Many years ago, a series of circumstances that started with one of my husband’s Eurostar journeys and a conversation he started with his train neighbour, commenting on the French elections and Sarkozy’s arrival in power, passed through a beautiful summer evening in a Parisian attic, led me to meet the author of the book “Paula’s Principle“, PHD and then OECD executive, Tom Schuller.

Paula’s Principle


Paula’s Principle is based on a series of research, directed by Tom and on an insight that emerges from these research. Despite the fact that women are, on average, better prepared than men (higher motivation for lifelong learning and better results), this does not correspond to a better salary, recognition and better career opportunities, on the contrary. It is not a question here of analysing differences in access to education, which, moreover, OECD research in member countries does not show to be significant on average, but rather of seeing what the results and impacts of learning are. This means bringing out the concrete differences in the possibilities of using the skills acquired, in the workplace and seeing them recognised both through extrinsic rewards, such as money and career, but also through intrinsic rewards, such as nurturing a sense of self-realisation and fulfilment of one’s potential.

This bias, which acts at the collective and individual level, starting from the patriarchal meta-model, has been called by Tom Schuller “The Paula Principle“. In this name you may have recognised something familiar from the late 1960s, the famous ‘Peter Principle‘. Peter’s principle states that ‘Every worker grows to his level of incompetence’. The masculine is a must for two reasons. The first is that in the world in which Laurence J. Peter – Canadian psychologist and academic, after whom the principle is named – enunciated this paradox, women were not visible to the extent that they could be included in the thinking. Tom Schuller narrates in his book that, among the 40 cases examined by Laurence Peter, only one was a woman. The second reason is that Peter’s principle works in exactly the mirror way for women, so much so that it deserves a specific name, Paula’s principle: “Most women work below their level of competence“. We can recognise the double bias in what has been said. On the one hand, the habit of not seeing incompetence, when carried by men, which makes the career proceed up to, precisely, the level of incompetence; on the other hand, the difficult recognition of female competence.

This bias produces at least two problems


It creates a sense of inequity and injustice, with possible repercussions on motivation and unconscious or conscious attempts to re-establish equity (producing less, distorting one’s perception of oneself and others, etc., to the extreme of leaving the organisation). Second consequence, by not allowing a full emergence of talents and actualization of women’s potential, it produces waste and loss of opportunities; Peter’s principle, on the other hand, produces all the problems related to having unskilled men making decisions, which are explored, with much humour, in Laurence Peter’s book.

Post-COVID regeneration


Right now a key theme in thinking about the reconstruction of post-COVID economies is the issue of learning; the key words of this renaissance are reskilling and upskilling, launched by the World Economic Forum in 2020. In order to introduce true post-COVID regeneration, however, a key step will be to evolve our rigidities in our perception of the world, e.g. the Paula Principle (and the Peter Principle). Systemic change is about allowing competence to really be valued, regardless of the person who brings it, without these kinds of mental traps producing blind spots and distortions in decisions.