Sunday 25 August 2019

Reshaping the norm by following a career 'mosaic'

Women appear less keen than men on the traditional career ladder, so maybe it's the notion of a 'ladder' that's wrong

Satisfaction: Tom Schuller says many women are reluctant to change job
Satisfaction: Tom Schuller says many women are reluctant to change job
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

Statisticians are clear on one thing: Irish females perform better in education than males.

Take this from the Central Statistics Office: over half (53pc) of women aged 25 to 34 in 2010 had a third-level qualification, compared with 39pc of men in this age group.

The early school-leaver rate for women aged 18 to 24 was 8.4pc and 12.6pc for men.

Overall the picture was clear - women remain in education longer and are more likely to emerge from education with a third-level qualification.

For contrast then, take a look at decision-making in this country: CSO data shows that women are desperately under-represented in decision-making structures at both national and regional levels. In 2011, only 15.1pc of TDs in Dáil Éireann were women, while they accounted for just over a third of members of State Boards, less than a fifth of members of local authorities and just over a third of the membership of Vocational Education Committees.

How is pay affected? More bad news for women. Figures released earlier this year showed the pay gap between men and women in Ireland is 6.5 percentage points wider than it was in 2012. So in 2015, Ireland had a 14.8pc difference in median pay between men and women.

The current Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, according to latest available figures for 2015, is 16pc even in situations where women are more qualified.

None of this will surprise anyone.

The Paula Principle, by social and educational researcher Tom Schuller, argues that businesses, societies and individuals are being harmed by the overwhelmingly tendency for women to work below their level of competence, while men do exactly the opposite.

This is not something, Schuller says, that affects only top-ranking women but those operating at all levels of their professions. And it happens despite the fact that, not only are girls keener on education than boys at school and college level, adult women (in the UK, where Schuller is based) are also more likely to avail of training in the workplace.

The result, Schuller says, is that women "dominate" the ranks of the low-paid - since they are more likely to be junior doctors than consultants, and more likely to be shop managers than corporate managers.

Some women don't realise the scale of the pay disparity for much of their careers. He cites Nuala, a financial journalist and former press secretary, who said she had never regarded herself as having suffered workplace discrimination, but had been shocked to find out she was paid far less than male counterparts.

"The thing about being underpaid: as a woman you can think everything's fine and then you find out you're being paid 20pc, 50pc less than someone else. I just felt horrified, appalled, hurt, wounded - and it's not to do with the money, it's to do with value: you feel: I'm undervalued."

A global bias against part-time workers is a further problem, and one that has implications for women right into old age, due to the relative paucity of their pension provisions. Across Europe, women's pensions are 34pc below men's.

In Ireland, women are twice as likely as men to undertake part-time work and are facing into a pensions calamity.

Money is not the only problem. As a part-time worker, Schuller observes, potential for promotion shrivels. In the Netherlands, the government has passed legislation to ensure stronger rights for women who work part-time. It's had a huge effect. Nearly two in three Dutch women aged 20 to 65 are in work, three-quarters part-time (for an average of 26 hours a week).

Schuller's most controversial theory, however, focuses on personal choice, the last of the five main reasons that he believes women work below their competence.

Women, he thinks, focus more on factors like job satisfaction. "I'm enjoying what I'm doing," is a statement often made by women at varying levels of professional achievement. It can make women reluctant to make a change. For Schuller, this is a positive thing, as long as the woman in question has not been unfairly excluded from work options.

Schuller's book raises a range of possible ways to think about this whole issue.

He considers whether we should reshape the norm - topple the notion that the only way to have a successful career is to follow a single upward trajectory to the top. Instead of a career ladder, he suggest, we might think of a career "mosaic", in which several pathways might be explored.

He recommends expanded guidance for women on careers and says reward systems should be redesigned to recognise real value. Employers, he observes, often look for teamwork, but rarely reward it. Ultimately, he says, we need to think about why work matters. And the key definer of career progression should be personal development, not rank.

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