9th Feb 2023
3 Min Read

Why women are viewed as lucky when they succeed at work

Lindsay Kohler
Lindsay Kohler
People & Change

This article first appeared on Forbes.com on 30 January 2023

Historically, the concept of success has been epitomized through characterizations of men. As a result, when men are successful, their achievements are often attributed to their innate ability, without any regard for the role that luck — as a result of their privileges — plays in propelling them forward. On the flip side, women are typically viewed as being more passive passengers in their successful journeys. So, when they do succeed, it can feel unexpected. It can feel as if they were simply just…lucky.

Recent research out of The Inclusion Initiative from The London School of Economics found that people frequently confuse luck with ability — especially as it relates to men and women. This has implications for how we view workplace mistakes, can serve as the basis for gender discrimination, and contribute to exacerbating the gender pay gap.

Luck's role in how we view workplace mistakes

Luck is a two-sided coin. Strokes of good luck at work are easy to talk about, from serendipitously meeting someone who is able to land you your next job to incidentally timing a market downturn correctly. But the concept of bad luck is less talked about, even though it is no less pervasive. When men make mistakes at work, they are more likely to be seen as unlucky. When a woman makes a mistake, she's more likely to be judged critically and seen as lacking ability. Consequently, men could become disproportionately rewarded for what is thought to be ability, with no regard given to the mitigating factors contributing to their success.

Ignoring the role of luck creates an atmosphere that systemically rewards privilege

We tend to ignore the existence of luck with the belief that we are weighting our evaluations of others on ability exclusively. And evidence suggests that those with the power to recruit, promote, and dismiss are prone to conflate luck with ability when evaluating talent. Even if not consciously done, this tendency creates an environment where people are denied opportunities and rewards because they had a less auspicious path. Look, no one wants to be told that they are undeserving of their success, but we have a responsibility to look critically at the prevailing ideas of a meritocracy.

Three ways to reduce luck and ability biases at work

Here's the thing: ability and luck are not mutually exclusive. Individuals can be incredibly skilled and incredibly lucky, so it does not have to be a zero-sum game. Leaders can even the playing field by acknowledging this cumulative effect between luck and ability in both successes and failures.

#1: Change the gender composition

Increase the number of women in occupations that have historically been held by men. This will help to decouple gender congruency; for example, where women are seen as CEOs and other stereotypical female roles in equal measure. It can also act as an equalizer between men and women in how their respective successes and failures are perceived.

#2: Recruit by task-based assessments

While the interview is still the standard recruitment tool, it is too easy to let gut feelings on how a person should perform dominate decision-making. Decision-makers should include a role-based task in their assessment. This allows the decision-maker to see how good a candidate is in tasks linked to the role, rather than relying on how good they say they are or how good they appear to be.

#3: Audit and hold decision-makers accountable

There should be multiple decision-makers who offer diverse perspectives in high stake processes such as recruitment and promotions. Each should be made accountable for recruitment decisions by justifying their selections in writing.

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