The reason your boss is more likely to be an incompetent man than a smart woman

Playing to type.
Playing to type.
Image: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
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The idea that employees are promoted “to the level of their incompetence” has become a truism in management circles. The satirical 1969 treatise on business and life, The Peter Principle, pointed out that if success in one role leads inevitably to advancement, incompetent employees will occupy every high post, having reached the job they don’t possess the skills to succeed at.

But for women in the workplace, unwarranted advancement is not really the problem.

Most women work in jobs that are below their competency level, argues Tom Schuller, who frames that point as a corollary to the Peter Principle: “The Paula Principle.” His research found that women at all job levels are under-promoted—not just those aspiring to break glass ceilings in executive roles. Schuller’s book, The Paula Principle: How and why women work below their level of competence, was released March 9.

This is not news to most women. In much of the world, women and girls are educationally outperforming men and boys, which should in theory give women an advantage over men in the workplace. The 2015 OCED report found that, across the 65 countries and economies surveyed, by age 15 girls are a year beyond boys in reading ability. And in all countries surveyed, women made up 56% of students enrolled in higher education, with women’s enrollment increasing nearly twice as fast as men’s over the past century.

And, Schuller found, women take part in significantly more professional training, in part because women work more in the public sector (which trains more generously), and because, as he explains, ”women are readier than men to acknowledge to themselves and others that they don’t have all the skills necessary to do the job well.”

This educational over-achievement and eager skills-acquisition is widening what Schuller calls the “competency gap” between women and the men they’re outpacing. But while you might expect this leads to women earning higher pay and more responsibility, it doesn’t. In the US, women earned 80% what men did in 2015. The US Census Bureau found that progress in narrowing the wage gap has actually slowed since 2001, and women’s participation in the labor force has stalled, making it likely they will never make up half of working Americans. Globally, women’s average earnings in 2016 were just over half of men’s.

Schuller identifies five major reasons why women find themselves over-qualified yet under-promoted: Sexist discrimination still exists. Child care and elder care are increasingly expensive and mostly done by women. Women lack the old boy’s networks—contacts who are higher up within an organization and elsewhere—to help them advance. Psychologically, women are less likely to put themselves forward when jobs are available. And, perhaps most controversially, Schuller says that women sometimes make a “positive choice” to not rise as high as they might.

Schuller says that ”the key determinant of a woman’s career trajectory is not whether she has children, but whether she works part-time.” While researching the Paula Principle, women repeatedly described how their colleagues rendered them “almost invisible” once they stopped working full, five-day work weeks, considering them less committed to their jobs and hence less qualified for promotion. One interviewee, cited in Schuller’s essay for The Guardian, said “It’s as if a lens has come down over how people look at you.”

Part-time-work shaming, of course, does not just affect women. But given the increasing cost of child care, women are much more likely to go part-time, especially later in their careers. Apart from concerns about inequality, there’s an inefficiency to this system: Economies world-wide are suffering a patriarchy-induced waste of valuable talent.

One approach to solving this is the advice to employers to stop asking women to “act like men” when it comes to pursuing promotions. Another encourages women themselves to “lean in” and seek leadership roles. But Schuller argues that another important piece is encouraging part-time careers for men, too.

“Indeed, my main conclusion concerns men as much as women,” Schuller wrote in the Guardian. “It is that women will only get to use their competences fully when both are able to pursue ‘mosaic’ careers which do not conform to the conventional model of full-time continuous employment.”