The Paula Principle

Here is a good succinct summary by Tom Schuller of the research on the fact that while men tend to rise to a level beyond their competence – the Peter Principle – women tend to rise only to a level below their competence. Tom has christened this the Paula Principle.

I worked for some years with the FI Group when they were employee owned. The company was founded in the 1960s by Steve Shirley, a woman who called herself Steve rather than Stephanie to counter the prejudice against women that was so powerful then. She stopped work to have kids, and realised that there were many young women with great programming skills who had done the same. So she designed the business for them: working part time, and from home. That was pioneering stuff in the 1960s. At the time I worked with them, the board was still all-female, and the joke was that although they employed men, none of them had shown to talent to make it to the top. Dining with the CEO, Hilary Cropper, and her family one evening, I heard another jest, by her daughter, one that illustrated some of the costs for women who get to the top. ‘Actually,’ Hilary’s daughter said (perfectly warmly and affectionately), ‘I don’t have a mum: I have two dads’.

In FI Group gradually the board positions were taken over by men. Then the employee ownership began to be given up, the company lost its crusading drive, and eventually it was taken over. So when the men dominated the board, the company declined. Coincidence – or cause?

Papermaking is a male-dominated, substantially blue-collar industry. In employee-owned papermaker Tullis Russell, which has outperformed the industry for years, the top elected council, which represents all the employees (including the managers) as the owners of the company, recently chose a new chair: a young woman called Kirsty Grant. They also elected her to be a trustee of the employee ownership trust that controls the company.

Employee ownership, in which the work and the fruits are shared, suits women. It also suits men. In a study in Italy employee-ownership was shown to have very positive effects on the cardiovascular health of both men and women. But the effect on men was greater. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that when men are given the chance NOT to compete so hard with each other, they feel a lot less stressed. Cooperation where the fruits are shared is fun for human beings of any gender.

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