Single women are downplaying their career goals around men, study finds

A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research starts with an intriguing question: “Do single women avoid career-enhancing actions because these actions could signal personality traits, like ambition, that are undesirable in the marriage market?”

The research focused on students at what was referred to as an “elite U.S. MBA program” and told participants they were filling out a job preference and personality test. Questions included salary requirements and elements of job flexibility.

Playing down ambition, asking for less

Here’s the surprise: the study found that single women tended to downplay their career goals and demands when they know those answers will be shared with men — even asking for less money.

Interestingly, their female peers who have partners don’t downplay their ambitions, according to the study’s findings.

The women in the study were given two situations: in one case, researchers told the women their answers would be shared with peers, and in another case the researchers told the women that their answers would remain private.

When single female participants who were told their answers would be shared with their peers, they tended to ask for an average salary that was $18,000 less per year, requested to work four fewer hours per week and asked for seven fewer days of travel per month than women with partners.

In contrast, when single women thought their answers wouldn’t be shared with peers, they gave responses that were similar to women with partners.

Moreover, the study found that men and women with partners did not alter their answers based on whether or not others were going to see it.

In addition, a survey sent by researchers after the experiment showed that three-quarters of single female respondents reported that they didn’t participate in career initiatives that would help them professionally out of fear of seeming too ambitious; they also generally had lower participation grades than their counterparts with partners.

Women may believe men look for less ambitious partners  

Why would women not in relationships want to appear less ambitious?

Researchers hypothesized it had something to do with other academic work that suggests that men typically prefer women with fewer career aspirations, therefore leading women to alter behaviors to appear more romantically desirable. However, Sallie Krawcheck, founder of the Ellevate Network and the women’s investment platform Ellevest, believes single women also act accordingly due to ideas about appealing to others more generally.

“These are the messages society sends us, that women are expected to act a certain way that does not include being too aggressive in the workplace and elsewhere,” she says.

“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu,” says Aditi Juneja, co-creator of the Resistance Manual, which has configured data specifically looking at the gender wage gap in all 50 U.S. states as well as nationally.