Peter Principle or Paula Principle?

Written by Pam Lefkowitz on November 10, 2022

Share This Article

Dr. Laurence J. Peter’s 1968 book, The Peter Principle, posited that excellent employee performance will be rewarded with promotion until that employee’s performance is no longer excellent. They will “rise to the level of their own incompetence” is how I’ve always heard it said. 

The interesting thing (at least to me) is that women are generally exempt from the Peter Principle. Why is that? Because, frankly, they don’t get promoted as often, even if they’re extremely competent. Read on to learn about the Paula Principle – what it is, what causes it, and what can be done to fix it.

What Is The Paula Principle?

Contrasting to the Peter Principle, the Paula Principle is the idea that women tend to work in positions that are below their level of competence. This happens for a number of reasons:

  • Lack of gender equality and equity,
  • Women still generally take on the largest burden of child care and aging-parent care,
  • Lack of access to the “old boys’ network” of professional contacts typically used in gaining promotions,
  • They are not societally encouraged or empowered (or are actively discouraged in too many cases) to reach for positions outside of their current skill set.

When 50/50 Isn’t Equal

While women at the beginning of their careers have reasonably similar career entrance (including a narrower pay gap than ever before), their career paths are still flatter than their male counterparts. Salaries for women are still smaller than men with the same experience and education. And, generally speaking, men still retire with significantly more retirement income than women.

While the world’s male/female population is close to 50/50, the working world is still male dominated. And this isn’t just at the C-Suite level. Not everyone can – or wants to – become a Chief <insert department> Officer. There are many senior, supervisory, and managerial positions to be had, like store managers, line managers, customer support managers, etc. Sadly, those positions are also male-dominated.

Things are better now than 20 years ago – certainly. But even today, women earn just 89% of what men earn in the same positions with the same seniority. And the pandemic set back many  gains as women were, once again, thrown into the role of majority caregiver for children who were normally in school or daycare.

Can It Be Fixed?

Regarding the Peter Principle, it’s not that people necessarily become poor employees. It’s more that they get promoted into positions that they don’t have the skills to perform. And they remain in that position because incompetence alone isn’t usually enough to get someone dismissed – unless the incompetence is extreme. It usually requires other, HR-related, offenses.

Companies can easily solve for the Peter Principle by instituting effective training programs when they promote employees. This ensures that promoted individuals gain the skills necessary to continue being successful. 

Harder, though, is solving for the Paula Principle. This is not an employee training problem. It involves company initiatives that change thinking, change attitudes, and change corporate culture. It means that women should not have to act like men – adopt a firm handshake, lowering our voice, no smiling, no saying “please” – to be taken seriously in business. (Interestingly, we don’t see a lot of pieces written about how men should change to be taken seriously in the workplace. Have a think on that over your morning coffee.)

Necessary as it is, changing one’s ingrained ideas on gender-related work roles can be like shredding one’s identity.

How Do We Affect Change?

There is a lot to read these days when it comes to workers rights and DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) in the workplace. There is a groundswell of articles on how to make your company more inclusive. Another way to attract and retain a larger diverse workforce is by publishing salary offerings.

Another is for people – all people, but especially women – to talk about their salaries. Out loud. With each other. 

As someone who came from a family where salary-talk was absolutely forbidden, this causes me an obscene amount of anxiety. But just like learning any new skill, doing it repeatedly makes it easier. 

screenshot of a tweet from @lilykonings

If you’re part of an impacted group or find yourself applying to jobs below your level, there is a bevy of material focused on how to change your mindset and adjust your internal vocabulary in order to get the job you really want and negotiate the salary you really deserve. 

The Employer’s Dilemma

There is a lot of talk lately about how it’s been hard to find employees – “nobody wants to work”. I’m not so sure I agree with this. 

At least for women, I suspect that there is a hefty percentage of us who have decided that we won’t work for peanuts anymore; that we are entitled to have work/life balance, to have a job that we’re really qualified for, to be paid reasonable wages that are on par with our male counterparts, and to be in a work culture that is respectful and fulfilling. No longer are ping pong tables, nap pods, and free hot chips enough to retain employees and keep them happy. 

Treat people with respect, treat them fairly, treat them as you would want your family to be treated. Understand that some groups of your employees come from situations where they haven’t been given as many opportunities as others. It’s up to you, as the employer, to realize that naivete isn’t yours to take advantage of, it’s an opportunity for you to show kindness and compassion. The biggest benefit of being a great employer is that you retain your employees longer. Employee retention translates directly into money (since you’re not spending it onboarding and training new employees).

Come discuss how you’ve shed your (or helped someone shed their) Paula Principle identity in our Community.

Pam Lefkowitz

Pam is an IT Columnist at JumpCloud where she uses her experience as a consultant and MSP to write about IT admin life and tech. Outside of (remote) work hours, she spends her time with her dog, visiting her kids across the country, and being creative with fiber.

Continue Learning with our Newsletter