Saturday 17 August 2019

The Paula Principle: why women are still banging their heads on the glass ceiling

A new book explores the complex reasons why women typically work below their competence, while men are often promoted beyond theirs. ­Our reporter asks why

Glass ceilings
Glass ceilings
Sandra Ondraschek-Norris
Paula Fitzsimons
Rosemary Delaney, Managing editor of Women Mean Business
Margaret E Ward
Natasha Fennell

Tanya Sweeney

Does the glass ceiling truly exist? Or how about everyday workplace sexism? It certainly appears so: in a social experiment that went viral last month, Philadelphia editor Martin R Schneider swapped email accounts with his female colleague Nicole Hallberg, and realised that despite both of them sending the exact same emails, people reacted much more favourably to those signed off with a male name.

More recently, there was widespread uproar when politicians Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May convened to discus Brexit, and became the unwitting contestants in a 'lovely legs' competition. For anyone denying that the two sexes have reached parity in the workplace, the evidence against them is overwhelming.

Professor Tom Schuller, author of new book The Paula Principle, throws another facet of the debate into sharp focus.

Asked to explain why women were not fulfilling their potential in the workplace, he coined the phrase The Paula Principle (a play on 'The Peter Principle', which argued that most male workers will be promoted to a level beyond their competence).

He argues that women work below their level of competence. Many elements hold women back, among them childcare, elder care, lack of mentorship and everyday workplace sexism. Yet, Schuller notes, women are also averse to putting themselves forward and choose to stay where they are rather than move up to the next level.

"Women are achieving more and more educationally, but in the workplace, they're not getting the pay and career returns that you would think they might get," he is quoted as saying.

"And so the question looms large: is the Paula Principle in effect in Irish workplaces? We asked some of Ireland's most dynamic businesswomen to find out.

Sandra Ondraschek-Norris

Sandra Ondraschek-Norris

Senior director at Catalyst, a global expert for accelerating progress for women through workplace inclusion

"Catalyst research has showed that women are just as ambitious as men to reach the top, but systemic barriers in the workplace stop them achieving their potential. For instance, we know women are hired for experience, while men are tapped for their potential. Despite women aspiring equally to men, they're often not asked career-changing questions.

"For example, a manager may assume that a mother with young children does not wish to relocate internationally. Like many others, I fell into the trap of assuming I would be judged on the quality of my work. We all want to believe that the workplace is a meritocracy, but it's not.

"It's important that women do not suffer from the 'good student' syndrome. It's not enough to put your head down and work hard. It has much more to do with increasing visibility. We need to stop asking 'what can women do to get ahead in a male-dominated work environment?' and start asking 'what can companies do to enable women to reach their potential?'

"Men and women experience the workplace differently. Men are often unaware of women's experiences and it's crucial to engage men in the conversation. We know, from our research, that men respond to a sense of fairness and when they accept that women's experiences are different to their own, they are far more likely to champion gender equality initiatives."

Paula Fitzsimons

Paula Fitzsimons

National director of Going for Growth, a support initiative for female entrepreneurs backed by KPMG Ireland and Enterprise Ireland

"Irish female entrepreneurs are often characterised as lacking in ambition and confidence. I am seeing a significant sea change in this in the years since I designed Going for Growth in 2008. Going for Growth was specifically developed to address the considerable ambition and confidence gap between male and female entrepreneurs which the GEM (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor) research clearly indicated existed at that time.

"To me, one of the significant factors in bringing about this change is the much greater availability of successful role models. I was extremely heartened in recent months when over 750 female entrepreneurs, the highest number ever, registered their interest in applying for the 9th cycle of Going for Growth.

"These were stepping forward, knowing that the focus was on supporting ambitious female entrepreneurs to realise their growth aspirations. They were clearly signalling, 'I am ambitious and I want to grow'."

Rosemary Delaney

Copy of ir PL11054051O.jpg
Rosemary Delaney, Managing editor of Women Mean Business

Managing editor of Women Mean Business, a website that highlights Irish/international businesswomen and entrepreneurs

"I often wondered what caused such a pay gap between men and women. I was shut down once for sharing the 'unpopular' view that 'women just don't ask'. Regardless of gender, people have different personalities, some are more confident than others. It is usually the 'people' with more confidence that have the 'if you don't ask, you don't get' attitude. It is also those people who get more noticed and forge ahead in business.

"I believe women can be their own worst critics and can sometimes lack self-belief. We strive to deliver 110pc of the time and across everything we do. We want to be the 'best version' of ourselves. In so doing, we can sometimes self-sabotage - we come down hard on ourselves as, let's face it, it is hard to juggle all of the time. In reality, however, we are probably performing at par or ahead of our colleagues.

"My advice would be to make sure that the company you work with shares similar values to your own and can demonstrate a career path in keeping with your own ambitions.

"When promotion comes along, decide is it right for you. Let's face it, if you have family or carer commitments and the promotion involves some serious travel, you have to make some hard choices. But it's all about having the choice in the first place."

Margaret E Ward

Margaret E Ward

Managing director of Broadly Speaking, CEO/MD Clear Ink communications agency and founder of Women on Air

"I strongly disagree that women operate below their own competence. Women tend to believe that the workplace is a meritocracy and if they work harder and smarter than everyone else, they will be promoted. This belief is usually developed in secondary school and in university. Women's academic results - higher than men in most subject areas - proves their ability to work well above average competence levels.

"Many women report that although they did well at university and continue to work hard - and with great competence in the workplace - that they are failing to get ahead compared to their male colleagues. In our experience at Broadly Speaking, this is often because they lack public speaking skills and are hesitant to put themselves forward for internal and external presentations or for public-facing roles.

"It's also because they don't have access to the same 'old boys'' network that the men do. Networking and mentoring are not baked into their educational experience the way it is with men so they are at an immediate disadvantage in the workplace.

"I have had experience of avoiding a promotion or career advancement. I did not want to move from a writing and editing role in journalism to a management role. To overcome it, I resigned and started my own business called Clear Ink.

"For many women, starting their own business gives them the flexible hours and freedom that the traditional workplace still fails to give them. For me, starting my own business was a feminist act. I think this is the case for many women whether they realised it at the time or not."

Natasha Fennell

Natasha Fennell

Director of Stillwater Communications, a PR and media training agency in Dublin

"The issue of women at work is highly complex. There are a number of reasons why we are reluctant to put ourselves forward at work. Genetically, we are hard-wired differently. There is loads of research that shows that we don't value ourselves and our competency as much as men do.

"We too often think we're not 'good enough'. Many of us lack the confidence and so avoid potential opportunities. We tend to be more risk-averse, happy enough to stay where we are. Also women tend to value status and power less than men so are not inclined to put themselves forward as easily as they do.

"The fact is, although we have come a long way, women remain the primary carers for family whether it's children or ageing parents, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Women who go part-time in their jobs are definitely not taken as seriously as those who work full-time. They're often not taken as seriously by not just men but by other women also. They are often the ones making the smarter choice in that they can balance their work and personal lives but yet they are often seen as opting out of their careers.

"What can be done about all this? In an ideal world, home life and all the responsibilities that go with it needs to be shared by both partners so that both can have a fulfilling work-life balance. Women need to be more strategic at work and let their managers know what where they want to go in their careers.

"But above all, women need to be more political at work and not be afraid to build relationships with the most important decision makers in their company.

"If it takes the odd round of golf, then do it, because if you don't, there will always be a queue of men playing ahead of you and you're likely to get left behind."

Top five reasons ­women work below competence

According to the Paula Principle, there are five main reasons why women tend to work below their competence. They are (in no particular order):


This has dropped back in importance but is still in evidence, especially when women become pregnant.

Caring responsibilities

Despite all the changes in our society, it is still the case that the bulk of the responsibility for childcare and the care of elderly parents falls to women. When childcare costs feel crippling, it's rarely the man whose career gets interrupted.


This boils down to psychology really. In essence, men are still more likely to apply for a job even if they don't meet even half the requirements listed in the advertisement. Women tend to baulk unless they can tick every last box.

Social capital

You might call this the pub and golf club effect. With so many men at the top of the business food chain, young men seeking mentors have loads of options. It can be harder for women to do the same, except for certain professions like teaching and nursing (where pay is relatively low compared to, say, finance or law).

Positive choices

This can be a difficult point to argue, precisely because it's not something that societal change can really affect.

The theory is that some women are less likely than men to continue to chase promotion, because that's their choice, according to Schuller.

They are more likely than men to consider work-life balance, and less likely to chase status for its own sake.

They will stay in a job they enjoy, as a consequence, rather than pursue higher pay and higher status.

Women and work: The Numbers


Percentage of women aged 24-34 with a third-level qualification


Percentage of men aged 24-34 with a third-level qualification


Early school-leaver rate - women


Early school-leaver rate - men


Median pay gap between women and men

Source CSO 2010

Indo Review

Editors Choice

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