Is Sheryl Sandberg Really Just Lucky?

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is one of the most successful women in the business world, and she recently became the world’s richest self-made woman. She’s quickly becoming a household name, and ambitious women and girls all over the world look up to her as a role model. To what does the New York Times attribute her success? Luck!

Sandberg herself doesn’t talk much about luck, except to say that women shouldn’t rely on it. She makes a practice of telling young women to “lean in” to their careers. Here’s how she put it in a Harvard Barnard graduation speech last year:

Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day. Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually. These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back… So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.

But a recent Times profile of Sandberg makes a point to say that it’s not all good decision-making and personal drive that have gotten her where she is today: “Everyone agrees she is wickedly smart,” the paper says. “But she has also been lucky, and has had powerful mentors along the way.”

Rebecca J. Rosen, who probably just lucked into her job (just kidding!), writes a smart post in response to this at the Atlantic:

The problem with the way the Times framed Sandberg’s success begins with the use of the word “but”: She’s smart, *but* she’s lucky, as though this somehow trumps her smarts. Success comes from being smart *and* lucky. I searched through the past five years of New York Times archives to find other instances when luck had been employed to explain someone’s success. … The only two instances I saw of luck gaining a fuller explanatory power was once in the case of George Steinbrenner, whom the author thought quite lucky to have bought the Yankees just before the era of free agency, and Kristin Gillibrand, the senator of New York, of whom Al Sharpton is quoted as saying, “I think Gillibrand either has mystical powers or the best luck I have ever seen in politics.” It’s rather unfortunate that the one time the Times inadvertently discredited someone’s success on account of luck, that someone was the woman known for telling women not to chalk their success up to luck.

The Times is not alone in this assessment. A male commenter on our Facebook page wrote in response to a post about Sandberg becoming the richest self-made woman in the world: “Self made??? She attached her cart to the right horse…not sure about self made.” Sure, picking the right “horse” is part of success, though it’s not as if Sandberg chose her employers randomly. And she did more than just pluck slips of paper with “Google” and “Facebook” written on them out of a hat. She also worked incredibly hard and skillfully for years. Is that really just luck?

Attributing female success to sheer luck is an established phenomenon. In 2007, two German researchers asked 20-something men and women to assess whether various peers’ success could be attributed to ability, effort, luck, or looks. The results found that whether you think a peer is “just lucky” depends a lot on gender and attractiveness. Men attributed attractive women’s success to ability, while women denigrated them by saying they had succeeded through sheer luck. By contrast, women said that less attractive successful women had earned their success, while men said they just got lucky. In other words, if you feel sexually threatened by someone, you’re likelier to chalk up their success to luck.

Every successful person has benefited from luck, of course. Warren Buffett is fond of saying he “won the ovarian lottery” by being born a white male in the United States. “I had all kinds of luck,” he says. But luck isn’t everything. As one recent article by scientists who have studied the phenomenon of luck and the success of people like Bill Gates put it: “The difference between Mr. Gates and similarly advantaged people is not luck. Mr. Gates went further, taking a confluence of lucky circumstances and creating a huge return on his luck. And this is the important difference. Luck, good and bad, happens to everyone, whether we like it or not. But when we look at the [super-successful], we see people like Mr. Gates who recognize luck and seize it, leaders who grab luck events and make much more of them.” They were writing in the New York Times.

 

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