Single Women Still Face a Depressing Trade-Off Between Ambition and Marriage, According to New Research

By Leonardo Bursztyn, PhD, Thomas Fujiwara, PhD, and Amanda Pallais, PhD

Do single women avoid career-enhancing actions because these actions could signal personality traits, like ambition, that are undesirable in the marriage market? Several recent studies have shown that, even today, men still prefer female partners who are less professionally ambitious than they are. Single women may thus face a trade-off: actions that lead to professional growth may be penalized in the dating market because they might reveal their ambition and assertiveness. These actions range from daily behavior such speaking up in meetings, taking charge of a project, and working late to more important decisions such as volunteering for leadership roles or asking for a promotion.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In a recent paper, we examine how large the effects of this trade-off are for female students in an elite U.S. MBA program. In this setting, many students are both investing in their professional career and looking for a long-term partner, making it a natural place to look for the trade-off. To study this question, we combine a variety of research methods.

Recently-admitted MBA students filled out a questionnaire on job preferences and personality traits designed to be used by their university career center for placement in summer internships — a key stepping stone to their post-graduation job. The wording of the forms varied so that some randomly selected students thought their answers would be shared with classmates, while others believed that only the school’s career counselor would observe their choices. When they believed their classmates would not see their responses, single and non-single women answered similarly. However, when they expected their classmates would see their answers, single women portrayed themselves in a much less ambitious way than when they believed the answers would be not shared with their peers. For example, single women lowered their desired yearly compensation from $131,000 to $113,000 and their willingness to travel from fourteen to seven days per month, as well as reporting wanting work four fewer hours per week. Moreover, they reported less professional ambition and tendency for leadership. Women in relationships and all men answered these questions similarly whether or not they expected their classmates to observe their answers. A second experimental study indicates that the effects are driven by expected observability by male peers, and especially the single ones.

We also rely on other types of evidence. First, we surveyed the MBA students on their previous career experience. The results are again striking: almost three-quarters of single female students reported avoiding activities in their previous work that they thought would help their career because they did not want to appear ambitious. They forwent these activities at much higher levels than did men and women in relationships. Second, we examined performance in the MBA classroom. Unmarried women have significantly lower participation grades than married women, while men’s participation grades do not vary by marital status. This is not because unmarried women are in general worst students: they have similar grades to married women on exams and problem sets, the part of course performance that is kept private from classmates.

Our results point to concerns about establishing an image in the dating market as an additional explanation for gender differences in the labor market. Many schooling and initial career decisions, from taking an advanced math in high school, to choosing a major in college, to choosing a career, occur at a stage in life when most women are single. However, these decisions can have labor market consequences that last long after these women get married.

Leonardo Bursztyn is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Thomas Fujiwara is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Princeton University, an Associate Fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Amanda Pallais is the Paul Sack Associate Professor of Political Economy and Social Studies at Harvard University and a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.