Acting like a potential wife and thus blunting demonstrated ambition?

Leonardo Bursztyn, Thomas Fujiwara, and Amanda Pallais have a new paper on this topic (pdf).  Here is the abstract:

Do single women avoid career-enhancing actions because these actions could signal personality traits (like ambition) that are undesirable in the marriage market? We answer this question through two field experiments in an elite U.S. MBA program. Newly-admitted MBA students filled out a questionnaire on job preferences and personality traits to be used by the career center in internship placement; randomly selected students thought their answers would be shared with classmates. When they believed their classmates would not see their responses, single and non-single women answered similarly. However, single women reported desired salaries $18,000 lower and being willing to travel seven fewer days per month and work four fewer hours per week when they expected classmates would see their answers. They also reported less professional ambition and tendency for leadership. Neither men nor non-single women changed their answers in response to peer observability. A supplementary experiment asked students to make choices over hypothetical jobs before discussing their choices in their career class small groups; we randomly varied the groups’ gender composition. Single women were much less likely to select career-focused jobs when their answers would be shared with male peers, especially single ones. Two results from observational data support our experimental results. First, in a new survey, almost three-quarters of single female students reported avoiding activities they thought would help their career because they did not want to appear ambitious. They eschewed these activities at higher rates than did men and non-single women. Second, while unmarried women perform similarly to married women in class when their performance is kept private from classmates (on exams and problem sets), they have lower participation grades.

The reference is through Jennifer Doleac and Mark Koyama.


There's two ways to think about this. One is to say that this sounds like the byproduct of a sexist culture. One which heavily encourages single women to do things which actively hurts their careers and ambitions. Broadly shared misogynistic attitudes are holding women as a class back.

The other is to realize that the close equivalent would be single men literally risking their lives. There's many categories of activities here: physical fighting, extreme sports, overconsumption of drugs and alcohol, reckless driving, etc. All of which single men engage in at much higher rates than non-single men. Particularly when eligible females are around to watch. Humans just do stupid things to demonstrate their worth as a mate to the opposite sex. Always have, probably always will.

One is to say that this sounds like the byproduct of a sexist culture. One which heavily encourages single women to do things which actively hurts their careers and ambitions.

I agree with you in general but notice they are not doing things that hurt their careers. They admit, in private, to their ambitions. They just pretend otherwise in public. They are not sacrificing their careers. They are just telling men they would love to.

It is the female equivalent of "of course I will respect you in the morning honey".

I agree with you in general but notice they are not doing things that hurt their careers. They admit, in private, to their ambitions. They just pretend otherwise in public.

Yes, but I don't think they're pretending. I think it's an honest signal. They're legitimately interested in a high-powered career of their own, but not exclusively so. If the right opening came up for 'wife of a newly minted elite MBA grad', they might take that instead. And why not? It can be a pretty great deal. So they're interviewing for that second career possibility while attending class, and they naturally give different answers to 'where do see yourself in five years' there than they would when interviewing with a fortune 500 company.

"By the time they are 15 years out of college, 28% of the Harvard women who went on to get their MBAs were stay-at-home moms, compared to only 6% of women who got medical degrees, the authors found. The study also looked at the career paths of Harvard women who became lawyers and found 21% chose to stay home with their children."

It's not clear to me that these women go into their schooling thinking "I'm going to get in the right social circle, find a great guy, and drop out of the workforce." I'm much more inclined to believe the first part, that they're looking for mates, than the second part, that they plan to be in the workforce for only a short while. Many mid-20s women seem sincere in their ambition.

The second part comes naturally from the kind of jobs MBAs and JDs lead to. It's pretty awful having both spouses in those kinds of jobs. It's unusual to make that work, though maybe people don't realize that in advance. Also, people change between 26 and 34, in pretty predictable ways.

MDs, on the other hand, offer some pretty low stress options only a few years out from school. That's what you're seeing reflected in the quoted numbers.

I suspect the critical difference for MDs vs MBAs is that it is relatively easy to work part time as an MD vs as an executive, and so quite a high percentage of female MDs do work part time (something that's actually a societal problem when combined with our cartel-limited medical school and residency slots).

For sure. Part-time MD jobs are a huge part of it. Also, specialties vary tremendously in their demands and mother-friendliness.

The part-time JD parallel is leaving the partner track and joining a client in some sort of corporate position. It's a bigger step down in pay and prestige, and it's usually still a full time job, although for more normal definitions of "full time" than big-law.

I'm not sure there really is any MBA parallel. I know many SAHMs who are former traders, McKinsey consultants, that sort of thing.

House counsel doesn't advance a career, but it is a steady professional-class paycheck that (most days, when the client isn't making horrible choices) has limited stress and family-friendly responsibilities.

There is still a big difference in MDs among specialties. More stressful and time-consuming specialties have fewer women. For example, cardiology:

It seems that the women that enter medical or dental school do so with the idea of ensnaring a guy that will provide them a life of luxury. The most attractive ones are successful. Their unsuccessful inferiors are still in medical school, working at administrative jobs behind a desk.

It seems that the women that enter medical or dental school do so with the idea of ensnaring a guy that will provide them a life of luxury

I don't think that's true at all. Getting into and then through medical school and residency is a long slog. Women who do it really want to practice medicine, but in the U.S., even a part-time MD can afford quite a nice life (especially if married to a spouse with a professional job). Women who are angling only for an Mrs-MD degree have easier options than that.

Some of those actions impress some females, but don't impress others.

I could definitely see males leaving off items from their lists that would otherwise be there if they wanted to attract a mate.

A way to disprove my theory would be to show that high-value females choose to marry NAVY seals or other low-pay high-risk jobs that would be pretty good at attracting females at the bar, for example.

A Harvard MBA female should make enough to afford her Navy SEAL husband and not worry about income issues.

(I once met a soldier who was a sniper who was married to a lawyer. Wow, what a couple to avoid pissing off.)

A NAVY seal would indicate physical fitness, which is a desirable trait that you want in your offspring, and also probably fun in other ways, including being capable of taking the family on backpacking trips and such (depending on what sort of leisure you enjoy). So it's not just about risk taking. It's nice to have a partner who is physically capable of climbing mount everest with you.

We're not talking about any risk, but high-status (visible) risk. Women chase after musicians and artists, and and most are relatively low pay. Navy SEAL is really high status. A lot of people would consider a Navy SEAL higher status than an MBA CEO wife of a small company, and maybe equivalent status to a Fortune 500 CEO.

Yes. Reckless driving does not impress me.
Extreme sports have the virtue that they demonstrate physical fitness. Driving does not. It merely demonstrates a reckless disregard for the safety of the person in the passenger seat.

Isn't this self selecting to some degree? Surely At least a few single people do an MBA in order to meet a partner.

Wait so ambition is considered undesirable in the marriage market? Since when?

Since men want children

It's not about wanting. It's instinct and attraction. The theory is that men who are attracted to women more focussed on home life have more surviving children because those women put more effort into looking after the children. Men have evolved to be attracted to such women. But also women have evolved to feel like saying they are focussed on a home life when unattached. Such women have more surviving children because they attract more potential mates to choose from.

The study has selection problems. Eg. MBA students are not representative of all women. Married MBA students probably have different characteristics than unmarried ones.

In deed, the last one is a very good point. Also the relatively high p-values of most comparisons don't make me trust these results so much...

One person's "ambition" is another person's "entitlement." How would you respond to a recent MBA whose "desired salary" was 1,000,000$/year? "Ambition," thus defined, is not all good. As far as the mating market, if a woman wants to make a certain income, and she can't get it, she will have high expectations for her mate to get that income. If he can't, she'll be dissatisfied. And if she can earn that income, she also expects him to have to earn an equal or higher income. Otherwise, she'll be dissatisfied. Hypergamy and all that.

Maybe that's just my misogynistic hatred, but I think it's what the majority of men think, though most would never admit it. Women pick up on it and respond accordingly.

That's not to say I believe this story. Sounds like classic Fake Research that isn't going to replicate.

My desired salary is $1,000,000. I don't have a MBA though.

Some people are anticipating the problem of 2-ambitious-career marriages:

Though I imagine that men who were serious about that and also serious about having an ambitious career wouldn't look for a mate among female MBAs at all. More like nurses or teachers.

It used to be undesireable, but then gay marriage was legalized.

Flip this around: are there men overstating their ambitions to appeal to women? Are women attracted to men with less career ambition than them? What are the statistics for ambitious female-unambitious male marriages?

One interpretation is that the men don't care about the signal to classmates because they aren't looking at MBA classmates as a good pool of potential mates at all. There are undergrads, and also men generally have less of a problem marrying a less-accomplished mate, whereas many women prefer to find someone with equal or greater educational attainment. Plus, given the ages of MBA students, males would likely be less focused overall on finding a mate during those two years.

Perhaps this just says single women, as a group, are more willing than other groups to bend their stories for appearance's sake? Which is not to say that they are less truthful, overall.

Nor does this really show they are blunting their ambitions, just that they are changing their stories about those ambitions.

I'm no specialist, but I'll bet this result does not reproduce. If I'm reading the graphs correctly, the effect size is just over the publishable confidence interval on several of the measures.

Yep. Also a pretty small sample and tons of different comparisons made.

As always, the question is, "Is this real, or just a small study hitting the p-jackpot?"

Seems unlikely it's fake. There aren't many studies currently about career outcomes differences in sex, nor are thousands of these studies being perpetually funded by an ideologically corrupt NSF. What are the chances then that every month a few articles on this topic get mainstream attention? Basically zero, obviously


Hillary just proved people do not like ambitious women, her approval rating nosedived when she announced she was running for president. Openly ambitious women will be less successful in their careers, not just in finding someone to marry. For women being married while still in school is a signal they are not trying to compete with men, but single women need to signal other ways.

The unpopularity of one particular woman doesn't prove sexism. This is such a tiresome argument. And none of the people making it think it is sexist to disapprove of, say, Sarah Palin, do they?

As for the particular result, a vague question about whether you "approve of" someone will be interpreted in light of what they are doing and its potential impact on the person being asked. Once Hillary announced her candidacy, the question became a de facto question about her as a potential president.

Hillaryis not the only example only a recent one. I do not think Sarah Palin would have provoked so much animosity had she been an unqualified man that is why I said people, not republicans, or conservatives or even men. The fact that many democrats preferred a less qualified 74 year old man to Hilary shows that it is not partisan problem.

If Hillary were a man, would people ignore her mishandling of classified information, Clinton foundation ties to foreign governments, role in various Obama foreign policy blunders, ties to Wall Street, and support for the Iraq war? Would it not matter that she had no signature accomplishments in the Senate or Obama's Cabinet to point to? I'm not convinced. It seems to me that there was ample reason for people on the left and right to vote against her, other than her gender.

Her approval rating fell when she it became clear she was running, not when the uproar about the emails and the Clinton foundation occurred so they are irrelevant for my example. I am not claiming that is why trump won, only that women who exhibit ambition are disapproved of by a lot of people.

My interpretation of that is "Someone that most of the public doesn't want to be president is disapproved of when they choose to run for president".

Admittedly, though, we are both interpreting a single example through our pre-existing lens.

It would be an interesting question to study systematically. If a large number of data points showed that women face more disapproval than men after they announce a run for office, then that may be evidence of the public's gender attitudes.

Thankfully, the commentariat will soon move on from the injustice of Mrs. Bill Clinton's defeat to other, more important matters. In the mean time, why hasn't anyone brought up the fact that the campaign pitted an enthusiastic, vigorous geriatric against a sickly, obviously unwell geriatric. While DJT has his own repellent features, his opponent exuded an aura of immanent physical and mental collapse. This might not have been as big a factor in the pre-TV era, when most voters were unable to personally observe the candidates but the high-definition, flat-screen plasma television set presents a very detailed image of its subjects. It was easy to see that Mrs. Clinton didn't have the necessary physical presence to lead the US, in addition to her other defects.

Woodrow Wilson, JFK, FDR: the Dems have quite a record for having invalids in office. But usually they've disguised it better, haven't they?

How about Reagan? Was he a bit senile towards the end, or was he still lucid enough for the job?


I was looking forward to a 100th anniversary reprise of the late Wilson administration, with Huma as Col. House and Bill as Mrs Wilson.

Hillary was not better qualified than Trump. She has spent a long career doing nothing but graft.

But by all means, it is important to break the glass ceiling. The only reason people can have to vote against a woman like Hillary is sexism. So I can count on you to support Marie Le Pen in the French election?

A rough male version of Palin is Donald Trump. He attracted an enormous amount of criticism, empassioned denunciations, and an unprecedented level of public opposition from both his own party and from people who traditionally are not supposed to comment on elections (e.g. the Pope, the sitting President and First Lady, and a Supreme Court Justice).

Well she did handily win the popular vote despite Russia's best efforts and a crooked FBI!

Do you think that's why the left hated Margaret Thatcher so intensely? But then why did the right like her so much?

And Thatcher's foul legacy obviously ensured that the UK would never again have a female PM.

Never made an MBA but had more than a few beers with young MBAs.

I've found that when a woman expresses a dream (i.e. desired income), there's a silence and the group's smartass will ask directly: "how are you going to accomplish that?".....there: confrontation. Half an hour later, a guy may talk about another dream (i.e. desired salary, big house) and the group's smartass says "cool bro, think big". Women, on average, are less confrontational. Perhaps, they avoid confrontation to justify higher salary.

I'm a guy and I can tell that just a bunch of my friends, and my mother, make that question: how are you going to accomplish that? I think we (men) become rational when analyzing women's dreams and emotional/irrational when dealing with men's dreams or aspirations. It's easier for us to tell a woman how wrong she may be than telling a man friend "hahaha, you're an idiot by thinking you can make a fortune in your new business".

"It’s easier for us to tell a woman how wrong she may be than telling a man friend “hahaha, you’re an idiot by thinking you can make a fortune in your new business”."

You live in a different crowd than I do. The reactions I encounter are nearly the exact opposite. The groups I hang around with are far more prone to give the men all kinds of shit and disdain.

"and the group’s smartass says “cool bro, think big! You know, just like when you said you were going to quit delivering pizzas and go backpacking in Europe?" snicker...

Like MBA programs at elite schools, law schools are extremely competitive. My law school experience was many years ago, but I suspect little has changed other than a much higher percentage of female students. It's so competitive that some students will even try to undermine their fellow-students: the episode in the movie The Paper Chase when a student hid a law book from his classmates rang true when I saw the movie. Indeed, it pays to keep a low profile so you aren't someone to be targeted for undermining. Thus, I never told other students my grades or my class rank. Never. I recall one class in which the exam (and thus final) grades were not in a normal distribution (the unofficial requirement at my law school), with one grade in particular well above the others, skewing the results for the entire class. The students were in revolt, some suggesting that the student with the high grade must have cheated, should be identified, and should be punished. I stood there in silence. Why? It was me. No, I didn't cheat. And I'm not female. I'm a male who knew the advantages of a low profile. Just like the female MBA students in this study.

The Curve: that's what we called the (unofficial) requirement that grades be on a normal distribution. I doubt my law school uses it anymore. I know most elite law schools don't; indeed, most elite law schools don't even have class ranks, believing as they do that their student, like the children in Lake Wobegon, are all above average. Here's the thing about The Curve: a student's class rank stayed almost constant throughout law school. Students in the bottom half were convinced that professors issued grades, not based on performance, but on class rank. They believed this even though we used a mandatory blind anonymous grading system. Take a slice of students anywhere along the continuum of intelligence (e.g., top 5%), and the slice will perform in a normal distribution. Of course, there is the occasional aberration who skews the distribution, someone like . . . Cowen.

"It's a crapshoot!"

You should have gone to a school with nicer students and better institutions. Some top schools actually don't publish class rank, and make it an honor code violation to speculate on it.

Oh, just saw your reply. I think most schools do have a curve, though many don't do class ranks. Employers still want GPAs and to know the official curve. My school actually moved it up in the middle of the time when I was there, from a mormalized mean B to a normalized mean B+.

Our curve was based on a normal distribution. The grade B or B+ had no meaning on a normal distribution. Indeed, our curve wasn't based on 0 to 100, which made it difficult for law students, notoriously math challenged, to figure it out. Indeed, I suspect most thought a "normal" distribution was what everyone must use, it being normal and all. How many readers of this blog know what a "normal" distribution is? One would assume that most do, this being an economics blog. But maybe not.

What I meant was that they moved from setting the mean score for the class on the final or paper (and thus the grade) as a B to a B+. They assumed the class scores should fit a normal distribution, so they normalized the numerical scores and made the mean a B+. It wasn't a strictly normal distribution, though, in that a person would have had to have tried really hard to get anything below a C.

"I never told other students my grades or my class rank."

You wouldn't have finished in the bottom percentile if you had put down the Collected Works of Lenin, Rayward. (Ah, I'm just pulling your leg.)

I'm an MBA student and in my experience, MBA students are very good at taking tests. Often they answer a test not with their own ideas and opinions but rather what they think the test giver wants to hear. I speculate that part of what is going on in this test is when the answers would not be shared with other students, the single female test takers are answering what they think the test giver wants to hear, and when you include other students they configure their answers differently. Married women are less interested in pleasing their peers and men don't feel different pressure from their peers than they do from the test givers.

Long answer short, different people feel different pressure from different groups.

A great example of projection.

Not a bad theory, but they did try to control for that by adding the "placebo" question about writing. For the "gaming the questionnaire" theory to hold, you'd have to explain why the students were able to detect the placebo question and treat it differently than the other questions.

"Neither men nor non-single women changed their answers in response to peer observability. "

So single women are liars? Were they lying to themselves or to peers?

Maybe single women changed their answers because they believed the changed answers were the correct answers: knowledge that their answers would be shared induced them to second guess their original answers. Are single women less confident in their answers? Or are single women more reflective on their answers? The explanation that they are changing their correct answers to incorrect answers in order to snag husbands is ridiculous. It's conventional wisdom that the first solution to a problem is more often the correct solution, and that reflection is more likely to lead to the incorrect solution. It's also conventional wisdom that women are more reflective than men (who, when they see food, eat food). Our current president may be the most reflective president ever, while the president-elect may be the least reflective president-elect ever. Who would you prefer: reflective or not reflective? Maybe the best president would be a single woman since she would be the most reflective.

When I am working on a particularly complex legal issue or contract drafting challenge, my preference (if I have the luxury of time) is to tackle it first, but then reflect on what I have done over night. It causes many sleepless nights but I have experienced a flash of insight (or whatever you wish to call it) many times. I believe my work is better for it. Lawyers being lawyers, my experience is that most are extremely self-confident and engage in little if any reflection. Is it because they are brilliant and their first solution to a problem is the correct solution, or is it because they aren't brilliant and don't know what they don't know and don't care to learn what they don't know. I suspect many MBAs are the same.

You've created an entire narrative in your head that's not supported by the facts.

Single women reported one answer to one group and another answer to a different group. That's the opposite of what I would refer to as a "reflective" person.

Oh yeah, these women undertaking completely optional, expensive, and time-intensive post-tertiary education that will lead directly to 60+ hour work weeks, suddenly had a burst of self-reflection of why working really hard is maybe not good.

All because their answers on salary expectations might be shared publicly. But this didn't affect married women. Uh-huh.

Another interesting question: Were they lying to the men, or to the other single women?

A very "odd" survey/study. Who would have thought to look for this? Oh, wait! Someone who wanted to find exactly these results!!!
So the next question is did they design the survey/study to get the desired results or not? Hmmmmm. What do you think???

I'm not sure this is about marriage so much as social desirability in general. Single people are more worried about fitting in to social groups comprising both genders. They consequently don't want to appear to be greedy assholes focused exclusively on their career. Married people, having found a life partner, stop giving a shit about fitting in, and are more worried about providing for their children than about making friends.
It's true social activity is largely about finding mates , but it's a bit more of a tangential step from not looking like an asshole in order to make friends, compared to a direct line to looking like girlfriend material.

If this was true, you'd expect to see similar results for single men. However,

"Non-single women and single and non-single men do not change their answers when they expect their answers to be shared with classmates."

It still works if you assume women care more about fitting in than men do.

You mean single women care more about fitting in. Not women in general.

Single women care more about fitting in in a way that makes them look like better girlfriends, but not because they want to look like better girlfriends. Occam's Razor should cut this out, but I suppose it's conceivable.

Yes - I was assuming the point Hazel made about married people NGAF as true, which would affect those that GAF more, single women, more than those that didn't, single men.

Understood. That makes sense.

I don't think it's right, and I don't think married people suddenly stop trying to hide that they're greedy SOBs or otherwise manage their social appearances, but I understand it. If anything, I'd expect married people to be a little biased towards reporting lower ambition then they actually have. To appear to be good spouses and parents and such...

Never believe a study in which only one outcome is publishable.

No distinction between single and married students = not publishable. No distinction between men and women = not publishable. Finding exactly the pattern reported: headline result!

I'm sure the researchers are just lucky that way.

Children raised by surrogates (day cares, nannies, relatives) in years 0-2 are at increased risk for emotional and behavioral problems.

If very ambitious women pursue career over family, children suffer. If very ambitious women grudgingly stay home to raise children, the marriage may suffer.

Spengler mentions it:

I don't know how to craft it, but they need to get the student answers, and then tell them this is dating game and the answers will be shown to potential mates. Do you want to change anything?

If you don't want to run social science experiments and just jump to the conclusions, you can try reading books from the 19th Century.

Not terribly surprising. Every MBA program has a subset (note: subset, not all, not even majority) of women who are there doing the higher class version of the going to (undergrad) college for the "M.R.S." degree. The interesting analysis would be if the paper examined to what extent the effect is from an identifiable subgroup beyond simple "single"

It strikes me as inappropriate to explain this effect by saying that women are trying to "act like a potential wife."

A simpler, and I believe more plausible, explanation is this: women generally feel that not appearing too ambitious/competitive/etc.. makes them more likeable particularly to men. Single women simply care more about being seen positively by their male colleagues than those in a relationship.

This avoids all the complex (and implausible) unconscious psychological mechanisms required for the "act like a potential wife explanation."

Comments for this post are closed