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The career cost of being a single woman

by Eva Voinigescu Apr 13 / 17

Single women will say they have less career ambition when they know a potential mate might be listening than when they think their answers will be kept private, according to a new study. The research could help explain continuing gender gaps in the workplace.

Single women in the study reported wanting a lower salary, fewer working days, and less time traveling when they thought their answers would be revealed to classmates than when they were told the answers would be kept private. Men and married women showed no difference in their answers.

The results come in a new working paper by Thomas Fujiwara (Princeton University), an associate fellow in CIFAR’s Institutions, Organizations & Growth program, and colleagues Amanda Pallais and Leonardo Bursztyn.

“I was surprised by the magnitude of the results,” says Fujiwara. Though he says he and his fellow researchers had expected single women to answer differently in public than in private, he had not expect their answers change to such an extent.

The researchers surveyed newly-admitted students at an elite U.S. MBA program about their job preferences and personality traits. The students filled in a questionnaire in their first career class of the semester, which is used by the career center to help determine their internship placement. Some students received a questionnaire that said “anonymized” answers would be shared with the class, while others received the same questionnaire saying “your” answers would be shared.

When they thought their answers would be shared with their peers, single women requested a salary $18,000 lower when they believed their answers would be private, were willing to travel seven fewer days per month and work four fewer hours per week. Men’s and non-single women’s answers remained the same whether their answers were anonymous or not.

Even when the researchers controlled for factors such as age and work experience, which might account for non-single women being more likely to demand higher salaries or feel more work-related confidence, single women still showed statistically significant tendencies to downplay their career ambition. They also had lower participation grades in class than their male and non-single counterparts.

Fujiwara and his colleagues then performed a supplementary experiment where the students were asked to make choices about hypothetical jobs and share those choices within their career class groups. Jobs equated with higher ambition required more travel and longer work weeks but paid more and promised faster promotions to partner. When single women were asked to discuss their job choice with a group of male peers, they were more likely to choose jobs signaling lower ambition than when they were talking with females.

Though the researchers did not investigate the psychological underpinnings of the results, Fujiwara says they would be interested to investigate whether women hold accurate beliefs about what personality traits men seek out in potential partners. A 2006 study looking at Columbia University graduate students found that men did not want partners who were more ambitious than them.

Fujiwara says that the researchers want to explore ways of mitigating the effects of this phenomenon in the classroom and in the workplace.