An update on the PP

New Year’s Day, and the chance to take stock on the Paula Principle.  I finished the book a year ago but still haven’t managed to find a publisher.  I’ll have in any case to update it (once I finish what I’m currently doing, a report for Unesco on the state of play on adult learning across the world), partly because some of the statistics need it but also because some of the debate on gender issues has moved on.  I still don’t claim to be a gender specialist, but writing the book has meant that my eye is caught by gender items in the media, and this has prompted some further thoughts.

One development is the way a whole plethora of new gender-related terms is emerging: cisgender, intersex, third gender and so on.  Transsexuals and transitioning have been much in the news.  I don’t know what the best estimates are for what proportion of the population are transsexual, but it seems as if it is more than any.   I read somewhere that there are now over 50 ways in which you can answer a question about your gender.  So much for a tidy gender divide.

I find this particularly important because it reinforces my opposition to 50/50 solutions, which seek ‘balance’ by putting all women in one category and all men in the other.  I can maybe accept this kind of proposal as an interim measure to break a mould, but the proliferation of gender categories underlines how unsatisfactory it is.   Which is why I can’t fully support the new Women’s Equality Party, much though I sympathise with most of their goals.

Anyway, here’s the summary update on the PP:

1.  Women continue to outpace men in educational achievement.  The gap is growing across the developed world.  In fact Unesco is now thinking about abandoning its goal of ‘gender parity’ because although women in poor countries still suffer greatly more than men from lack of literacy, this is balanced under the current metric by women in developed countries outperforming men – so the overall ‘parity picture’ is completely misleading.  In the UK, women are further ahead than ever generally in education.  They do far better than men in securing access to university ( now heading for a 2:1 ratio as undergraduates),  including doing relatively better from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Women continue to dominate the ranks of adult education classes.   So the picture on that half of the PP is very clear.

2.  The other half of the picture – the rewards for greater educational achievement, in terms of pay and careers – is more complicated.  For full timers the pay gap is closing, though slowly, and for young full-time professionals it has more or less closed altogether, as Alison Wolf has argued.  I But over time the careers (and pay) gap opens up, and gets much wider  for older age groups.  So it’s crucial to look at careers in a life course perspective:  how well are people able to use their competences over the full 50 years of the future working life?   And, as regular readers of this blog will know, I think we cannot go on consigning part-timers to a peripheral position as if they didn’t really count.  It’s timely also to emphasise that the PP applies not only to senior professionals of the Lean In variety, but to women at all occupational levels.  The administrative officer aiming to move up a grade matters as much as the lawyer aiming for judgeship.

3.  It’s the combination of these two trends – a fast-growing female/male qualifications gap, and a slowly-if-at-all declining careers gap –  that give the Paula Principle such originality as it may have.   Higher qualifications/competences should lead to better rewards – and they don’t, at least not as much as they should if you follow a meritocratic line of thinking.   But the political  implications of the two trends need some unpacking, and may overturn some of the usual approaches. For example,  the educational superiority of women gives the debate on equality a rather different slant.  There are some subjects – notably engineering, at all levels including apprenticeships –  where women still do worse, and there is a lot of action on various fronts to change this.   But the equality issue in the PP context is not about educational achievement, but about what happens at work.

The PP is fundamentally an argument for meritocracy – that women’s competences should be recognised and rewarded fairly.  But, as Michael Young so acutely pointed out when coining the term, meritocracy brings with it its own dangers.  Without socially agreed measures to prevent gross inequality, reward systems can produce some grotesque outcomes.  The PP is also about the limitations of education in bringing about social change;  this is why I think putting so much emphasis on social mobility through schools and access to higher education is a flawed strategy  (as the New Economics Foundation observes, in a telling report on inequality).

Equality + meritocracy =? :  a good formula for a lively political discussion?

4.   The implications  of the PP spread across countries, and play out differently in different cultural contexts.   Education generates pressures which can transform  societies.  If these pressures are denied outlet,  the results are unpredictable.  At one extreme we have Saudi Arabia:  how much longer will highly educated women put up with being segregated at work and denied access to senior positions (to say nothing of the rest of that country’s politics)?  But more civilised countries such as Japan and Korea are experiencing similar, if less extreme, tendencies: women’s educational levels soaring, but very little corresponding change in the world of work.  Korea’s gender pay gap is stuck around 40%, in spite of Korean women being amongst the most highly educated in the world.  The UK’s position is much more favourable, but the pressures are still there.  How will societies handle these pressures over the next 5 years?

5.  One important challenge offered by the PP, it seems increasingly to me, is how to review the ways in which jobs and occupations are defined, and therefore the competences needed to do them.  Many of them are of course defined by those who have done them up to now, who naturally find it hard to think that the definition might be out of date.  This could  be because it never really matched what was needed, or because technical or other innovations have changed the job, to a greater or lesser extent. In any case, questions need to be asked.   Do lawyers really have to work 14-hour days?  Are we serious about valuing ‘soft’ skills, at all levels?   Does the presence of women impair the quality of a front-line military unit?   What effect do social networks have on the promotion process?  The answers are more obvious in some cases than others, but such questions a need to be asked – and answered.  (For an interesting example on how we define successful philosophising, see, especially the penultimate paragraph.)

5.  There is now mounting evidence on the ways in which diversity helps groups to function better – and not only at board level.  This is not just a question of adding in more women (or other underrepresented groups).  It’s about thinking about skills and competences in collective terms, so that its members complement each other.  (As chair of a college’s governing board I think about this from time to time, recognising, for example, that we need the stickler who pulls us up on details – up to a point).  But we’re too used to recognising and rewarding individuals alone.  It would be good to know more about systems that are designed to do that for collective competence.

6.   I remain convinced that of the 5 PP factors, choice is the most interesting:  where women positively choose not to continue up the ladder, for good reasons.  As conventional career patterns disintegrate in the wake of the recession – and, to some extent – as computers/robots move into previously human-dominated occupations – some of us at least have the opportunity to rethink how much to work, when and what for.   The more examples there are of men choosing to deviate from the straight vertical career ladder – whether that is to take a greater share of childcare, or do other creative things –  the quicker both Principles –  Peter and Paula – will fade away.

And with that, a happy 2016 to you.



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