Career Advancement as Contest – Tournament and How to Win

Olivia Mandy O'Neill

Olivia Mandy O’Neill

If you work in an organization, you gave tacit agreement to participate in a Workplace Tournament, according to (Olivia) Mandy O’Neill of Wharton and Charles O’Reilly of Stanford.
They contend that careers unfold as a series of tournaments in which employees at lower levels compete with each other for career advancement.

Charles O'Reilly

Charles O’Reilly

The prevalence of implicit workplace contests was validated in O’Reilly’s study of executive pay with University of Edinburgh’s Brian G M Main and James Wade, now of Emory University.

Brian G.M. Main

Brian G.M. Main

“Winners” in the contest for advancement shared two characteristics in O’Neill and O’Reilly’s study MBA graduates’ incomes over an eight-year period, as an indicator of career advancement.

James Wade

James Wade

Those with highest incomes four years after graduation said they prefer “masculine” organizational culture — and this relationship was stronger for women than men.

Eight years after graduation, men’s salaries were significantly higher than women’s, attributable to the greater number of hours men worked per week.
During this period, women MBA graduates may take time off or reduce the number of hours work to care for children or relatives, whereas this “off-ramp” pattern is rarer for men.

One non-MBA new mother whose income has not suffered is Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo. In 2012, she took two weeks for parental leave, and her total compensation for the year was $36.6 Million.

Phyllis Tharenou

Phyllis Tharenou

Organizational hierarchies dominated by men were preferred by high-earners, and were associated with women advancing less frequently than men into lower and middle management, according to Phyllis Tharenou, now of Flinders University.

She found that employees with managerial aspirations and masculine preferences were more likely to advance in management roles, but these effects were offset by “career encouragement” such as mentoring and structured career development programs.

Denise Conroy

Denise Conroy

With Denise Conroy, Queensland Technology University, Tharenou studied more than 600 female and more than 600 male managers across six organizational levels.
They found that the work situation’s development opportunities and structure were most associated with women’s and men’s managerial advancement, suggesting that structural, policy and program changes can increase the number of women in top leadership roles.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Women’s Career Development Model – Individual Action in Career Planning and the Contest and Sponsorship Pathways to Advancement – Part 1 of 2, women tend to excel in explicit workplace contests, such as in public sector jobs.

In contrast, women have traditionally had less experience earning and capitalizing on organizational “sponsorship” by advocates for their advancement, and as a result, have less success in sponsorship-based organizations.

Taken together, these studies suggest that women can improve opportunities for advancement by

  • Accepting that advancement is a tournament
  • Behaving like a strategic competitor
  • Acknowledging interest in advancement
  • Seeking employment in organizations with formal career advancement programs like mentoring and development training
  • Seeking employment in organizations that support flexible work practices and use technology to enable employees; work “anytime, anywhere”
  • Becoming comfortable operating in “masculine” organizations
  • Identifying social support inside organizations
  • Seeking and cultivating advocates and sponsors when offered-*How do you manage workplace “tournaments” for career advancement?


Twitter:  @kathrynwelds
Blog: – Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary 
LinkedIn Open Group Psychology in Human Resources (Organisational Psychology)
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©Kathryn Welds


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