Get All Access for $5/mo

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.

By Lydia Belanger

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Hero Images | Getty Images

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

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Editor's Pick

Science & Technology

How AI Is Being Used to Improve Cybersecurity for Businesses of All Sizes

Discussing the role of AI in cybersecurity, the challenges that cybersecurity teams are facing and future trends that governments and businesses need to be aware of.

Side Hustle

This Former Disney Princess Lived 'Paycheck to Paycheck' Before Starting a Side Hustle at Home — Now She Makes $250,000 a Year

Victoria Carroll's income was "sporadic" until a friend encouraged her to take her talents to Fiverr in 2018.

Growing a Business

How to Overcome the Challenges of Remote Work in the Professional Services Industry

Some businesses need to meet in person, but for many service companies, the question is whether being remote has advantages. We look at what the challenges are and how to overcome them.

Celebrity Entrepreneurs

Comedian David Cross on His New Tour, Dealing With Criticism and If 'Arrested Development' Should Come Back

We spoke with actor-comedian David Cross as he prepares to hit the road for his new tour, "David Cross: The End of the Beginning of the End."

Business News

Carlos Watson, Ozy Media Founder, Convicted in Fraud Trial

The probe began after a bombshell 2021 New York Times article alleged an Ozy cofounder pretended to be a YouTube executive on a call with Goldman Sachs to secure funds.

Science & Technology

There's No Margin for Error in Cybersecurity — Here's How to Build a Strong Online Defense through Everyday Habits

Learn how everyday habits and practices can enhance your organization's security posture.