draw on other fictional examples — which makes sense because the stories we read and watch shape our concepts of self and society. (Incidentally, he told me he was horrified at how few references he could find in literature, especially modern literature — to women speaking about themselves in the context of work. It’s the equivalent of the Bechdel test, which around half of films fail: are two female characters ever depicted talking about anything other than a man?) My favourite quote is from Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, another nice example of a smart man making the case for the woman’s perspective:

‘I told him I’d only have a baby when I had a choice. But he doesn’t understand. He thinks we’ve got choice because we can go into a pub that sells eight different kinds of lager.’

You can hear more from Tom Schuller in The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast, and the book is available from Blackwell’s.

Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations with something to say. Formerly Director of Innovation Strategy with Palgrave Macmillan, she hosts The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast, regularly speaks and blogs on publishing, business and writing, sits on the board of the IPG, and is the author of This Book Means Business (2018).