Single Ladies Are More Likely to Downplay Career Goals, Study Finds

Single female MBA candidates were more likely to report lower ambitions in front of their peers than when sharing them privately with a career counselor.

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By Lydia Belanger

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All the single ladies out there with lofty career aspirations would be wise to heed the words of Beyoncé: "Don't pay him any attention."

Research backs up the fact that women who excel at work are less likely to be romantically successful: Most women earn less than their husbands, but women who earn more are more likely to face lower marital satisfaction and divorce.

In other words, society teaches men that it's perfectly fine to be ambitious, while it expects women who want husbands to scale back their professional goals.

Building on past findings, researchers from Harvard, the University of Chicago and Princeton recently co-authored a study titled Acting Wife: Marriage Market Incentives and Labor Market Investments. They aimed to answer the question, "Do single women avoid career-enhancing actions because these actions could signal personality traits, like ambition, that are undesirable in the marriage market?"

Related: Tech's Gender Wage Gap Is Real, Partly Because Men Don't Believe It Is.

They conducted a survey with first-year MBA candidates. They asked respondents whether, in the two years before business school, they had avoided asking for a raise or promotion out of worry that they would come off "too ambitious, assertive or pushy." Among single females, 64 percent said they had avoided requesting a raise or promotion based on that fear, compared with only 39 percent of women who were married or in a serious relationship. Only 27 percent of men, regardless of relationship status, said the same.

The researchers also asked a group of MBA candidates to complete a survey about their career goals and personality traits in order to match them with summer internship opportunities. They told one group of the students that their responses would remain anonymous, and they told another group that their peers would review their answers in a classroom setting.

Men and women provided similar answers in the anonymized group. However, in the other group, single women downplayed their answers. The average single woman in the latter group reported a desired salary $18,000 lower than her male and non-single female peers. Single women who believed their answers would be discussed publicly reported a willingness to travel seven fewer days per month than their counterparts, as well as a willingness to work four fewer hours per week.

Interestingly, the researchers ruled out the possibility that single women are simply more humble in public settings by asking them about their writing ability. "Writing skills are valued in the labor market, but not sanctioned in the marriage market," according to the co-authors. They found that "single women (and all other groups) rate their writing skills equally in the public and private treatments."

Overall, the researchers found that public evidence of single women's ambition or success was the key. For instance, they learned that unmarried women participate less in class than married women, even though they do just as well in exams, where their peers can't observe their performance.

Related: Sheryl Sandberg: We Can Change the Face of Leadership Through Advertising

"Schools and workplaces often have to decide the extent to which students' and employees' actions are observable to others," the researchers concluded. "Our results suggest that obscuring certain actions could affect gender gaps."

It's possible that in some cases, keeping ambition anonymous could help narrow the gender pay gap. This month, the city of Philadelphia adopted a law to ban employers from asking potential hires to disclose their salary history as a means of closing the wage gap between men and women.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misidentified the academic institution attended by the MBA candidates who participated in the study. The co-authors of the study have not released that information.

Lydia Belanger
Lydia Belanger is a former associate editor at Entrepreneur. Follow her on Twitter: @LydiaBelanger.

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