Study Says These Women Downplay their Ambitions in Front of Men

Do single women avoid career-enhancing actions because these actions signal undesirable traits, like ambition, to the marriage market?

This was a question in a Harvard study of more than 2,200 Harvard Business School students called “Acting Wife’: Marriage Market Incentives and Labor Market Investments.” The study’s findings: The female students felt compelled to downplay their career ambitions in front of their male classmates. Is it to avoid certain biases from running amok?

The study asked women to rate their own ambition, competitiveness, assertiveness, and willingness to travel and work long hours; to state their desired salaries; and whether they were single or in a relationship. It turns out women downplay not just their career ambitions, but have withheld opinions, avoided avoid career-advancing opportunities and offered to accept lower salaries, all because of society’s “expectations” of them–in a public setting.

These revealing insights should prompt male global mobility managers to talk frankly to their female recruits, especially if this would prevent them from getting better work opportunities.

The effects are driven by observability by single male peers. Even in the twenty-first century, men prefer female partners who are less professionally ambitious than they are. This may be a strategy for these female careerists, as it has always been common knowledge that men tend to avoid female partners with characteristics usually associated with professional ambition, such as high levels of education. Still, it is worrisome.

After all, there is also the assumption that when a woman earns more than her husband, marital satisfaction goes down while divorce rates go up. Even promotions reportedly increase the chance of divorce for women, but not for men, according to another study.

So what does a woman need to do?

Another survey proves how hard it is for women. They had avoided showing what could ultimately look like being “too ambitious, assertive, or pushy.”  About 64 percent of single females said they had avoided asking for a raise or a promotion for that reason.

Similar to minority students who shy away from educational investments to avoid “acting white” and improve their standing with peers, the study says single women might try to improve their marriage options by “acting wife.”

On the other hand, for men, the consequences of actions in the labor and marriage markets are more closely aligned: women value their partner’s intelligence and education, even when these exceed their own.

These findings also apply to the “dating market”. For example, a New York Times article describes how a female Harvard MBA student dealt with such trade-off: “Judging from comments from male friends about other women (‘She’s kind of hot, but she’s so assertive’), a woman feared that seeming too ambitious could hurt what she half-jokingly called her social cap, referring to capitalization.”

However, gender gaps only emerge once students expect their preferences to be shared with their peers. In other words, the bulk of the gender gap in responses is driven by (single women’s response to) expected observability and not by differences in private, which are perhaps more likely to reflect “true” preferences.

Privately, the single female students reported desired compensation of $131,000, and were willing to travel 14 days a month and work 52 hours a week, on average.