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To the Single Ladies

Vivia Chen

May 15, 2017


Add this to the list of items we would rather not talk about: Women, even ones in the most selective professional programs, prioritize marriage over career, and will downplay their ambitions to achieve that goal.

That's the upshot of a recent study that analyzed the responses of male and female M.B.A. students at a top U.S. business school. In the Harvard Business Review, the study's authors (Leonardo Bursztyn of the University of Chicago, Thomas Fujiwara of Princeton University and Amanda Pallais of Harvard University) describe experiments that looked at how male and female students view career and personal ambitions.

Here's a summary of the results:

Single women signaled lower ambitions if they thought their responses would be shown to male students: They lowered their compensation expectation ($131,000 to $113,000), indicated less willingness to travel or work longer hours and reported "significantly lower levels" of ambition and leadership. However, "women who weren’t single did not change their answers when they expected classmates to observe their choices, and neither did men, regardless of their relationship status."

Single women showed more ambition in all female groups: Sixty eight percent of single women reported wanting a job with a higher pay that required 55–60 hours of work per week to one with a lower salary and less hours. "But when placed with male peers, only 42% of single women did so. Similarly, in all-female groups, 79% of single women reported preferring a job with quicker promotion to partner but substantial travel." However, in groups with male peers, "only 37% of single women chose that option." And get this: "Single women were less likely to choose the career-focused option when there were more single men in the group."

Single women worried about appearing "too ambitious, assertive, or pushy. "Sixty-four percent of single females said they had avoided asking for a raise or a promotion for that reason, compared with 39% of women who were married or in a serious relationship and 27% of men. Over half of single women reported avoiding speaking up in meetings, compared with approximately 30% of women who weren’t single women and men."

The bottom line, say the authors, is that "single women avoid actions that would help their careers because of marriage considerations, and that marriage considerations may be an additional explanation for gender differences in the labor market." In other words, women's priority on snagging a husband is a major career drag—one that continues the gender gap in pay and professional standing.

Is this where we are after 50 years of women's liberation: Back to 1958, when being a smart girl meant playing dumb, and the ultimate prize is the MRS? Are women so needy of the trappings of marriage, and men that insecure, that we have to play these games to get along?

Well, sort of.

Though the handful of women lawyers I consulted about this topic expressed disbelief that women would downplay their abilities, some admit finding a mate is a big goal. And that means, consciously or not, that the sexes continue these gender games.

"Women don't marginalize themselves to appear more 'marriageable' in general, but they may do so to appear more attractive to a specific male," observes a Big Law associate who says she's seen instances where women willingly played second fiddle to a male colleague. "Female associates don't want to be number one on a case if that means beating their male associate crush or paramour." The male ego is "fragile," she adds, and "smart women recognize their chances with a man are lessened if their own success comes directly at his expense."

Good grief.


Photo: Beyonce singing Single Ladies (Wikipedia).


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My daughter is 6. It looks like I have work to do...

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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