The three women on the panel described their work histories in a nice orderly sequence--jobs, titles, dates.

They appeared to be the very model of proper career women, the well-organized success stories of five-year plans and life-management courses. Their autobiographies would have impressed any personnel manager or editor of "Who's Who." Surely they impressed the college audience.

Yet later, when they talked alone, different words crept into their r,esum,es. The first woman sheepishly confessed to "luck," the second woman admitted "chance," the third talked about "accident."

Not one of these women had tipped her hat to luck in her public job description. After all, they were enlightened women. They had all read the research.

Hadn't it been proved that most women attributed their success to luck while most men attributed it to their own effort, skills, talents? They knew that trap and wanted to avoid it, and so had expunged luck from their curricula vitae. At least, said one of the women, the younger generation could be spared their self-doubt.

It was the first of two conversations that I heard about luck. The next one occurred last week when a woman who had started out in English criticism and ended up in political research confessed she, too, felt awkward explaining the role of accident in her peculiar progression. One wasn't supposed to talk about that anymore. It had become a clich,e, a stereotype to shatter.

But this time, it occurred to me that I wasn't sure anymore. I wonder if "planning" isn't just as much of a clich,e and "control" as much of a stereotype to shatter. I wonder which point of view is more realistic?

I know that when assorted studies about the differences between men and women filter into our popular language, we usually begin by seeing men as the norm and women as abnormal. If the topic is success, and more men are successful, then we begin by worrying about the female success psyche. We assume that women need to change.

But if more men believe they made their own way deliberately, purposely, skillfully, is it because these men plan better or because they rationalize better? Is it because of their skills or egotism? Were their lives more in their control or are they more reluctant to admit a lack of control?

And if more women see fate, luck, accident as a central force in their work lives, is it because they are passive, slow to see and reluctant to admit their own skills? Or is it because they are quick to see and comfortable to admit the reality of chance?

The answers depend less on our perception of men and women than on our perception of the truth. It depends on how we determine the tricky equation of luck and skill in a life.

I know there are many things we can't do without acquiring the skills, making the plans. We cannot, blessedly, do brain surgery without medical training. Few people "luck" into medical school.

But there are many things we can't do with planning. We cannot chart a course from English critic to political researcher. We cannot figure out how our interests will change and skills will grow. We don't know when chances will come, including the chance to throw over all our previous plans.

It is always easier to plot our lives backward and discover a straight line than to plot them forward on that line. To make a life, we need a peculiar combination of energy and persistence, skills that make readiness, and a lot of luck.

I don't say this as any kind of revelation but because luck has gotten this bad rap. Those who acknowledge luck as a mentor are tempted to believe that their experience has no meaning for others. It was just luck after all. Women in particular are tempted to hide the happenstance behind a timetable.

But we're dealing with a younger generation full of anxieties about the future, a generation longing to be told the one true path. Maybe what they really need is people who will give them firsthand accounts of chance. Maybe they need our experience and our wishes for good luck.

Copyright (c) 1983, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company