The Peter Principle

(I can’t find a pertinent image for this week’s post.  Here is our sleeping puppy.)

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” wrote Dr. Laurence Peter in 1969, the year his “Peter Principle” went viral, 1969-style.  This recent piece from Forbes supplies information from an academic study, published 50 years after the initial assertions by Dr. Peter, which finds the basic premise of Peter’s statement to be true.  Summarizing the results of the study (run by Professors Benson, Li, and Shue), the Forbes author writes, “The data show that the best salespeople were more likely to a) be promoted and b) perform poorly as managers.  The Peter Principle is real.”

After just a little poking around the internet, I have found very little information about how the Peter Principle functions for people of color and women.  Tom Schuller has a book titled The Paula Principle, but the five points outlined on his website do not reassure me that the gender work on this issue is thorough or free from its own kind of bias.  Is Dr. Peter’s 1968 assertion principally about white men?  If so, we need to think more about how white men benefit from the assumption that they should be promoted, how people of color and women are placed at a disadvantage through this assumption, as they are not automatically promoted, and, perhaps most invisibly, how people of color and white men and women prop up the men who have been promoted to a position whose responsibilities they cannot handle.

In Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, I treat the issue of looks-like-me hiring and promotion.  A colleague once said that he wanted to make a particular hire because the candidate looked like the professors he had had in graduate school.  The more that white men believe in their own competence and privilege, the more they instill this value in colleagues—making the hire or promotion of someone like them seem “natural” or “right.”  Sometimes the person hired or promoted is entirely competent and wonderful at his job, and sometimes he’s not.  Nevertheless, the increasingly ingrained assumption that he will be contributes to gender, race, and gender-race pay gaps, which we know to be significant (cited in many posts in the Gender Shrapnel Blog; for example, here; see also this link from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research).  The assumption also contributes to the promotion problems of the glass ceiling (for white women) and the cement wall (Buzzanell and Lucas’ term for the lack of promotion of people, and especially women, of color).

In this poignant op-ed in the 1-11-18 issue of The New York Times, Charles Blow says of our “president”:  “Trumpism is a religion founded on patriarchy and white supremacy.

It is the belief that even the least qualified man is a better choice than the most qualified woman and a belief that the most vile, anti-intellectual, scandal-plagued simpleton of a white man is sufficient to follow in the presidential footsteps of the best educated, most eloquent, most affable black man.”  Indeed, we have elected a man to the highest post in the land, a post for which he had already demonstrated a lack of interest and a severe lack of preparation and for which, since the election, he has revealed previously unimaginable inability and dysfunction.  As Charles Blow signals, “Trump’s supporters are saying to us, screaming to us, that although he may be the ‘lowest white man,’ he is still better than Barack Obama, the ‘best colored man.’”

Indeed, even attempting to put politics aside and to focus on presidential job descriptions, much of the United States population must understand that oratory—having ideas and being able to transmit them orally in a compelling and inspiring manner—is a fundamental job requirement for the presidency. President Obama demonstrated time and again consummate oratorical skill (gained, perhaps, through profound thought, significant practice, and natural talent).  On the other hand, Trump’s communications reveal his lack of skill in this area and, I would submit, this oratorical incompetence lands our nation in significant and frequent problems.

Trump’s Peter Principle-style incompetence unfolds exponentially, as he hires men with a similar profile who are similarly unprepared to do the jobs for which they are hired and promoted. In addition, large cadres of individuals follow behind the so-called president, spending their valuable labor hours cleaning up small and large messes occasioned by colossal incompetence. The level of mismanagement boggles the mind and cements the idea of Peter Principle privilege.

This article from The New York Times (3-16-2018) reminds us that women and men already imagine men when they picture leaders, thus contributing to the power of the Peter Principle (i.e. fomenting the “natural” notion that men, especially white men, deserve to be promoted).  Our compass north is men in charge.  Even when we make workplace changes to open the pipeline, hire and promote people of color and white women, we always creep back to that compass north.  Changing perceived and real status quo remains a gigantic challenge.

The April, 2018, issue of The Atlantic features Peter Beinart’s piece titled “The Nancy Pelosi Problem.”  Beinart outlines Pelosi’s numerous successes as House Minority Leader and applauds her speaking, legislative, and fundraising abilities.  He also points out that the GOP used Pelosi’s image as a target, emphasizing time and again that women are not supposed to be in positions of power: “In the run-up to the 2012 elections, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, Republicans invoked Pelosi in television ads seven times as often as they invoked the Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid. Four years after that, in the run-up to 2016, they invoked her three times as often.”  Beinart asks and answers many questions about Pelosi’s supreme competence and the myriad ways the image of her and her competence are undermined: “Why so much discontent with a woman who has proved so good at her job? Maybe because many Democrats think Pelosi’s unpopularity undermines their chances of winning back the House. Why is she so unpopular? Because powerful women politicians usually are. Therein lies the tragedy. Nancy Pelosi does her job about as well as anyone could. But because she’s a woman, she may not be doing it well enough.”

I’ve written before about workplace “clean-up”—the often invisible ways in which lesser-paid employees (often people of color and women, as statistics repeatedly bear out) do the work of the greater-paid employees (often white men, as statistics repeatedly bear out) and make them appear more competent.  These tasks range from managing people and work responsibilities to writing speeches to running meetings.  Even as the Virginia Department of Education unveils its “Profile of a Virginia Graduate,” with an emphasis on job readiness, it continues to hire and promote superintendents, assistant superintendents, and middle- and high-school principals who in this part of the state are often white men, some of whom (not all!) lack real training to manage people, deliver speeches, run meetings, demand reasonable budgets, and generally do the work for which they were hired.  The more we subscribe to the Peter Principle, the more we inculcate in our young people the supposed naturalness of promoting white men and render invisible the work of people of color and white women.

Soccer great Abby Wambach touched upon many of these issues in her powerful and inspiring 2018 commencement speech at Barnard College.  We can all learn something from Wambach’s words and her real, practical advice for greater workplace fairness.

Dignity and Indignation

(White House website)

Commencement, the old idea that the end is not the end but a new beginning, delivers pomp and circumstance (the actual song and the ceremony), folding chairs, speakers’ platforms, honorary degrees, family lunches, sweaty black robes, grandparents seeking refuge from humidity, diplomas and brief swaggers on stage, caps tossed in the air, reminiscence, recognition, encouragement, celebration.   In a way, this ritual is a collective Bar or Bat Mitzvah in its excited anticipation of the people these youngsters have become and the older adults they will be.  Commencement is excitement, hope, and love.

This year I will attend our university’s baccalaureate service, a special ceremony for some of the seniors, the formal graduation, my daughter’s 8th-grade graduation, and the high-school graduation of dear friends.  That is a lot of commencing packed into three short days, and I’m looking forward to it, in no small part because I am so happy for these people and glad for their next adventures.  When I was younger, I thought rituals rather silly; the predictable garb, incantations, and seasonal speeches seemed to pale in comparison to simply being with the people you loved and wanted to celebrate.  My brother-in-law once reminded me that people need rituals in order to acknowledge beginnings and endings, to come together as a community, to observe the different ways in which time passes.  He is right.  These rituals allow us to tell each other of the respect we feel for one another.  They underscore human dignity and, when done right, also nudge us towards indignation in the face of injustice.  Simply put, injustice erases human dignity; it tells us that some humans are more worthy than others.  Commencement should remind us that we have learned otherwise.

While the United States continues to allow, and too often to condone, the killing of black people, the country also sees the smaller indignities, or reductions of worthiness, in the acts of white people calling the police on black people and the police responding to these racist and frivolous calls.  These daily indignities are the everyday bits of proof of the gigantic problem of assassination and incarceration of people of color, a problem exposed through film, fiction, academic studies, and activist organizations, including, but not limited to, Black Lives Matter.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on rarity and reporting and this one on Black Lives Matter.)  We as a nation ignore these everyday occurrences at our peril, as they must form a part of our reckoning with racial injustice and our solutions to these profound problems of humanity, worth, and dignity.

Some of you may have seen the White House website’s piece on MS-13 gang members and activity.  (See the horrifyingly official headline in the photo above.) Robin Alperstein’s upcoming article in Dame Magazine will treat this issue, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post addresses it here.  I therefore just want to mention the MS-13 piece in the context of dignity.  Calling certain groups of people “animals” does us all a disservice.  The person who uses the term diminishes the humanity of the person being addressed, her or his own humanity, and that of all of us.  (Of course, too, this derogatory term assumes a less than harmonious relationship with the flora and fauna that make up our world.)  Ass, bitch, chicken, cow, pig, pussy, rat, shrimp, snake—when we use these animal terms against people—we are understanding those people to be less human than ourselves.  Now, let’s return to the main point:  the so-called president of the United States chooses to use this language on the official website of his office—of our nation–, thereby representing us to the world in this demeaning, demoralizing, dehumanizing way.

The website text recounts atrocious acts and attacks of Mara Salvatrucha, a large transnational gang known for its violent campaigns.  The end of the piece states, “President Trump’s entire Administration is working tirelessly to bring these violent animals to justice.”  This jarring us/them, human/animal, superior/inferior, worthy/unworthy language attempts to establish the Trump administration as morally superior saviors, at best a laughable position and, at worst, an example of generalizing, xenophobic, and violent rhetoric directed at all Latinxs.  Dionne takes on the dignity question in this way: “But both of these innocent explanations underestimate Trump’s gift for using incendiary words that send clear messages to his supporters. He is brutally calculating in finding ways of casting large groups of people as undeserving of dignity. Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”  I shudder to think about the words of wisdom this megalomaniac narcissist will offer to the students graduating from the United States Naval Academy on Friday.

The “president,”—Groping Old President, paper-towel thrower, wall-builder, dictator-lover, cheater, liar, stealer, colluding election-grabber—clearly not the best choice to lead a diverse and complex nation, is also not the ideal person to express to a large group of 22-year-olds that they can choose dignity, express indignation in the face of social injustice, and commence a much-needed wave of change in a country struggling to hold onto any shred of humanity.

(Bulletin board at the university where I teach.  Much kinder than the White House website.)

Who’s Sorry?

Over the past ten days, I have had lots of exposure to airline companies of the United States.  As a person with a ticket to ride was being dragged off a United flight, I was trying to make it to Portland, where I would see old friends, give a talk, and meet colleagues whose work I admire.  I never made it to Portland.

On Wednesday, we were boarded onto the plane, only to sit on the runway for just under two hours and then be told that the flight was cancelled (no refunds for paid-for checked bags).  I was rebooked for the same flight the following day.  At 10:00 that night, however, I received a text telling me that the next day’s flight would also be cancelled and that I would receive notice of rebooking.  That notice never came, so I spent just over four hours on Thursday trying to get booked on a flight for Friday.  Once I had that flight, whew, I could rest easy, despite having had to juggle plans several times already.  When I arrived at the airport on Friday, the flight was delayed.  I would therefore miss the connecting flight and was told there was not one seat on any plane of any airline available to get me to Portland.

Who was sorry?  Every person I dealt with at ticket counters was a young, African-American woman.  To a person, they were knowledgeable, patient, and unfailingly polite.  They had to express to each new disappointed, frustrated, or angry customer that they were very sorry and were doing the best they could under the circumstances.  I started to think about how airlines operate.

We have all seen passengers lose their calm, become visibly agitated, raise their voices, and even threaten gate agents. The bigwigs (CEOs) are men (only 5% of all CEOs of all airlines in the world are women; none of these airlines are in the United States).  The pilots are usually men and usually white (see 2011 statistics from CNN here; this 2016 CBS piece reports that 6.5% of U.S. pilots are women).  The flight attendants and gate agents are usually women (in 2014, 75.8% of flight attendants in the United States were women; I haven’t yet found data on gate agents).  Men get to hide from the problems of the airlines, while their lesser-paid and more visible counterparts, predominantly women, are on the front lines.  When things go wrong—major weather systems, mechanical failures, absent flight crews–, passengers are often the last to know, and the visible front-line people are the first to have to apologize for natural occurrences and administrative mistakes that are not their fault.  In sum, the United States airline industry puts its men in the cockpit and its women in a “pink ghetto” (1983 term coined by Stallard, Ehrenreich, and Sklar and cited in this 2010 Washington Post article; historical background available here) of apology politics.

Last week Elle (even the beauty mags are getting more feminist in our current climate) featured an article by Sady Doyle titled “Women Don’t Need to Apologize Less—Men Need to Learn How to Apologize” (4-13-17).  In the article, Doyle cites research that confirms that women apologize more than men, but also expresses frustration that this is often erroneously attributed to women’s low levels of self-confidence.  She stresses that the research signals that “the disparity arises not from the fact that women are socialized to apologize ‘too often,’ but from the fact that men are not socialized to apologize at all.”  Doyle then underscores how problematic this is when a Sean Spicer needs to apologize for deeply misinformed and insanely insensitive comments about Hitler and chemical weapons and doesn’t know how to.  A life of privilege is a life of not having to say you’re sorry.  Doyle sums up Spicer’s “manpology” problem in this way:  “Sean Spicer has spent hours of his life flagrantly not apologizing for something he has clearly gotten wrong.”  The airline miscommunications I experienced ten days ago were the result of too many higher-ups exploiting too many lower-downs—their own employees and their customers.

This apology differential works in physical space as well.  You recall that I was desperately trying to get on a flight ten days ago.  When I did finally get on a flight (not to my original destination), I sat in the middle seat with men about twenty years younger on either side of me.  They were generally nice, and we shared mints and pleasantries.  Nevertheless, each assumed that the armrest was his, one constantly jabbed me in the side with his elbow, and the other rested his bare foot on my seat tray.  No apologies, no “excuse me’s,” no recognition that this shared space should be truly shared.  Meanwhile, two inches over, in the aisle, the flight attendants were moving heavy carts through tiny spaces, saying all the while, “Excuse me.  Sorry.  Watch your elbows.  Careful with your shoulders.  Please move your feet.  Excuse me.”

I offer one final example of the uneven apology culture.  A colleague of mine stated last year that she was told her e-mails were too long, “just like most women’s.”  She decided to limit her e-mails to three lines so that they would be edited for appropriate brevity and could be read more like the e-mails of male colleagues.  In a sense, her self-editing was an apology for an e-mail style she had obviously developed over decades.  I have always found this person’s e-mails to be clear, thorough, and polite, and, therefore, to not need much follow-up.  To me, this approach requires no apology.  In fact, it’s a solid way to get the job done.

Homework assignment:  Figure out how much “I’m sorry” has to do with civility impositions.