When Paula gets pregnant

The Paula Principle, Motherhood and Flexible Working

by Rhiannon Fielder-Hobbs

Today I am wearing the mirage of millennial professionalism. Laptop on the cafe table, coffee in hand. Yesterday I was scrubbing toilets. Perhaps, just call me Paula? 

The Paula Principle, as penned by Tom Schuller in his book of the same name, looked to explore and explain the reasons behind “women working below their levels of competence” and find solutions for this problem. The name is a comparison to the Peter Principle first put forward by Laurence J Peter and published as a book in 1969 by L.J Peter and Raymond Hull. 

The Peter Principle became popular as a tool for exploring how people (namely men at the time of its writing) were promoted through hierarchical systems on the basis that “every employee tends to rise to his level of competence”.  The Paula Principle acts as a mirror, demonstrating how women in the same system have a very different experience. 

As Schuler stated in his 2017 book “girls outperform boys through school and beyond”, a fact still true five years later. What is also still true in 2022, is that career paths remain “flatter” for women. Schuler writes “we expect women to succeed in school and college, and they do so, in far greater numbers than men. But when it comes to material returns to education, change has been a lot slower.” What are the reasons for this gendered landscaping in the workforce, and how and why is it to be avoided? 

The Paula Principle forms five main categories:

  1. Discrimination – Women denied jobs and fair pay based purely on their sex.
  2. Structural – Namely, the absence or expense of childcare.
  3. Psychological – Women often lack the self-confidence to put themselves forward for a job even when they are well qualified to do it.
  4. Vertical Network – Connections; women tend to know fewer people in higher level jobs who can help them with mentoring and information.
  5. Positive Choice – Not to rise as high as they might. They may opt for a better quality of life, including working life, by not subjecting themselves to the strains and stresses of working at full or even overextended capacity.  

The above presents an overview of the categories in their most simplistic form. Each is vast and worthy of exploration and debate. In my experience it is the concoction of all of them that can leave women functioning well below their capabilities. 

Structural limitations – holding children and holding onto a career

It is the second category, “structural”, that stood out for me on first reading and felt the most relevant to my own journey. The category that proves to be too often the nail in the coffin for women who want to hold children whilst holding onto a fulfilling career, or even just a job. 

I will take you, if I may, back to another coffee table in the east end of London, the year 2012. A friend and I sat with our 5-month-old babies on a chilly weekday morning. Sleep deprived and sipping decaf, my friend, a very capable lawyer, expressed her torment regarding the decision to return to work after maternity leave. She was toying with the idea of going back sooner than the prescribed nine months, due to the receipt of some suspicious emails and the nagging feeling she was being pushed out.  

In many ways our experiences were vastly different. I had already decided not to return to my minimum wage coffee shop job. Childcare was just too expensive to make it worth it. I had dropped out of university a year earlier due to illness and then never returned, due to pregnancy. I found myself in a layby early on in my pursuit of a career. One I have been trying to pull out of ever since.

She, on the other hand, had achieved amazing feats, a young black woman in her field, the door to career success supposedly, wide open. 

What brought us to that café table was the shared experience of motherhood, just as it had brought us both to a career-defining decision, a pit stop largely exclusive to women. Can I continue with this job now that I have a baby? It is a question, let’s be honest, men largely don’t have to ask. 

Pregnant Then Screwed by Joeli Brearley laid bare the plight of working mothers. “54,000 women a year are forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy or for taking maternity leave” and “by the time a woman’s first child is 12 years old, her hourly pay rate is 33% behind a man’s”. The cases outlined in this brilliant book make for depressing reading. 

Be she a barrister or a barista, the Paula Principle still applies. Women too often find themselves flatlining through their career process, unable to engage with an uplift, be it career progression, better pay or just finding their way back into work at all.  

I have since lost touch with that friend in the coffee shop. I hope she is not one of the 54,000. 

It’s only taken a global pandemic

What can be done to challenge the outdated structural norms that keep women out of the workplace completely, let alone achieving job satisfaction along with realisation of their potential? 

Findings published by the think tank Resolution Foundation, state that as a result of companies promoting hybrid working during the pandemic “74% of mothers to children aged between 0 and three are currently in work, compared to 68% in 2019 and 2017”. It was discovered that “primary care givers (who are disproportionately female) are able to balance work and looking after their children.” 1 in 10 mothers with a partner now state that remote working had allowed them to stay in a job and even increase hours or take up new employment. 

I am one of those women. Flexibility as a core ethos of the company I work for, is the reason I can work at all.    

Of course, the Paula Principle is about more than just enabling women to work. Many of the women included in the above statistics are still working well below their “levels of competence”. It was never my dream to be cleaning, but I can work it round the children, and it pays relatively well. 

We have seen baby steps in the right direction regarding equality of opportunity in the workplace for mothers specifically. Attitudes to breastfeeding are, if slowly, changing in companies along with the policies to go with them and the introduction of shared parental leave in 2015 provides more options for working families. Though, it must be recognized, it is of little help to single mothers and interestingly the uptake has been low. A reform in the provision of childcare is undoubtedly where major shifts now need to happen. 

The launch of a four-day week receiving the same pay, pioneered by companies such as WANdisco has as one of its benefits, the fairer sharing of childcare between men and women. The law firm Burgess Mee has become the first known employer in Britain to take on a “Fertility Officer”. The purpose of the post being to “dispel the notion that becoming a mother is career suicide.” Both are clear indications that the landscape is changing. The mindset of companies is edging towards provision for families and those looking to start one, or at least it will be if other companies follow suit. 

Schuler concludes in his book that “dethroning the full-time linear career might be a defining feature of our new century: one where the competencies of men and women can flourish and be recognized appropriately”. Structures that promote the progression of careers through a lens of “development more than hierarchy” can throw open the doors to a more diverse group of people, mothers among them.

Hybrid working forms a key pillar of this new structure that is forming, a restless recognition of the change required, already concrete to its foundations. Although flexible working brings with it its own issues, (another article for another time), I hope post-pandemic it will not be abandoned completely and those women who have found their way into employment as a result, abandoned with it.   

Paula, as much as she is a principle to provide progression for capable women in the workplace, also represents a hidden talent pool of vast, untapped potential. Those looking to build an inclusive and diverse business future will require the ingenuity going forward to structure things differently.  

If they don’t, Paula will miss out. And the professional world will miss out on her. 

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