Too many able and well-qualified women will continue to be under-promoted and underpaid unless more men are prepared to work part-time and accept sideways career moves, according to a leading expert on workforce development.

It is now well-known that women have overtaken men academically. Women also spend more time in adult education and training than men do. But they still earn considerably less than men, on average, and climb fewer rungs on the career ladder.

Many women are consequently working below their true level of competence – a social phenomenon that Dr Tom Schuller, a visiting professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, has termed the ‘Paula Principle’. It is the opposite of the Peter Principle, the 1960s management theory that employees (at that time, usually men) are generally promoted to their level of incompetence.

Dr Schuller believes that there are several reasons why many women do not progress as far as they should at work. Some simply choose not to seek promotion but others are held back by:

  • Discrimination – either covert or overt
  • Caring responsibilities – for their parents as well as their children
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Insufficient  contact with managers who can mentor them.

He argues that the underutilisation of women’s talents is not only unfair but economically damaging for the UK and many other developed nations

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has reported that — at the current rate of slow progress — it will be 2080 before there is an equal number of men and women directors in Britain’s top 100 companies. But Dr Schuller emphasises that the debate about gender equality should not focus exclusively on breaking through ‘glass ceilings’. The Paula Principle applies at all levels of organisational structures.

How can the problem be addressed? Dr Schuller, a former head of education research at the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, says that stronger anti-discrimination measures are needed. Affordable childcare and more career mentoring for women are also required.

However, he is now convinced that even this will not be enough to bring about the necessary culture shift. “Men’s career patterns will need to change too,” he will tell an IOE research seminar later today. “Too much of the emphasis on gender equality at work involves helping women to work more like men. It is time to enable more men to work in ways that are currently the preserve of women.

“Men need to stop thinking about a career only in terms of continuously moving up a vertical ladder and think positively about lateral moves, perhaps working part-time and, above all, choosing work which uses their competences but does not go beyond them. Not only would the country benefit if that happens, I believe that many men would be happier too.”

One practical implication is that most jobs would in future have to be routinely advertised and available on a flexible hours basis.

Dr Schuller, who is writing a book about the Paula Principle, says that radical action is required because even though the male/female pay gap appears to be closing for younger women, it is narrowing at a slower rate than the female/male competence gap is widening.

Furthermore, the apparent improvement in the pay gap may be partly illusory. He cites research based on data gathered by the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies on women born in 1958 and 1970. It shows that whilst the pay gap at the point of entry to the labour market has largely closed it widens again further along the career path.

“Worryingly, this gap is opening up at a faster rate for the 1970 cohort of women,” he points out. “That is unacceptable. If women are achieving more and more they should get the pay and career rewards they deserve.”