“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.

High-stakes Nudges: Providing social information can affect what job you choose and keep

A single sentence at the end of an email can affect whether or not someone accepts a job—and stays at it for years to come. Lucas Coffman (Harvard), Clayton Featherstone (University of Pennsylvania), and J-PAL affiliate Judd Kessler (University of Pennsylvania) found that providing social information—in this case, the job acceptance rate of the previous year’s admitted applicants—increased the likelihood that an individual would accept a teaching job with Teach for America. Those told about the previous year’s matriculation rate were not only more likely to accept the job, but also to complete training, start the job, and return for a second year. Based on this study’s results, Teach for America has started including a line about their historical matriculation rate in all admissions letters.

Teach for America, a non-profit organization that recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach in under-resourced public schools, sends thousands of offer letters via email to job applicants each year. To test how the provision of social information would influence an applicant’s likelihood to accept a job, the researchers added one line to the end of randomly selected job offer letters: “Last year, more than 84 percent of admitted applicants made the decision to join the corps, and I sincerely hope you join them.”

Admitted applicants who received offer letters with this sentence were 1.8 percentage points more likely to accept the position. In other words, including this information persuaded 8.4 percent of admitted applicants who would not have joined Teach for America to do so. Furthermore, the researchers found that providing social information increased matriculation by 3 to 5 percentage points among three subgroups of individuals who were likely to be “on the fence” about joining Teach for America. This means that providing social information persuaded 12 to 14 percent of “on-the-fence” admits who would not have joined Teach for America to do so. In addition, teachers who received this information also returned for their second year of teaching at higher rates, which suggests that the social information did not convince those who were likely to drop out at a later point to join the teaching program. 

Why might one simple sentence convince individuals to change their decisions? According to the researchers, information on their peers’ choices may influence admitted applicants’ opinion of the value of the Teach for America experience. For example, the high acceptance rate may signal that the program is particularly effective at improving student outcomes, or that it looks especially good on resumes.

While social information has been found to influence low-stakes decisions (e.g. donating to charity or taking an environmentally friendly action), Coffman, Featherstone, and Kessler show for the first time that social information—such as information about the previous decisions of others—can affect high-stakes behavior and do so persistently. As policymakers seek out cheap, subtle interventions to shape behavior, this study shows that providing social information can be a potentially powerful option.

Read the full paper published in the American Economic Journal here.

Evaluation Summary: Dependence Duration and Labor Market Conditions

shutterstock_468856877.jpgDoes long-term unemployment hurt a person’s chance of returning to the work force? According to a 2012 analysis by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, long-term unemployment may “produce a self-perpetuating cycle wherein protracted spells of unemployment heighten employer’s reluctance to hire those individuals, which in turn leads to even longer spells of joblessness.” But despite widespread concern about this cycle of long-term unemployment, it has been difficult to credibly establish whether this challenge actually exists.

In response, Kory Kroft (University of Toronto), Fabian Lange (McGill University) and J-PAL affiliate Matthew Notowidigdo (now at Northwestern University) conducted a randomized evaluation testing the impact of the length of job applicants’ unemployment spells on firms’ callback decisions. Using a major online job board in the United States, the researchers sent roughly 12,000 fictitious resumes with randomly varied employment statuses and unemployment spells to 3,000 job openings—four resumes per job. For each job, researchers constructed two high-quality resumes and two low-quality resumes. Researchers also randomly assigned each resume’s employment status and, if unemployed, the length of the current unemployment spell. By randomly varying employment characteristics across high and low-quality resumes, researchers were able to isolate the effect of unemployment spells on firms’ callback decisions.

Overall, the evidence from this study demonstrates that longer unemployment spells reduced interview callbacks, potentially because employers consider long unemployment to be an indicator of low worker quality. Over the first eight months of an unemployment spell, the likelihood of receiving a callback from employers sharply declined the longer an applicant had been unemployed. Past eight months, more time spent out of the workforce did not continue to reduce callbacks. In addition, researchers found that this effect was stronger in a tight local labor market where fewer workers were likely to be unemployed and among young job seekers with limited experience. Future research is needed to examine how duration dependence affects older job seekers.

For more information, read the full evaluation summary on the J-PAL North America website.

Study Cited: Kroft, Kory, Fabian Lange, and Matthew J. Notowidigdo. 2013. “Duration Dependence and Labor Market Conditions: Evidence from a Field Experiment.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 128: 1123-67.

Evaluation Summary: The Effects of Reciprocity in Voter Mobilization Calls on Voter Turnout

Photo credit Barbara Kalbfleisch | Shutterstock.com

If you live in a swing state, your phone is likely ringing off the hook. Hours before Election Day, that’s the sound of yet another phone call exhorting you to get out and vote. Although campaigns often involve multiple voter mobilization attempts, there is little evidence to explain how or why a second round of voter mobilization phone calls may increase voter turnout beyond the effect of the first round.

Researchers Alan S. Gerber, Gregory A. Huber, Albert H. Fang, and Catlan E. Reardon evaluated the role of reciprocity in increasing voter turnout through voter mobilization calls. Theory suggests that offering a second phone call during an initial voter mobilization attempt and subsequently following up may establish more reciprocity than simply making two calls. In other words, the initial offer to follow up, paired with a subsequent follow-up call, may signal good will between the caller and the potential voter and compel that person to vote as an act of reciprocity. The researchers partnered with the Colorado Civic Engagement Roundtable and used professional callers to deliver different voter mobilization call strategies during the November 2014 general election. The researchers randomly varied the timing of the call and whether the caller would offer for a follow-up call as a signal of good will and reciprocity.

Offering the follow up in the first call to enhance reciprocity had no impact on the effectiveness of a second call in getting a person to vote. Late calls only increased voter turnout for individuals successfully contacted in the early call. This suggests that reciprocity likely plays a smaller role in voter mobilization calls than anticipated, but that late outreach calls could be most effective when targeted toward people reached previously.

Read the full evaluation summary here.

Evaluation Summary: Scaling and Unpacking a Successful Summer Jobs Program in Chicago


Recent randomized evaluations conducted in New York City and Chicago suggest summer youth employment programs may lead to substantial declines in violent crime. An earlier evaluation of one such program, One Summer Chicago Plus (OSC+), which included both mentorship and summer employment, found that the program reduced violent-crime arrests among participants by 43 percent over the next year and a half. These results raised subsequent questions about how OSC+ reduced violent-crime arrests.

In order to better understand how summer jobs programs like OSC+ reduce violence, J-PAL affiliates Marianne Bertrand (University of Chicago) and Sara Heller (University of Pennsylvania) partnered with the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, City of Chicago, and Inner City Youth Empowerment, LLC to conduct a randomized evaluation of the current expansion of OSC+. In order to evaluate how OSC+ worked, researchers randomly assigned applicants to the oversubscribed program to one of three groups: a group receiving jobs and mentors, a group receiving jobs but not mentors, and a control group, which is not offered employment but is free to pursue outside opportunities. By varying whether applicants who receive a job offer also receive mentorship services, researchers hope to better understand the role of mentorship in reducing violent crime.

This study is currently ongoing. Researchers will track applicants to OSC+ using administrative data in order to assess how access to a job and a mentor impacts outcomes in schooling, criminal justice and employment; researchers will also conduct surveys to better understand determinants of success in the program

Read the full evaluation summary on our website.

Study Cited: Bertrand, Marianne and Sara Heller. 2015. “One Summer Chicago PLUS: Scaling and “Unpacking” a Successful Program.” AEA RCT Registry. September 02.


Evaluation Summary: The Value of Postsecondary Credentials in the Labor Market

The past decade has seen rapid growth in for-profit and online universities. Between 2002 and 2012, for-profit colleges accounted for 42 percent of postsecondary enrollment growth and online institutions accounted for 20 percent. However, little is known about how employers view these postsecondary degrees.

In a randomized evaluation, Amira Abulafi (NBER), David Deming (Harvard), Claudia Goldin (Harvard), J-PAL affiliate Lawrence Katz (Harvard), and Noam Yuchtman (UC Berkeley) tested whether postsecondary credentials affected the likelihood of receiving a response from the employer. The evaluation focused on job openings in business and health fields in five major US cities.

The researchers found that for jobs that did not require a degree, there was no advantage to having a postsecondary credential from a for-profit institution relative to having no postsecondary credential at all. And the results indicated that “for business job vacancies that require a bachelor’s degree, employers strongly prefer applicants with degrees from public institutions as opposed to applicants with degrees from for-profits. Callback rates differ by more than 20 percent.”

Read our full evaluation summary on the J-PAL North America website.

Study Cited: Deming, David, Noam Yuchtman, Amira Abulafi, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz. 2016. “The Value of Postsecondary Credentials in the Labor Market: An Experimental Study.” American Economic Review 106(3):778-806.

Evaluation Summary: The Case of College Coaching

Throughout the United States, many qualified high school seniors fail to apply and enroll in college. With evidence suggesting high rates of return to college education, policymakers have sought ways to encourage more young people to attend college. There are a variety of methods that could help encourage students to apply for college, including counselling, information packages, or application fee waivers.

In order to understand the benefits of these methods, Scott Carrell (UC Davis) and J-PAL Affiliate Bruce Sacerdote (Dartmouth) conducted a randomized evaluation of New Hampshire high school students who are on the margin of attending versus not attending college.

The results of the evaluation found that the mentorship program increased enrollment rates among female students by 15 percentage points, but it had no significant impact on male college enrollment. The results for male students may be due to the fact that men had lowered perceived returns to college than women and forecasted higher hourly wages with only a high school degree. The information packets and fee waivers did not effectively increase college enrollment without mentorship, indicating that students who have made little progress applying on their own may require more hands-on support.

Read our full evaluation summary on the J-PAL North America website.

Study Cited: Carrell, Scott E. and Bruce I. Sacerdote. “Why do College Going Interventions Work?” NBER Working Paper N. 19031, May 2013.