“Acting Wife”: Marriage Market Incentives and Labor Market Investments

Do single women avoid career-enhancing actions because they could signal personality traits, such as ambition, that are sometimes considered undesirable in the marriage market?

J-PAL affiliate Leonardo Bursztyn (University of Chicago), Thomas Fujiwara (Princeton), and J-PAL affiliate Amanda Pallais (Harvard) took on this question through two field experiments in an elite MBA program in the United States. In the first experiment, newly-admitted MBA students filled out a questionnaire on job preferences and personality traits for the career center to use for first-year summer internship placement. The first-year summer internship is one of the most important steps for post-MBA employment, which meant the questionnaire had relatively high stakes for these students. While all students knew the questionnaires would be seen by the career office, some randomly-selected students also thought their classmates would see their answers. This treatment was subtle: half of the students were told “your” answers would be discussed in their career classes, while half were told that “anonymized” answers would be discussed.

Single women changed their answers decidedly in response to this one altered word. When they were told their classmates would see their answers, single women reported wanting to earn $18,000 lower per year and work four fewer hours per week, and being willing to travel half as frequently. They also reported less professional ambition and tendency for leadership. In contrast, single and non-single women answered similarly when they believed their classmates would not see their responses, and there were only very small differences between women’s and men’s responses when they believed they would be anonymized. In short, the bulk of the gender gap was driven by single women’s expected observability and not by differences in private, which may better reflect their “true” preferences.

To test whether single women’s behavior changed when they believed their choices would be seen by men as opposed to women, the researchers ran a second experiment. In the second experiment, students were asked to choose between hypothetical jobs—career-focused positions (e.g. higher-paying jobs with longer hours and jobs with more travel but better prospects for promotion) versus less career-focused jobs (e.g. lower-paying jobs with shorter hours and jobs with less travel but worse prospects for promotion)—before discussing their choices in their career class small groups. The research team randomly varied the discussion groups by gender composition in which some groups included only women while some included men. When their answers would be shared with male peers—especially single ones—single women were much less likely to select career-focused jobs.

This supplements results from an observational survey where almost three-quarters of single female students reported avoiding activities they thought would help their career because they did not want to appear ambitious, assertive, or pushy, eschewing these activities at higher rates than did men and non-single women. Additionally, unmarried women participated much less in class than married women, despite performing similarly to married women on exams and problem sets.

Bursztyn, Fujiwara, and Pallais’ results help explain gender gaps in labor market outcomes and also highlight the importance of social norms—particularly what is expected from (or preferred in) a husband versus wife—in explaining gender gaps. Even in the 21st century, men prefer women who are less professionally ambitious than they are, researchers have found. Women make important schooling and career decisions while looking for a romantic partner, and their desire to succeed in dating or marriage markets may impact choices that have long-term effects on their careers.

Read the full paper here and listen to coverage of the study on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Author: J-PAL North America

J-PAL North America seeks to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. We do this through research, outreach, and training. We collaborate with decision-makers to generate clear, scientific evidence on which approaches work and why. We catalyze and support randomized evaluations, communicate evidence to help translate research into action, and build policymakers’ capacity to create and use evidence.

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