gloria.jpegIt’s a theory that’s been around as long as women have been in the workplace: Gals are looking for husbands not careers.

But are they just playing down their career ambitions because they think men won’t be interested in them otherwise? New research from three economics professors, including ones from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Chicago, appears to show this might be the case.

In a report titled ‘Acting Wife’: Marriage Market Incentives and Labor Market Investments published this month in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s website, the researchers — Leonardo Bursztyn, Thomas Fujiwara, Amanda Pallais — conducted two ambition experiments at top business schools.

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 yearly compensation $18,000 lower and being willing to travel seven fewer days per month and work four fewer hours per week when they expected their classmates would see their answers. 

So, some women want to climb the ladder of success but they think proclaiming such ambition will derail their wife ambitions. This phenomenon could explain why it’s so hard to get women to push for raises and promotions in the workplace, and who many couples struggle to get women to step into leadership ranks.

“Single women shy away from actions that could improve their careers to avoid signaling undesirable personality traits to the marriage market,” the researchers concluded in their report.

The continued:

Our results have implications for understanding gender gaps in labor market outcomes. It also highlights the importance of social norms – particularly what is differentially expected from (and preferred in) a husband and a wife – in explaining gender gaps. Women make many important schooling and career decisions while looking for a romantic partner. Our results raise the possibility that a desire to succeed in the dating or marriage markets may affect choices that range from investment in middle- or high-school math to college major or industry of work that have long-term consequences for women’s careers.

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