The skills-reward mismatch

The skills-reward mismatch

18th May 2017

Tom Schuller on leadership and the challenge of ensuring women in FE and skills are rewarded for the skills they possess.

Alongside the enduring problem of the UK’s poor productivity is a related puzzle: how do we decide on who gets rewarded at work, and for what? I’m not talking here about the colossal payouts made to CEOs, often for results which are mediocre, or which have no causal connection to the behaviour of the ‘top man’. I’m referring to the way in which we recognise what women and men do at work, and how they are rewarded, both through salaries and in terms of career progression.

This is hugely relevant to the FE and skills sector, because of the way in which skills are – or are not – recognised, in individual workplaces and in the system more generally. How far are skills actually valued? Is this valuing visible? Who decides on what is ‘valuable’?

‘Top man’ in the paragraph above is a trailer to the main topic of this blog post. There are, of course, a few top women. But the broad question here is how accurately women – at all levels – are rewarded for the skills and qualifications they gain; and the answer is, only very approximately.

Women now outperform men at every level of the education system. Once they leave school or college, they show a greater appetite for carrying on learning and gaining more qualifications. They are present in our FE colleges in far greater numbers than men. All these gaps are increasing.

In an ideal meritocratic world, this commitment to raising their competence levels would bring women due rewards. But progress has been very slow. The female/male competence gap is widening at a faster rate than the male/female pay and careers gap is closing. This is what I call the Paula Principle: most women work below their level of competence. It is the mirror image of the once-famous Peter Principle, which states that every employee rises to his [sic] level of incompetence. The Paula Principle is not only about top people; it applies at every level of our organisations.

What does this mean for leadership? In his FETL report on the challenges of third sector leadership, Tim Ward reported one provider of training for women as saying they needed to go beyond just enabling skills acquisition;  what matters is to influence employers so that women can more easily succeed in male-dominated environments. How does this relate to the Paula Principle?

Work cultures and reward systems do not drop from the sky. They reflect the values of the organisation, and the people who control it. We should be reflecting on just how well or badly these cultures and systems fit with the changing gender profile of our competences.

One practical example. Teamwork skills are routinely identified as a high-priority skill. Enabling teams to work effectively, communicate well and make sure that the effectiveness of their pooled talents is greater than the sum of their individual parts – all this is part of the rhetoric of what makes a good business. Everyone knows – generalisation alert! – that women are usually better at developing teamwork than men. How is this important competence recognised and rewarded?

So the leadership challenge is to make sure that rewards systems match more closely to the competences people bring to work. Doing this means helping people, at every level, to work out how this should happen. We can all identify the factors which cause the under-utilisation of competence in our particular context. These factors will vary from sector to sector and workplace to workplace, but getting the conversation going really should not be too hard.


Tom Schuller was Head of the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) between 2003 and 2008 and was co-author of Learning Through Life, the final report of the independent Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, which he directed. He has also served as Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education and Professor of Lifelong Learning at Birkbeck, University of London; and as co-director of the Research Centre on the Wider Benefits of Learning. He is currently a visiting professor at Birkbeck (London) and the Institute of Education.

Tom is writing in a personal capacity and his views do not necessarily reflect those of FETL or its leadership.

His book, The Paula Principle: how and why women work below their competence level, is published by Scribe.


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