Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife?

Maura O’Neill—lecturer at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business—writes an article about women in business called “Luck or Hard Work?” in Forbes’ February 26 edition (members only, but it’s free).

Ms. O’Neill says she has studied the glass ceiling, and concluded that the common explanation—women opting out to have children—does not add up. It is “rarely the real reason, and never the only reason…The more nuanced explanation is that many women think getting to the top job pivots more on luck and connections than on hard work.”

In examining the World Values Survey, she thinks she finds support. She says:

The 1995–97 survey asked people whether they attributed success in life to luck and connections or to hard work. We found a significant gender perceptions gap that gets wider the higher you look in the professional hierarchy. Twelve percent more working men than women think it is hard work, rather than luck, that determines success. When you look at men and women who hold supervisory roles, 30% more men than women believe it’s hard work that determines success.

And Ms. O’Neill’s conclusion:

…the old boy network trumps 60-hour workweeks. And when women believe this, their inability to land the top job becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy…
I worry that if women don’t think that the workplace is a level playing field where effort generates promotions, they will not feel compelled to invest their best efforts. As a result, corporate America will lose out on a vast reservoir of talent.


Ms. O’Neill’s logic is tortured in two places—and manages to perpetuate a misconception about getting ahead.

First: if the premise is true—that networks do trump work weeks—then the last thing that women should do is disbelieve it. And the next-to-last last thing they should do is continue to invest in long work-weeks.

But Ms. O’Neill seems to be saying both: women should believe something she thinks to be false, and women should continue to do something that hasn’t worked. This fits the well-known definition of insanity—doing something over and over, expecting different results.

Second: Ms. O’Neill quotes the Values study as asking women “whether they attributed success in life to luck and connections or to hard work.” My emphasis on “luck and connections—” because they are surely not the same thing.

Yet—in the rest of her article—Ms. O’Neill then talks only about “luck.” "Connections" are left behind, or assumed to be a matter of luck.

Not so fast.

“Connections” are relationships that are particularly helpful for success. Relationships massively affect business success, and will do so even more as the world gets more connected.

Who you know is vital to success—Ms. O’Neill is right about that. If you have no relationships, you are dead in the water. Certain people have a walking-in advantage in relationships—those who are connected.

Is that “fair?” Certainly not. But nor is it “luck.”

Ms. O’Neill conflates luck and connections. She then suggests women substitute a belief in hard work for a belief in luck. Both points are misguided.

It’s men who are more likely to believe hard work explains success. Yet men lie.

In a world of haves and have-nots, the haves are more likely to attribute success to their own hard work, rather than having been born a) rich, b) white, c) male, d) in a good neighborhood, e) having successful parents, etc. Those who have connections are more likely to deny their importance.

Ms. O’Neill seems to want to believe in a meritocracy based on hard work alone. But that doesn’t work even as a utopian idea. It matters what you work on. 60 hour weeks on technical or desk work will—and should—get you a decent bonus and sunshades to go with your glass ceiling—but no more.

At higher levels of business, if someone—man or woman—does not develop relationships and turn them into connections, then (s)he doesn’t understand leadership, nor deserve the right to be promoted into it.

The meritocracy that does exist past middle manager level values relationships more than technical mastery—as any of a thousand books on leadership will attest.

Luck is not the issue—relationships are. If luck were the driver of success, women would be equally favored. Ironically, relationships are area where women (fairly or unfairly) may have an advantage.

If a woman (or a man) believes they are being held back by “luck,” (s)he is sadly misguided. If a woman believes she’s being held back by lack of connections, she’s probably right. To believe "luck" is the same thing as "connections" is to be confused about the role of human nature in business. Hard work does not triumph over connections, nor should it at the higher levels. To suggest otherwise is tragic for women.

The world simply is not the “level playing field where effort generates promotions” that Ms. O’Neill would have women believe. It’s not about sexism, it’s about humanity. Perpetuating the lie to women just leads them to internalize their oppression.

Luck or hard work? Do you walk to school or carry your lunch? Have you stopped beating your wife?

It’s a false choice. In the real world, it’s about relationships, connections and trust—not 60-hour work weeks or lucky stars.

0 replies
  1. Maureen Sharib
    Maureen Sharib says:

    I walk to school AND chew gum.

    Women (in general) are much more prone to "excuse themselves" than men are. Until THAT stops the gender differences will continue.

  2. Peggy
    Peggy says:

    Charles –

    You and I have exchanged briefly on this topic in the past so I thought I’d leave a quick note here… I like that you make the distinction between luck and connections, and that you emphasize that connections are indeed important.

    Perhaps when O’Neill suggests that women need to work harder or longer to get ahead, she could clarify that what they need to work harder and longer at is the relationships they have at work, not just the pile on their desk. But then we come back to a similar question I asked a few days ago: what work would women be willing to make personal sacrifices for? (See here: http://careerencouragement.typepad.com

    Maybe instead I should have asked, what relationships would we be willing to invst some effort in? Women seem to need to like or trust people before they are willing to expend energy building a relationship with them. This need is definitely be a career killer. I have been fortunate in my life to have a good career mentor who explained to me the difference between a professional relationship and a personal relationship. Once I understood that I didn’t necessarily have to like someone (note that I didn’t say I don’t have to trust them) in order to have a good professional relationship with someone, things at work got a lot easier for me and my career moved forward.

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Maura, I agree with you that women (in general) do indeed need to "get over" the need to excuse themselves.  Though it also seems to me that men need to hear women as another point of view.  A wholesale conversion of women to a pre-existing male way of doing things would be, well, not good.

    Peggy, thanks for the distinction between liking and working with someone, that rings very true and, as you attest, is valuable.  I wonder though—does that exactly parallel the "professional" vs. "personal" distinction?  Can we also say that there are people in our personal lives who we may not particularly like, but with whom it is good all ’round for us to get along with?  What’s behind my question is the ability to integrate our personal selves into our professional lives—while still respecting your distinction between liking and working with. 

  4. Code Sleuth
    Code Sleuth says:

    The Glass Ceiling is almost impenetrable in the world of computer software programming. At a recent Rails conference, only 1 out of more than a hundred speakers was a woman.


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