On this page I’ll be posting fragments of chapters. They’re supposed to
act as appetisers. Let me know if they put you off….



‘Every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence’ – the Peter Principle

‘Most women work below their level of competence’ – the Paula Principle

 George Eliot gives us a natural starting point. Mr Tulliver, the miller in The Mill on the Floss, is a kindly man who wants the best for his children, especially his son.  He’s debating with his comfortable wife on what to do about Tom’s future.

“What I want, you know, ‘ said Mr Tulliver ‘- what I want is to give Tom a good eddication, and eddication as’ll be a bread for him. …I should like Tom to be a bit of a scholard, so as he might be up to the tricks o’ these fellows as talk fine and write with a flourish.  It ‘ud be a help to me wi’ these lawsuits, and arbitrations, and things. “

The trouble is that Tom is not exactly a star learner.

“ ‘What I’m a bit afraid on is,’ continued Mr Tulliver after a pause, ‘as Tom hasn’t got the right sort o’ brains for a smart fellow. I doubt he’s a bit slowish. He takes after your family, Bessy.’ ”

The parents agree, in their amiable way, that from their union the brains have gone to his little sister Maggie:

“ ‘It seems a bit of a pity, though,’ said Mr Tulliver, ‘as the lad should take after the mother’s side instead o’ the little wench. That’s the worst on’t wi’ the crossing o’ breeds: you can never justly calkilate what’ll come on’t. The little un takes after my side, now;  she’s twice as ‘cute as Tom. Too ‘cute for a woman, I’m afraid,’ continued Mr Tulliver, turning his head dubiously first on one side and then on the other. ‘It’s no mischief much while she’s a little ‘un, but an over-‘cute woman’s no better nor a long-tailed sheep – she’ll fetch none the bigger price for that.’ “

Maggie never gets the education she might have longed for and excelled at, while Tom goes away to an academy where he struggles to learn even basic skills. He is a decent lad, but even on his return he has a hard time maintaining his superiority over his clever younger sister. There is, though, one area where she is never going to match him.  When Maggie offers him some money to make up for the fact that his pet rabbit died while in her care, he exclaims, “I don’t want your money, you silly thing. I’ve got a great deal more money than you, because I’m a boy. I always have half-sovereigns and sovereigns for my Christmas boxes, because I shall be a man, and you only have five-shilling pieces, because you’re only a girl.”

Much has changed in our expectations of girls and boys since George Eliot so memorably sketched the Tullivers and their apparently different destinies. But some things have changed faster than others, and it’s exactly the contrasting differences in the pace and scale of change that have prompted this book. Acuteness, or at least its modern equivalent educational achievement, is now applauded and encouraged in girls.  Women are fully expected to succeed at 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, even though women’s learning continually outstrips men’s by nearly as much as Maggie outsmarted her brother. Progress towards equality in the way we reward skills has slowed to a crawl or even stalled.  Whilst women’s earnings might not be stuck quite at five shillings to the men’s sovereign (ie 25%), they have not caught up let alone passed men. It’s not only about money: women’s careers have a  lower and flatter trajectory, and their work is given less recognition, at every level. In short, we have a widening competence gap between women and men, but a persistent gap in the rewards work brings to men and women.   It is this contrast that generates the Paula Principle.



Half of the story in the previous chapters has been about the extraordinary expansion of women’s opportunities.  Think back to George Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver and Winifred Holtby’s Lydia Holly, and what was open, or rather not open, to them.   Virginia Woolf ‘s Three Guineas is another biting indictment of the grossly unequal support given to men’s and women’s learning: Arthur’s education fund supports him generously through the noble quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge, but his sister has to make do with classes given by “a little woman with a red nose who is not well educated herself but has an invalid mother to support.”[1] If Woolf and her fellow authors could have peered ahead to the educational crossovers recounted in Chapter 2, they would have found them literally fantastic.

These educational achievements have undoubtedly had their effect. Women are expected to aspire occupationally. Young women with good qualifications today start professional careers on more or less equal terms with their male peers. The overall pay gap has narrowed, so that women earn closer to male rates. In politics, there has been a dramatic upsurge in women leaders: in my own patch we have a woman prime minister of the UK, and the three main parties in Scotland are all led by a woman; as  I write the USA looks set to elect its first woman president.   But big questions remain about the direction and pace of future progress. Will the hard-won initial parity in careers be sustained over time, as women and men follow different trajectories? Can women in lower-ranking jobs benefit as much as their higher-flying sisters do? Can the way we reward people be adapted to reflect the different values and styles that women bring to the workplace?

The Paula Principle matters. It matters to very many individual women because they cannot put to full use the competences they have acquired, in youth and in adulthood.  This means personal frustration as well as material loss, feeling undervalued as much as being underpaid. It matters to organisations (profit or non-profit) which are missing out on the skills available to them. It matters to societies, if they genuinely subscribe to the simple basic principles of fairness and efficiency. The costs – personal, economic and social –  are rising all the time as women continue to accumulate qualifications and skills, and at a faster rate than men do.

It would be a big step forward if we could agree that the issues raised by the Paula Principle affect us all, men as well as women. Even then, not everyone will see these issues in the same light. Opinions will differ, sometimes sharply, on which aspects matter most. That’s why I’ve invited you to reflect on which of the PP factors you think are particularly important, for yourself or more generally. Does the first PP factor – discrimination – still have as much of a grip as it used to? Is it easier now to reconcile childcare with paid work, and are we heading for the same struggle with eldercare (PP factor 2)? Has women’s self-confidence grown along with their qualifications, or do we need to change the ways we reward ‘confidence’ (PP factor 3)? And are we near to dissolving the circular process by which social and professional networks favour men’s careers at the expense of those of women (PP factor 4)?


The final factor takes us in an apparently contrary direction. Some women positively choose not to climb further up a career ladder, but instead to continue doing what they are competently doing. Or they choose to move sideways – or even drop down a level or two – because this offers a more fulfilling future. These positive choices by women provide us not with a reason for complacency about the current position but with a potential template for both sexes in their pursuit of a better quality of working and personal life.

How do we take this forward? In other words, what is the Paula agenda?

[1] V. Woolf, Three Guineas, Penguin Classics p119.




Caring used to be more or less wholly focussed on children.  Now it’s bipolar.  Eldercare is a relatively new component of the care issue – or if it is not itself new, its scale and political profile are. So many of us are living longer that the whole shape of our population is changing, with a different balance between generations. Inevitably this means that many more of us already live with some kind of disability, or at least are in some measure unable to look after ourselves fully. How do we collectively cope?  It is more commonly women who take up the caring responsibilities that result, to a very large extent in respect of their own parents (or other elders) and to a lesser but still significant extent in respect of those of their partner.

Currently there are about two thirds of a million women, and a third of a million men, who receive the UK Carer’s Allowance, which supports carers of disabled people (not only elderly). [1]   But this is the formal end of the caring spectrum.  It tells us little about those daily acts of support which even in the minds of those involved might not figure as ‘caring’ in the technical sense, only in the emotional or practical sense – the popping in, the occasional shopping, the safety-netting where there is a crisis. This is the kind of activity which women do much more than men, as the multi-tasking maintenance engineers of families and family relations.

Eldercare raises again the question of ‘voluntariness’:  how far caring for someone is a positive choice, or a matter of moral obligation or even compassion.  But these kinds of responsibility impinge more on women’s careers. The notion of the sandwich or sequential caresqueeze –  responsibility for elders overlapping with or following directly on from responsibility for children – is becoming quite familiar.  This especially affects later careers, as middle-aged women deal with elderly parents or other family members.  This may come just at the point when their career trajectory is turning upwards, after trundling along on the flat as their children grew up.   The demands of eldercare are unpredictable  – you cannot tell when, for how long and with what degree of intensity care will be needed.

The debate on gendered eldercare lags far behind that of gendered childcare.  The issues are not discussed as widely, and there is much less research on how eldercare works.  In a way this is entirely understandable, since the demographic trends which make it increasingly salient today are quite recent. But there is a very different complexion to the whole issue since the single-sex biology of motherhood is not mirrored in eldercare; unlike giving birth, there is no evident a priori reason why it might be unequally distributed.  No breast-feeding, no early bonding. It is true that arguments about income foregone may still weigh in favour of men working rather than caring. They still are more likely to have the higher income, and therefore the household loses more if they give up or reduce their paid work.  But the overall case for asymmetry in care responsibilities is far weaker. I sense that there is a much bigger debate looming around this issue – perhaps even opening up whole new areas of psychology to do with later life parent-child relations, mirroring some of the last century’s exploration of what happens in early childhood. Even simply recognising the fact of one’s parents’ physical or psychological dependency can be a telling moment. But that’s an exploration for someone else to take forward.

In Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs Nora Eldridge’s mother, intelligent and educated, has played the traditional domestic role of post-war society, raising two children and depending entirely on her husband financially. When Nora is seven, her mother is humiliated to discover that she does not have enough in her allowance to cover Christmas gifts:

“Suddenly”, Nora recounts, “ – inexplicably to me as I was, but in a way so obvious to me now – she turned viperish, rageful, in a temper so shameful in the A&P as in her earlier tears.  ‘Don’t ever get yourself stuck like this,’ she hissed, ‘Promise me?  Promise me now?…You need to have your own life, earn your own money, so you’re not scrounging around like a beggar, trying to put ten dollars together for your kids’ Christmas presents.  Leeching off your father’s – your husband’s – pathetic paycheck. Never.  Never.  Promise me?”

Nora fulfils the promise to her mother.  She starts in management consultancy, where she has an office on the 34th floor and four pairs of Christian Louboutin shoes.  She nearly marries her lawyer boyfriend Ben.  But by the time we meet her she has traded this for a job as a teacher, with a secret desire to be an artist.


Some 25 years after the initial episode, Nora visits her mother, who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  At the end of the visit her mother clenches her jaw and says: “Get out.  I can’t. Get out. But never for a second think I don’t remember what it’s like.  Don’t think either that I can’t help hating you for it.  Just right now.”

In a sense Nora has by then already got out.  But the sadness of the story twines together the themes of family and career aspirations. Once Nora’s mother dies she takes on the main responsibility for looking after her ageing father, since her brother Matt is married and has his own family life.

“Even as I was taking care of my parents, I got very good at practical things over those few years, like the most competent secretaries.  I lived multiple lives: in the first, I had every appearance of a modestly accomplished young woman in her early thirties, capable if not interesting, easy to get on with, prompt, efficient, with unnoticeable clothes and a serviceable hairstyle…

My first life was a masquerade, my Clark Kent life, though in my second I was not a heroine at all.  I sometimes hoped that someone out there imagined for me a second life of glamour and drama, as a rock star’s mistress, or an FBI agent.  But I wasn’t the sort of person for whom anyone would bother imagining a secret life;  and in that second life I was no lover or huntress or martyr, but a daughter, just a dutiful daughter.

Then there was my third life, small and secret: the life of my dioramas, the vestiges of my artist self.”  [2]

Nora’s artistic specialty is making tiny elaborate dioramas, reconstructions of scenes from books, but she cannot make an independent living from it. She sums it up:

“You could say that my mother and father, grateful as they manifestly were, didn’t ask me to give up my life.  And if I chose to, though I can’t see the logic of my own choice, I’d like to believe it was a purposeful choice and not simply a show of poor time management.  A good number of my children are bad at time management.  You see it a lot.  But you can’t succeed in life unless you get good at it:  there’s no point in writing the world’s best answer to the first question on the test, if you don’t then leave yourself enough time to write any answers at all to the other questions.  You still fail the other test.  And I worry, in my bleaker hours, that this is what I’ve done.  I answered the dutiful daughter question really well; I was aware of doing only a so-so job on the grown-up career front, but I didn’t really care, because there were two big exam questions I wanted to be sure I answered fully: the question of art, and the question of love.”

The Woman Upstairs is a plangent story of a failure to resolve the timing question, and of how one set of caring responsibilities – not exceptionally heavy in themselves – invades and undermines a woman’s life.  The particular irony is that the outcome for Nora is that she never gets a opportunity to manage her own childcare responsibilities.


[1] Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Carer’s Allowance:  Retrospective equality impact assessment  DWP 2010,

[2] Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs, Virago 2013, pp62-3