The Ambition-Marriage Trade-Off Too Many Single Women Face

The Ambition-Marriage Trade-Off Too Many Single Women Face

Even today, research shows that men still prefer female partners who are less professionally ambitious than they are. Because of this, many single women face a trade-off: Actions that lead to professional success might be viewed less favorably in the heterosexual marriage market.

This trade-off can be pervasive and is not limited to big decisions like volunteering for a leadership role or asking for a promotion. Daily activities such as speaking up in meetings, taking charge of a project, working late, or even certain outfits, haircuts, and makeup can be desirable in one market and not in the other.

Our research, forthcoming in the American Economic Review, examines the effects of this trade-off for students in an elite U.S. MBA program. Graduate school is a natural place to study this, as many students are both investing in their professional careers and looking for a long-term partner. Our results come from two field experiments, a survey, and an analysis of students’ grades.

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Our first experiment concerned whether actions with positive labor market consequences but negative marriage market consequences were expected to be observed by classmates, and hence potential partners. On the first day of the MBA program, during a career advising session for the new class, a career counselor asked students to complete a questionnaire about their job preferences. The questionnaire included a number of questions about desired compensation, hours of work, and days per month of travel. It also asked students to rate their leadership abilities and professional ambition. In total, 355 people (241 men and 114 women) took the survey.

From the students’ standpoint, this questionnaire had substantial stakes. It was the first information the career center collected on their preferences, and they were told the information would be used to place them into summer internships, the key stepping stone for their post-graduation job. The career office informed us that students’ reported preferences would indeed have impacted their placement. For example, lower willingness to travel or not wanting to work long hours would likely not lead to being placed in consulting or investment banking, respectively. (After learning of our study’s results, however, the career center decided not to use the questionnaires in making these decisions.)

Students randomly received one of two slightly different versions of the instructions. Both stated that a career counselor would see their answers. In the public version students were told that their answers would be discussed among their class, while in the private version students were told that anonymized answers would be discussed.

When students thought that their answers would only be viewed by their career counselor, women who were single and women who weren’t answered similarly. However, when single women expected their classmates to see their answers, they portrayed themselves much less favorably to the labor market. They lowered their desired yearly compensation from $131,000 to $113,000, on average, and reduced their willingness to travel from 14 days per month to 7 days. They also reported wanting to work four fewer hours per week. Finally, they reported significantly lower levels of professional ambition and tendency to lead. Women who weren’t single did not change their answers when they expected classmates to observe their choices, and neither did men, regardless of their relationship status.

To rule out an alternative interpretation, that single women are simply more humble in public, we included a placebo question on self-reported writing ability. Writing skills are valued in the labor market but carry no penalty in the marriage market. Thus, if single women are generally more humble in public, we should see that rating decline as well. However, single women (and all other groups) rated their writing skills equally in the public and private treatments. These results indicate that single women, but not women in a relationship, avoid actions that could help their careers when these actions have negative marriage market consequences.

A second experiment shows that single women present themselves less favorably to the labor market, and more favorably to the marriage market, when they believe their choices will be seen by men. During a career class, 174 of the MBA students were asked to make choices about three pairs of hypothetical jobs. They were asked to choose the job they would prefer, and were told there were no right or wrong answers. Students were told that if there was time at the end of class, they would discuss their answers in the small groups that they’d already been assigned to for the rest of the class’s activities. These groups change from day to day; on this day, some single women had been assigned to all-female groups, while the remainder were in all-male groups. They were told that their forms would be collected at the end of class, so they knew the career center would see them. Because this was a natural activity during a session discussing job fit, students did not know it was an experiment.

When placed in all-female groups, 68% of single women reported that they would prefer a job that paid a higher salary and required 55–60 hours of work per week to a job that paid a lower salary and required 45–50 hours per week. But when placed with male peers, only 42% of single women did so. Similarly, in all-female groups, 79% of single women reported preferring a job with quicker promotion to partner but substantial travel to a job with slower and less certain promotion but no travel. When placed with male peers, only 37% of single women chose that option. Moreover, single women were less likely to choose the career-focused option when there were more single men in the group. Single women’s answers to a placebo choice between a job with a positive social impact and a job with collegial coworkers were not affected by the gender of the students in their group.

Lastly, we conducted a student survey and an analysis of participation grades. Our survey asked 261 of these same first-year MBA students whether, in their previous work experience, they had avoided certain actions that they thought would help their careers, because they were concerned it would make them look “too ambitious, assertive, or pushy.” Sixty-four percent of single females said they had avoided asking for a raise or a promotion for that reason, compared with 39% of women who were married or in a serious relationship and 27% of men. Over half of single women reported avoiding speaking up in meetings, compared with approximately 30% of women who weren’t single women and men.

Our analysis of participation grades indicated that unmarried female students had substantially lower class participation grades than married ones. Class participation is observable to peers and may signal students’ ambition or assertiveness. Consistent with our hypothesis, male participation grades did not differ by marital status.

Many of our additional analyses suggest these differences in behavior between single women and women in relationships are likely driven by the marriage market concerns, not inherent differences between the two groups of women. For example, it is not the case that unmarried women, in general, are worse students than married women; both groups had similar grades on their exams and problem sets (grades that classmates can’t see). Similarly, relationship status did not affect women’s reported preferences and skills when they were kept private from classmates.

Taken together, our results suggest that single women avoid actions that would help their careers because of marriage considerations, and that marriage considerations may be an additional explanation for gender differences in the labor market. Many schooling and initial career decisions, such as whether to take advanced math in high school, major in engineering, or become an entrepreneur, occur early in life, when most women are single. These decisions can have labor market consequences with long-lasting effects.

While extrapolating to other settings is beyond the scope of this paper, elite female MBA students are a select group, one that presumably places a higher value on career success than the general female population does. This suggests that the effects of marriage market signaling are perhaps even larger in other contexts. We hope that future work will assess interventions that may mitigate the negative effects that marriage market concerns have on women’s careers.