This week is Death Awareness week, and I went to a Death Cafe.  I’ve taken part in several of these over the last couple of years.  DCs simply provide an opportunity for people to meet and talk about death.  In the one I attend you gather round small tables for the first half of the evening, and then get into a wider circle for the second half.  The conversation can be about people’s fear of death, or  about their need to process past experiences (though it is explicitly not a therapy session); or it may just take a direction of its own, according to what the participants bring to the table.


Some people come because they’ve been afraid of death since childhood;  others because someone close to them is terminally ill.  We’ve had terminally ill people themselves attend.    Last time I listened to a woman talk about her near-death experience and her ‘choice’ to return from it;  she spoke in an entirely cheerful and matter of fact way, and I could not doubt her experience, though I couldn’t agree with the conclusions she drew from it.  There is quite often a lot of laughter.  Almost all participants say how much easier it is to talk about death with strangers.


Women are always in the majority.  This week’s meeting saw me as the sole man present.  The imbalance is predictable.   To mark the Death Awareness week, an organisation called Dying Matters has brought out a report on the extent to which people talk about death.  On almost every dimension women were better informed (e.g. about living wills), and had held more conversations about death and dying.  This extended even to financial arrangements.  Although slightly more men had  made a will, more women had actually discussed finance with their families.

I’m convinced that managing the process of dying ourselves is one of the big challenges for my generation.  I’m 67, and almost every one of my peers has had either a parent, a partner’s parent or someone else finish their lives in an unsatisfactory and excessively prolonged fashion.  It was true in my case, with my mother dying aged 98 having lived 3 or 4 years too long (for her sake – not ours).  We are the first generation to have this generalised experience, and so to have no excuse for not confronting the issue.  The NHS will not solve it for us, even if a fabulous amount of money was showered on it.  It needs new ideas, new procedures, new traditions and rituals, maybe new professions.

So we need to talk about death and dying more.  That’s an important competence.  Of course, it’s a competence to do with how people live (and die) rather than how they work, and so is a bit distant from the primary focus of the Paula Principle.  But it’s only one remove.  And the more people in general can talk about, and manage, their own dying, the easier it will be for all those professionals who work in the area to do their job.

Post script: Driving is another ‘life skill’.  I remember an important study in the 1960s (from Essex University, I think) which showed that for a lot of people driving was in fact the most skilled activity they were likely to engage in throughout the day.  This was in the days of mass unskilled and repetitive jobs.  It may still be the case today.  But now we have results from a different study which reveals that on everything apart from steering at speed, women emerge as better drivers.  They tailgate less, keep better to their lanes, and so on.  Admittedly the study’s main data source seemed to be observations at a roundabout, but there we are – another stereotype bites the dust.

A ‘World Happiness Report’ sounds rather implausible;  or Orwellian.  But it exists, and has been put together by some top-flight authors – John Helliwell from Canada, Richard Layard from the UK and Jeffrey Sachs of the US.  Even if I disagree with the ‘happiness’ title, it’s a big step towards measuring things that are important for our quality of life. (The authors admit the label is there for marketing purposes – ‘wellbeing’ would be far preferable in my view.)

The WHR focuses on six determinants of happiness/wellbeing:  income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, absence of corruption and generosity/giving.  Much of the report is unsurprising in itself – there’s a big gap between rich and poor countries, the Scandinavians come out very well and so on.  But it’s a powerful mapping of the position, and one that will gain momentum as it continues.

On gender there are, again, few really remarkable results.  On the whole, women evaluate their lives slightly more positively than men.  What I looked for, of course, was how this might relate to their experience at work.  I came across this (p68):

“In many countries, increased levels of educational attainment and changing gender role attitudes have allowed women to embrace professions once the prerogative of men. This may have made their lives more interesting and financially rewarding, and it may have allowed women to feel more useful to others and society…..On the other hand, work in the marketplace may have led to more pressure from competition, more stress, and more worry or guilt regarding their traditional female responsibilities. Indeed, [the] incidence of stress is higher among both men and women of working age.  In addition, some women may have experienced discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace.”

The report goes on:

” Researchers have investigated changes over time in happiness in the United States from the 1970s to the mid-2000s, a time period that saw a substantial increase in female labor force participation. They found a reversal in the female advantage in happiness, which they argue is paradoxical.   But it is possible, given the uneven rewards of many jobs, in terms of the six key variables explaining life evaluations, that many women who are now engaging in market work do not experience higher overall quality of life compared to women who choose instead to become homemakers. With the exception of highly educated women who likely enter “careers” rather than “jobs,” that seems consistent with our evidence.”

Education enables women to enter white-collar work and this is likely to make them evaluate their lives more positively.  But here is then a ‘sag’, as the work they get does not contribute much if at all to their wellbeing (and brings with it negative features such as stress).  Only for the highly educated is there a further upturn.  So the next step is to track these very broad trends, and see whether a better matching between their education and their work brings an upturn for the majority.  Another argument for focussing on all those levels below the  glass ceiling.

In the past couple of months I’ve been to two different productions of The Merchant of Venice.  I posted earlier on the Almeida’s brilliant Las Vegas-style version, and the very PP-relevant way it interpreted the final act.

MofV Globe

Last night it was the Globe Theatre’s production, with Jonathan Pryce as Sherlock and his daughter as his daughter (i.e. Phoebe Pryce as Jessica).   I have to say that I found this production a good deal less gripping, though I always find it a delight to be in that setting, especially on a fine night with a crescent moon, and there was lots to appreciate.

As I noted in the earlier post, choice is a very strong element in the play:  most obviously by the male suitors for Portia’s hand – and the price they pay for choosing wrongly – but also in the ways women can or cannot choose.  Early on Portia and her maid Nerissa are discussing their prospects.   Portia is bemoaning her lot, but  Nerissa gives her a sharp reminder of how lucky she is:

“You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in the same abundance as your good fortunes are. yet for aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing. It is no mean happiness, therefore, to be seated in the mean. Superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer.”

Naturally my ears pricked up at the mention of competency.  Shakespeare meant sufficiency rather than skill, so Nerissa’s point is that high levels of consumption may not actually be that healthy, whereas having enough, and understanding what having enough means, are good for one.  It occurred to me that  one ‘competence’  (in the modern sense) that would do much for our quality of life would be a larger capacity to do just that – to understand what is a sufficiency.

This has particular salience in the current febrile election atmosphere, where so much focus has been on highly contested claims about standards and costs of living.  I have been very disappointed by the failure of the Greens to use the platform they have been given to talk about a green economy (I’m not a Green, but I would like to see environmental issues higher up the agenda);  but at least they have included the need for a different metric for whether we are doing well or not, one that goes beyond simplistic GNP measures.

Earlier in the day I had an interesting session on the Paula Principle with mixed sixth-formers from Blatchington Mill School near Brighton, as part of the Speakers for Schools programme. I thought that the female students there were certainly aware of how much more choice they now had in one sense in their careers, compared to previous generations;  we didn’t have time to explore what they felt were the most important constraints.  Nor was there much time to find out what  the boys felt about their options.  But the taxi-driver told me that his 11-year old son had already decided to be a vet – and the family dog had so far survived his ministrations.



Some kind of prize to the Resolution Foundation for the cover of their recent report on how to boost low wages;  I say that even though the boosted person looks very male to me, so maybe doesn’t fit best with the Paula Principle.  In fact as Susan Harkness’ piece on women’s wages makes clear, women’s wages have dropped by less than men’s, thus closing the gender gap but in a way that doesn’t exactly call for hurrahs.

Harkness argues that this convergence is partly due to the fact that it’s more the male-dominated employment sectors that have borne the brunt of the recession and subsequent wage squeeze.  She also points our, crucially, that wages for the under-30s have now more or less converged, but the diverge rapidly with age.

The chart below, from her chapter, shows how the importance of women’s wages within a household varies across the earnings spectrum.  It’s not surprising, but none the less important, that women’s earnings are so much more important for poorer households.

When it comes to recommendations, Harkness rightly wants opportunities for flexible working.  She argues for promoting more full-time jobs for women, on the basis of experience from Sweden and Denmark on the impact of prolonged part-time work.  At the same time she commends Timewise for their efforts to improve the quality of part-time jobs.  As PP readers will know, I think this is crucial, but will only happen when significantly more men work part-time;  and when the binary divide between full- and part-time work is discarded.

Incidentally, I spoke last week to a group of American Democrats Abroad;  in looking at the US experience in preparation for this I noted (which I already knew, but only vaguely) that their cut-off point for part-time is 35 hours.  Since the meeting was happening in France, I remarked that this meant that the majority of French workers must be part-time by American standards.

Finally, I want also to commend Alison Wolf’s piece in the Resolution Foundation report.  She very crisply points out how skewed our current education system is in favour of full-time higher education,and how phoney a lot of apprenticeships have been:

“Promising ‘3 million apprenticeships’ in the next five years (Conservatives) or ‘an apprenticeship for every 18 year old’ (Labour) is a feel-good activity for them. It should be a heart-sink for anyone listening.”

The UK Commission on Employment and Skills has just published an excellent report, Growth Through People.  It sketches out, in considerable detail but in clear language, the puzzle of how the UK has a high level of employment; relatively high levels of high level skills, measured by graduate level qualifications; but low productivity levels.  Productivity, as yesterday’s budget yet again showed, is crucial to our general prosperity.

The most important implication of the UKCES analysis is to shift the focus from simplistic assumptions that boosting the sheer numbers of highly qualified people is a solution to our economic problems, to a much more nuanced and complex consideration of how skills are actually used in the workplace.  Qualifications are not the same as skills – obvious enough;  but add to that the evidence that skills/qualifications are not themselves enough to raise productivity and it’s clear that we need a much closer understanding of how jobs are defined and people managed if we are to find a positive way forward.

Investment in training has been in decline over the past few years, so that we should not be lulled into thinking that because we have greater numbers of highly qualified people coming out of the education system that is enough to sustain the overall competence of the workforce.  “There are various different indicators of learning across the UK. Worryingly, these point to one important and common trend; a significant decline in engagement, whether captured through participation rates, average training volume or funding….the NIACE Adult Participation in Learning survey, which covers the whole of the UK, has also seen a decline since 2001, with participation in learning in the last 3 years falling from 46 to 38 per cent of adults in 2013. Perhaps more significantly, over a similar period, the duration of training fell sharply, with the result that the average training volume per worker declined by about half.”

But back to the key  point about utilisation.  Two quotes sum this up:

“A large number of workers remain overskilled or overqualified. In both cases, underutilisation represents a waste of talent and has significant consequences. “

“The stable level of 30 per cent of graduates mismatched to jobs requiring lower skill level means a much larger number of overqualified graduates than we had before .”

The report points out that UK managers tend themselves to be rather less well qualified, relative to their staff, than in other countries.  One consequence may be that they are less good at making use of the talent at their disposal:  not just in recruiting the right people, but in enabling them to work to their capacity, to be properly motivated and rewarded, and to progress in their careers.  If this is the case,  my guess is that it is not so much a matter of individual failings as of the general culture of management, including the incentives which managers themselves operate under.

And so we come to the PP-relevant issue:  how far is this underutilisation a matter of gender?  In other words, since we know that women embody an increasing proportion of the nation’s skills, is it these skills which are not being properly recognised and rewarded?  The report has little to say about this;  I’m hoping that the UKCES can be persuaded to extend its analysis further.   It might do something to unlock the productivity puzzle.

Below is a rather depressing table.  I’ve taken it from a piece by Michael Handel in  the recent ippr publication Technology, globalisation and the future of work in Europe, which draws on data from the European Working Conditions Survey.

First, it suggests that the quality of work in the UK dropped significantly over the decade to 2005, absolutely and relative to other EU countries.  We started well above the EU average on both complex tasks and problem-solving at work, but 10 years later we had dropped significantly on both these scores, so that we were below average on the former and only just above on the latter.   This is not a healthy direction of travel: towards more simplified (i.e. routine) work.

Secondly, we share with most other countries a drop in the proportion of working people who say they are learning new things at work.  Our decline is sharper than almost all the others, from a proud 82% in 1995 (bettered only by the inevitable Scandinavians) to 71% in 2005.   In a sense this fits with the first point: less complex work requires less learning.  But it’s not encouraging.

Obviously the figures are quite dated.  Information for 2015 will be available in due course, and they will make interesting reading.   Handel seems to think that they are not likely to show a change of direction.  We know from other studies that  the UK’s performance on learning at work is not improving.

I’m asking for the gender breakdown so we can see how this bears on the Paula Principle.  I  know that there is other analysis, notably  from Francis Green, which gives a more optimistic view on the quality of UK working life generally, and which suggests that women  report having a higher quality than men, in spite of the pay gap.  In any event,  this kind of information is important as the focus of employment debate may be shifting from the absolute volume of jobs to the quality of the work that is offered.

It seems very likely that all this is closely linked to our productivity puzzle.  Matching people’s skills better to the work they do is surely an essential part of this, especially in human services, where women predominate and which are less dependent on technology for their productivity.  Take the care sector:  it is, to a large extent, a matter of choice whether jobs are designed/defined as complex and problem-solving (and rewarded as such);  or are routinised and low-paid.  Who decides which path to take?


It’s the day after International Women’s Day, and I just thought I’d share two responses I’ve had to the PP book manuscript.  The first is from a publisher:

“There are two problems.  First they feel that some of the material is not wholly unfamiliar – my colleagues who read many more business books than me tell me that they have read books which cover the subject and they are not sure this breaks enough new ground.  And second – and I am not sure how one resolves this problem– they feel it would be a sales obstacle for us to publish a book on this subject by a man.  It probably has to be written by a woman. ”

and the second from  a literary agent:

“The author’s research and structure were impressive and clear.  I also thought he had a robust website which is a plus.  But I’m afraid I was put-off by the fact that it is a man writing on the topic.  I don’t think Lean-in could’ve been written by a man, and I’m not positive this could be either.  Maybe it simply needs s different spin, or a slightly different framing (more sociological, less motivational in a way so it doesn’t feel like a man telling women what’s wrong with this picture.) This is no feminist rant—I’m thinking really only from a sales perspective, of how this could be pitched so that it never sounds like a man pointing to what needs to be fixed, for women.”

I’d be interested in people’s reactions, a) from the commercial/sales point of view, and b) more generally.  (Nice about the website, at least.)  Comments to me at


More importantly, I was struck by some figures in Christine Lagarde’s recent London speech, as well as by her emphasis on the negative economic impact of inequality.  The IMF head concluded:

“There is one more dimension of inequality that I wish to discuss here—one that is close to my heart. If we talk about inclusion in economic life, we must surely talk about gender.  As we know too well, girls and women are still not allowed to fulfill their potential—not just in the developing world, but in rich countries too. The International Labor Organization estimates that 865 million women around the world are being held back. They face discrimination at birth, on the school bench, in the board room. They face reticence of the marketplace—and of the mind.

And yet, the economic facts of life are crystal clear. By not letting women contribute, we end up with lower living standards for everyone. If women participated in the labor force to the same extent as men, the boost to per capita incomes could be huge—27 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, 23 percent in South Asia, 17 percent in Latin America, 15 percent in East Asia, 14 percent in Europe and Central Asia. We simply cannot afford to throw away these gains.”   Christine Lagarde, Richard Dimbleby Memorial Lecture, London Feb 2015.

The figures would be even greater if we  looked not just at economic participation per se, but at jobs which matched skills.


I’ve just  spent most of the day at the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre.  It started with Jude Kelly interviewing Annie Lennox (yes!!), with scrolling stats on the global position of women;  the most startling of these is that gender-based violence notches up more deaths and disablement than wars, malaria, cancer and crashes.   It’s worth also remembering that 41 million girls don’t even get primary education.   Kirsty Wark then chaired a discussion on whether things had gone backwards as far as (violent) misogyny is concerned; it led me to her film on Blurred Lines, which deals with the fissile and contentious boundaries between humour and aggression.

The first directly  Paula-relevant session was a high-powered panel on women in business.   Humorous and practical.  The panel split on quotas.  Tessa Jowell MP in favour, Ann Cairns, a senior executive at Mastercard, opposing, and Gail Rebuck, CEO of Random Books, originally anti but moving towards pro.   The fourth panel member, whose name I didn’t get, had moved from banking to set up her own cosmetics business;  she said, and the others agreed, that the most important thing was to make choices on what you want to do – and that needn’t mean putting a conventional career first.

Finally an enjoyable session on Jobs for the Boys, featuring a football journalist, an airline pilot, a plumber and a structural engineer.   Felicity Bush had to pioneer her pathway to piloting in the 1970s;  her first job application was apparently rejected on the grounds that if God had wanted women to fly he would have made the sky pink.  Since then, things have, she said, got a lot easier.  Hattie Hasan stopped teaching to train as a plumber, and has now set up Stopcock plumbers for women plumbers – great branding.  She also wrote The Joy of Plumbing, which is only partly about plumbing.

WOW carries on over the weekend.

There are about 2 million people employed in the care sector in the UK.   1.4 million are in the ‘frontline’ , which means they do the physical caring,      but also often are one of the few social contacts that the client has, especially in the case of elderly clients.   Most of these are women.  It’s a demanding job that many of us would be completely unable to sustain.  It’s also one where low pay is very widespread.  This is criminal – often literally so, as many are paid below the National Minimum Wage.


A recent report from the ever-relevant Resolution Foundation, aptly titled ‘As If we Cared’, tackles the challenge of how to raise wages for this vast army.    I won’t summarise the report’s recommendations, which you can read for yourselves.  Although the main focus, quite rightly, is on lifting the basic wages paid it also addresses the lack of training and progression in the sector:

”  the care sector stands out as offering very limited opportunities to progress to higher pay levels. This reflects an increasingly ‘flat’ workforce hierarchy in which financial pressures and standardisation of services have led to little differentiation of frontline care roles or opportunity for specialisation. ”


There’s a neat graphic (Fig 1 in the report, which I can’t reproduce) that shows how concentrated the care workforce is in the lowpay-lowskill corner of the occupational field.

This might mean that all the women and men doing this care work are without skills and formal qualifications, and secondly that that is the nature of the occupation.    In which case it wouldn’t have much to do with the Paula Principle.  But most people would acknowledge two things.

First at least to some extent there is a significant undervaluing of the skills that are already being used.  Some of them may be natural (I’m avoiding ‘innate’) – the kinds of human quality which should after all be present in any caring role.  But others are learnt and applied;  they are skills in the usual sense, but are just not recognised.  The report quotes the Low Pay Commission:

“In social care in particular there is an issue not so much of productivity as of the value society attaches to providing care, and of a failure to reward the skills that are required. A policy objective of funding higher wages for the lowest-paid care roles might need to be accompanied by other measures, formally recognising the skills involved, and requiring carers to demonstrate possession of them, for such a policy objective to be attained.”

Secondly, there could surely  be more of a career structure, just as there is in most other personal services.  This is essential if the quality of care is to be improved.  Retention of staff is a key factor in this.   The sector currently has an annual staff turnover rate of 22%.  This is not surprising, given the low pay and the stress of exploitative contracts which offer no continuity, and/or no pay for travel time to the clients.   But it is accentuated by the lack of prospects.

In short, social care is a sector where the Paula Principle applies, but in a rather disguised way;  and it needs to change both so that the staff’s current skills are recognised, and so that the skills they acquire over time are able to be rewarded.  These are rather fundamental questions of value.


Paula Factor 5, you may remember, is positive choice:  where women make the decision not to go for a job which is above their current level because they actively prefer to stay doing what they are doing, or to move in a horizontal direction.  They don’t need the money or the status that a promotion would bring;  they feel they are exercising their competences already and/or learning new ones; and they do not want to rise to a level where they might perhaps become examples of the Peter Principle.

I’ve been discussing this with a male friend.  He sent me the following:

“I know clearly in my own career I have been very doubtful about seeking advancement because of concerns about not being sufficientlycompetent. But these get muddled up with rationales about not wishing to take on the strain of more responsibility. And then in  retrospect it often looks as though this perception of strain proved to be right - it matters how you anticipate that you will respond to anxiety, pressure etc. Some seem to enjoy it , many suffer with it though.

Then I worked in a very progressive college with a large proportion of highly capable women middle leaders. A strong pattern developed of them not seeking promotion (and some males too), so other candidates were promoted instead.

There are two open questions for me here:

1.  What happens if a significant fraction of people with a particular profile opt out of promotion – does it leave an opposite type as more likely to be in leadership roles, by default?

2.  Are higher level jobs the wrong shape’?”

To which I replied:

I’m increasingly clear that jobs are often defined quite dysfunctionally, and this is now a definite feature of the gendering of work – i.e. jobs, especially senior ones, are defined in ways which – quite understandably – reflect those who currently hold them or have held them in the past;  and therefore ‘discriminate’ against women.  The really interesting question is how much plasticity there is in different jobs, i.e. what the elbow room is for rewriting the jd.

It would be great to hear from anyone who wants to follow through on any of his comments/questions, with examples or questions of their own.

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