Single women routinely downplay their career goals and subdue their assertiveness in hopes of better romantic opportunities, according to University of Chicago’s Leonardo Bursztyn, Princeton’s Thomas Fujiwara, and Harvard’s Amanda Pallais.
The researchers analyzed responses of 355 incoming MBA students at a career-center session, where participants filled out a questionnaire about their job preferences. Some of the questionnaires indicated the responses would be kept private, while others indicated responses would be made public. About half the women surveyed were single.
“When they believed their classmates would not see their responses, single and nonsingle women answered similarly,” write the researchers. But that changed for single women who thought their answers would be shared: compared to single women who thought their answers would be anonymized, they were willing to work fewer hours, travel fewer days per month, and be paid on average 14 percent—$18,000—less. “Single women are toning down their ambition when classmates are going to observe their answers,” Bursztyn says.
“Single women avoid actions that could help their careers when these actions have negative marriage market consequences.”
By contrast, women in relationships and men (whether single or not) didn’t show the same tendency. And while both single women and those in relationships reported lower desired compensation than men, women in relationships were just as willing as men to travel and work long hours, and they reported similar professional ambitions and leadership abilities.
“The primary experiment 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,” according to the researchers.
In another experiment, students in a career class were asked to choose between three hypothetical jobs, and were told their choices would be discussed in small groups. When put in small, all-female groups, coupled and single women gave comparable answers. But when in groups with single men, single women were less likely to choose the option that involved higher pay but longer hours or a better promotion but more travel. The research didn’t ask participants about sexual orientation.
Men prefer partners of lower socioeconomic status, a preference that encourages women interested in heterosexual marriage to play down their own career goals for potential suitors, according to prior research from University of Innsbruck’s Tobias Greitemeyer. And another project that looked at speed daters finds that men tend to avoid women who are assertive or highly ambitious professionally.
The researchers deliberately chose to conduct the study with students at a top, unnamed graduate program—one with selective admission and high tuition. They chose MBA students because business schools are often seen as rife with dating opportunities, Bursztyn says. Not only do students view business school as a sound career investment, many also tend to find a mate there: according to a 2015 survey of Harvard Business School alumni, Life and Leadership after HBS, nearly a third of female students and 15 percent of male students ages 31 to 47 marry a business-school classmate.
Many schooling and initial career decisions—such as whether to take advanced math in high school, major in engineering, or become an entrepreneur—come at a stage in life when most women are single. These decisions can have labor-market consequences that last long after women get married.