Purpose ‐ The purpose of this paper is to explore how women in senior management draw on discourses of merit and special contribution in making sense of the contradictions and tensions they experience in their working lives. It has a particular focus on how women explain possible experiences of disadvantage and the extent to which they see such experiences as gendered. Design/methodology/approach ‐ The research is based on an Australian study of women leaders in the private and tertiary sectors. Data are drawn from in-depth interviews with 14 women. Findings ‐ Findings suggest that women draw on discourses of meritocracy and of "special contribution" in discussing their experiences at work. Inconsistencies between these competing discourses are mediated through notions of choice. Research limitations/implications ‐ The research has implications for the understanding of how women at senior levels make sense of their experiences in organizations. A wider sample may give further corroboration to these results. Originality/value ‐ The paper highlights the significance of the discourse of choice in aligning discourses of "special contribution" with the reality of their lives whilst keeping intact the concepts of equality and meritocracy to which they strongly adhere.