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Goodbye Peter, goodbye Paula?

The Peter Principle has been with us for 45 years, named by the author Laurence J. Peter in his eponymous book that humorously sought to identify a common flaw in any management structure.

The Peter Principle

It noted that people tend to rise through the ranks of management until they reach 'their level of incompetence'.

According to the principle, work only gets done by people at an appropriate level of competence, but these same people are inevitably promoted beyond their abilities - and in time 'every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties'.

The Paula Principle

More recently, the analyst Tom Schuller coined 'The Paula Principle' as the female mirror of the Peter Principle. Instead of being promoted to a point of incompetence, women are not being promoted despite their competence.

The phrase, he said, gets a handle on the issue of the persistence of the gender gap in the UK workplace, even though equality legislation has been on the statute books for decades.

Women tend to do better at school, and more go to university than men, where they graduate with better degrees overall, he said. Many more women than men are in further education, and women do more to add to their competencies once in work too, he claimed.

Despite this, career paths are 'flatter' for women, with women failing to be promoted at both high and low levels in management -- and the pay gap refuses to disappear. In fact, it recently widened.

Dr Schuller put the Paula Principle down to five main reasons: discrimination; structural problems, such as childcare responsibilities; psychology, and a possibility that some women don't have the confidence to put themselves forward; lack of network connections, and knowing people in high places for a leg-up; and the simple choice to avoid a stressful working life.

Goodbye Peter, Goodbye Paula

The Peter Principle is best countered through adequate in-service training, and performance management techniques to identify better where staff are struggling in their roles.

Other possibilities include instituting parallel career paths for managers and other technical staff.

The Paula Principle, on the other hand, is evidently more difficult to address. But employers can do what they can by following their obligations under equality legislation, undertaking equal pay audits, providing options for flexible working, and encouraging diversity in recruitment and career progression.

Acas publications and services

Acas experts can visit your organisation and make sure your current equality and diversity policy is legally compliant and in evidence through all your policies and procedures; for details go to Equality and diversity: how Acas can help.

For free, confidential advice, call the Acas Helpline on 0300 123 1100.

Acas provides training in issues surrounding Performance management, Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010, including how to approach job evaluations.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.

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