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Research shows that men avoid female partners who are more ambitious or more highly educated than they are. This puts single women in a position where their professional behavior (including speaking up in meetings and working late) may influence how “desirable” they are perceived to be by potential male partners. This paper explores the ways in which single women avoid sending “negative” signals to the marriage market.


Single people seeking a partner are most likely to meet that partner within their professional network. However, research shows that heterosexual men prefer partners who are less professionally ambitious than they are which sets up an interesting tension within the workplace marriage market.

Heterosexual men prefer partners who are less professionally ambitious than they are, which sets up tension within the workplace marriage market.

This paper explores whether single heterosexual women alter their behavior in the workplace to avoid sending “undesirable” signals about their professional ambition to their single coworkers. To test this, the authors conducted studies at an elite MBA program where many students are seeking long-term partners, and where students’ behavior is relevant for the labor market.

To start, first-year MBA students took a survey asking them to think back over their prior two years of work experience and whether they ever avoided certain actions they thought would help their careers because they were concerned it would make them “look too ambitious, assertive, or pushy.” There were significant differences in the answers between women and men, and also between single and married/partnered women. For example, 64% of single women had avoided asking for a raise or promotion for that reason compared to 39% of married/partnered women, and only 27% of men. 73% of single women said they had avoided at least one career-enhancing action for fear of appearing too ambitious.

73% of single women said they had avoided at least one career-enhancing action for fear of appearing too ambitious.

This behavior apparently continued in business school, as unmarried female MBA students had lower class participation marks on average than their married female peers (with no apparent difference on other marks for exams or homework).

To isolate single women’s behavior in different contexts, the authors conducted two field experiments in partnership with the career office at the MBA program. In order to test whether women made different choices depending on whether or not their actions would be observed publicly by their classmates, the students in a career class were given a questionnaire about their job performance. Some students were told that their specific answers would be discussed in the career class, while others were told that the answers would be shared anonymously. There was no difference between single and non-single women’s answers when the students were told their answers would be anonymous. However, when students were told their answers would be shared publicly, single women reported lower willingness to travel for work, a desire to work fewer hours per week, and even said they aspired to a lower salary than their non-single female peers. Men and non-single women’s answers did not vary depending on whether their answers would be shared or anonymous.

Next, the authors tested whether single women’s reported preferences changed when they believed their answers would be seen by single men in particular. In another career class, the students were placed into small groups with either all men, all women, or a mix of both. The students were asked to make choices between three pairs of hypothetical jobs and told they would discuss their answers in the small groups. When in all-female groups, 68% of women reported that they would prefer a job with a higher salary that required more hours of work per week over a job that paid less and required fewer hours. However, when in groups with male peers, single women were 26% less likely to make that same choice. Additionally, in groups with more single men, single women were less likely to choose a more career-focused option.


  • Corporations – We see this discrepancy between true and admitted ambition in large part because we still operate in a society that expects men to achieve more than women. For single, heterosexual women to feel more comfortable being honest about their ambition, society’s expectations about her ambition must shift. Corporate policies around family leave that create equal opportunities for men and women to participate in family life may eventually contribute to changes in expectations about the roles that men and women play at work and at home, ultimately making a woman’s ambition, less of an “undesirable” trait in the marriage market.
  • Universities – How and when single, heterosexual women are asked about career preferences could influence their answers. Care should be taken when using this kind of information to place students on certain career tracks as it may not reflect their true desires.
  • Individuals – Most women are likely not aware that they are self-censoring their ambitions in this way. Increased awareness of the subconscious pressure to conform to marriage market “desirability” standards may cause them to be more forthright with their preferences.


“Acting Wife”: The Impacts of Gender Norms and Women’s Relationship Status on Career Ambitions in the United States


Leonardo Bursztyn, Thomas
Fujiwara, Amanda Pallais


University of Chicago,
Princeton University,
Harvard University


American Economic Review


January 2017



Research brief prepared by

Celeste Jalbert