Women do not believe in career luck

What does it take to get a management position? Most people would probably say that you need good skills and a good CV. It also helps to have a strong network and a bit of luck by being in the right place at the right time.  But not everyone shares this view. In fact, men and women from different parts of the world have very different ideas about what it takes to get a management position.


Part-time lecturer Christina Lundsgaard Ottsen from the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Aarhus BSS has studied what young people think it takes to acquire a management position. In her latest study, she explored the different perceptions found in people living in Denmark and people in the Middle Eastern country Qatar. One thing in particular stands out: Neither women in Denmark nor women in Qatar believe that serendipity will help them on their way to a management position.

Women in Denmark and Qatar

Not surprisingly, all participants in the study believe that professional skills matter the most when it comes to getting a management position. This applies to both men and women - in Denmark and in Qatar. Danish men and women as well as men from Qatar also believe in the significance of having a strong network. However, women in Qatar do not share this view. In Qatar, women have more difficulties moving around freely and positioning themselves, and thus it is harder for them to have as many contacts.

However, when asked whether luck affects their career paths, Danish women and women in Qatar offer the same answer: They do not believe that luck matters when it comes to getting a management position. However, men in Denmark and Qatar are of a different opinion. Studies of goal-oriented motivation have previously shown a strong correlation between a person’s belief in luck and their motivation to achieve. If men trust their own career luck more than women, they feel more confident that they will succeed. This in turn makes them more determined to pursue their leadership aspirations. Women’s lack of belief that serendipity paves the way for a management position can have a negative impact on their career ambitions, even in societies characterised by gender equality.

“It’s rather surprising that women in Denmark don’t trust their own career luck considering that we have an equal society, formally speaking. This suggests that Danish women don’t actually experience equality. If you believe in luck, you are also more likely to believe that the people around you support your choices and contribute to paving your career path. My study shows that young men feel a greater sense of self-confidence on their way towards a management position. Should they fail, they are more likely to blame the circumstances. This makes it easier for them to get up, brush off the dust and try their luck at a new position,” says Ottsen and continues:

“The lack of support for Danish women’s career choices is substantiated by an 2012 EU survey of women in decision-making positions. Out of all the EU countries, Denmark is least likely to believe that women want responsibility on the labour market. Although Denmark is a more gender-equal country than Qatar, the negative attitude towards women’s career ambitions is likely to contribute to Danish women feeling like they can’t base their careers on luck in the same way as men.”

"Theoretically, the lack of faith in your own luck can have an effect on women’s motivation. In this way, it can also partly explain why there are so few Danish women in top management"

Christina Lundsgaard Ottsen - Part-time lecturer, ph.d., Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, Aarhus BSS 

Men get more help than women

Ottsen describes the differences between men and women in career-related contexts like this:

  • Mentors do not elevate female juniors professionally in the same way as they do male juniors. Even though more women than men take part in mentor programmes, men are still more likely to get promoted via a mentor who helps them by introducing them to the right places and the right networks.
  • Female juniors are often mentored by women. Often, the female mentor will have a lower position and a less extensive network of contacts than male mentors. Actually, a man is twice as likely as a woman to be chosen and elevated professionally by a superior.
  • Women are judged harder than men by superiors using a controlling and directive management style.
  • Previous research shows that perceived luck increases motivation. If men already believe in career luck more than women do, they are probably also more motivated to go after the management position.

Fewer Danish women in management

There are fewer women in management positions in Denmark than in southern Europe and the other Scandinavian countries. In fact, Denmark is below the OECD average of a 31 per cent gender balance in senior positions in society. 

“When we look at qualitative studies of men and women’s different paths towards management positions, it isn’t surprising that women believe less in career luck than men. However, it would probably increase women’s management ambitions if the differences were evened out. Theoretically, the lack of faith in your own luck can have an effect on women’s motivation. In this way, it can also partly explain why there are so few Danish women in top management. However, this would of course require further studies,” Ottsen concludes.


Qatar and Denmark serve as a basis for comparison as both countries prioritise education politically, finance schooling through taxes and have more female university students than male.

The participants in the study consisted of 115 people from Qatar; 55 women and 60 men. The Danish participants consisted of 121 people; 70 women and 51 men.
All participants were asked to answer a number of questions about management:

  • “Whether I obtain a management position depends mostly on my skills”
  • “Even though I may have good skills, I will not get management responsibility without appealing to those in power”
  • “Whether I obtain a management position depends on whether I am lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time”.

All questions had to be assessed on a scale from -3 = Disagree to 3 = Agree.
The article is published in the journal Gender Management