In a recent study, economists Leonardo Bursztyn, Thomas Fujiwara, and Amanda Pallais posed an interesting question: “Do single women avoid career-enhancing actions because the actions signal undesirable traits, like ambition, to the marriage market?”
The researchers were interested in examining how ambitious young women deal with the “trade-off” of career and marriage: the trade-off being that certain actions and traits could be an asset to a woman’s career and help her towards professional success, while at the same time could potentially hurt her chances in the marriage market.
There is some evidence to support this position. A 2006 study involving speed dating found that most men preferred women who were less professionally ambitious than they were. Additionally, other studies suggest that men are more likely to avoid relationships with women who have achieved higher education levels than themselves or women with a higher position in the workplace. Conversely, another recent study found that higher-educated women still prefer to marry men who make more money than they do.
Bursztyn, Fujiwara, and Pallais conducted their investigation at an unnamed “elite U.S. MBA program.” This setting was ideal because, as the authors point out, many young people in graduate school are not only working towards professional success but are also at the point in life where they’re seeking a future spouse.
The first part of the experiment looked at how single women expressed their ambition when they were in full view of their classmates, including single men. Questionnaires were passed out to the students, asking questions regarding desired compensation, the number of hours they were willing to work, and about their willingness to travel. Students were also asked to rate their leadership abilities and professional ambition. In one group, the students were told that these answers would be seen only by the career services department, while the other group was told that they would be discussing their answers in class. Students were told that this information would be used in placing them in important summer internships.
The results were compelling. When the single female students believed that their answers would only be viewed by a career counselor, they responded similarly to the married women in the program. However, when they thought their answers would be discussed in class, single women’s answers were markedly different. According to the authors:
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.
The second part of the experiment asked students to make choices about hypothetical jobs and choose which job they would prefer. Students were told that they would discuss their answers in groups of their peers—some groups were entirely female and some included men and women.
When placed in all female groups, 68% of the single female students reported that they would prefer a job that paid a higher salary and required 55–60 hours of work per week to a position that required a lower salary and fewer hours. However, when placed in a mixed group, only 42% of the single women chose the higher-earning option.
From these findings, the researchers drew the expected conclusions. “Single women are changing their answers because they think it’s going to hurt them in the marriage market,” said study co-author Amanda Pallais, Professor of Political Economy and Social Studies at Harvard. “They’re worried that their actions are sending a signal about their marriageability… Because they’re interested potentially in dating these men, they would not want to send that signal of ambition or assertiveness.”
The authors describe this behavior as “acting wife”—acting less ambitious to appear better suited for a marriage relationship. They imply that the choices these single female students made need to be corrected in some way.
While there are several interesting aspects to this study worth delving into, the media coverage seems to have extrapolated only one talking point. Essentially, as one Slate article put it, “men still aren’t comfortable with ambitious women” (and women know that), and (as another article argued) this is an issue of inequality between the sexes.
However, I’ve heard little discussion about another point that is, perhaps, equally worthy of consideration. There is almost no recognition of the possibility that these young women—and many other professional women throughout society—may prioritize marriage and family life over their careers.
This is perhaps incomprehensible in a society that glorifies career success, while frequently dismissing women who choose to stay at home with their children. For example, a recent New York Times article on the gender pay gap expressed incredulity that marriage and children are parts of life that might impact some women’s career choices.
But this seems to ignore the fact that for most women—whether they are “elite” MBA grads or not—a career is a part of life but not all of it. Consider a 2013 Pew Research report that found that the majority (76%) of married mothers would prefer to work either part-time or not at all. Additionally, 42% of employed mothers said they would prefer to be home but need the income, and 10% of highly-educated mothers (those with Masters degrees or higher) chose to stay home with their children.
As Professor Steven E. Rhoads recently explained on this blog: "To help women thrive and achieve happiness as they see it, we must first acknowledge that most mothers—inside or outside academia—want to avoid full-time work, at least while their children are young… "
Marriage and family are components of human life generally treasured above material success, and pursuing these things with ambition and drive does not seem to merit condescension, scorn, or the flippant claim of “acting wife.” The single young women in this recent study were intelligent and ambitious, and probably more likely to take advantage of a singular opportunity to attain an important life goal. If that goal is marriage, then it should be respected as entirely valid.
Nora Sullivan is a freelance writer and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.