When it comes to gender equality in business, a two-steps-forward, one-step-back theme often persists. On one hand, women are enrolling in MBA programs at elite business schools at higher rates than ever before. Just this year, Pennsylvania’s Wharton School enrolled 44% women in its incoming class, a school record. Other elite programs were not far off that mark. On the other hand, in 2016 women earned 80 cents to every dollar a man earned in the United States. Just over the weekend, the U.S. Labor Department claimed to have found “systemic compensation disparities against women” at Google.
And now, a recently published study has found that most single, female MBA students are likely to downplay their “professional ambition and tendency for leadership” compared to their male counterparts — and even compared to their married female classmates. The study, published by researchers from Harvard, the University of Chicago, and Princeton, surveyed 98% of the incoming class at an unnamed elite MBA program this past fall. Disguised as an internship placement survey in a required career course, the two-fold questionnaire asked incoming students about their previous two years of work and career preferences after B-school.
“On the first day of the MBA program,” the report reads, “during a career advising session for the newly admitted class, a career counselor asked students to complete a questionnaire about their job preferences. The questionnaire asked about students’ preferences over fields and geography and included a number of questions for which we expect that the answers that would make respondents more appealing job candidates would also make women less attractive spouses.”
SINGLE WOMEN WILLING TO ACCEPT $18,000 LESS THAN NON-SINGLE WOMEN IN ANNUAL SALARY
In addition to asking the students to rate their leadership abilities and ambition, the survey asked about desired compensation, days traveling each month, and work hours per week. The catch? A random set of the group was told their answers would be shared with their classmates. The rest thought responses would just be shared with career services staff.
“When students thought that their answers would only be viewed by a career counselor, single and non-single women answered similarly,” the report reads. Non-single students were defined as being in a “serious relationship, cohabiting, engaged, or married.” Besides a slight difference in salary expectations, single women reported they were willing to travel and work just as much as non-single women. “However,” the report continues, “when single women expected their classmates to see their answers, they portrayed themselves much less favorably to the labor market.”
Single women reported expected salaries $18,000 lower than non-single women. They also said they were willing to travel seven fewer days a month and work four fewer hours a week than non-single women. There were no significant changes from non-single women or both groups of men when reporting to either career services staff or the rest of their incoming classmates.
“The primary experiment results indicate that single women, but not women in a relationship, avoid actions that could help their careers when these actions have negative marriage market consequences,” the authors of the report write. “A supplementary experiment shows that single women present themselves less favorably to the labor market and more favorably to the marriage market when they believe their choices will be seen by men as opposed to women.”
SINGLE WOMEN LESS LIKELY TO CHOOSE CAREER-LAUNCHING PATHS
The second “supplementary experiment” happened about three months after the primary experiment in the same required career course. According to the published report, the experiment was “designed to identify whether single women would disproportionately represent themselves as less ambitious and career-focused in front of their male classmates.” Students were placed in single-gender and co-ed groups, and each student was asked to choose between three pairs of hypothetical jobs. Each pair had a clear “trade-off” and a one-sentence description. For instance, students were asked to choose between a position with a high salary that required working 55 to 60 hours a week versus one with a lower salary job requiring 45 to 50 hours. Or they were asked to choose between a position with frequent travel and rapid opportunity for promotions, and a position with less travel and slower promotion.
When in an all-female group, 68% of single women chose the higher-paying position with more working hours. But when placed in a group with men, that rate plunged 26 percentage points to 42%. For the second hypothetical between more travel days and rapid promotion versus less travel and slower time to promotion, the results were even more stark: In a group of their female peers, 79% of single women chose the position with better promotion possibilities. When placed in a group with their male classmates, the number dropped to 37%.
“While we are reluctant to extrapolate the results of these regressions to gender gaps in other contexts, this analysis suggests that the trade-off between maximizing labor and marriage market success has the potential to explain at least a part of existing gender gaps,” the report concludes.
GLOOMY DATA IN THE AGE OF THE WOMEN’S MARCH AND SHERYL SANDBERG’S LEADERSHIP
According to Laura Kray, a veteran gender studies professor at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business, the study is “interesting” but not surprising. “Researchers have known for a long time that people manage the impressions that others have of them based on what they believe are desirable versus undesirable qualities in a given context,” Kray said in an email exchange with Poets&Quants. “If single MBA students are approaching business school with the goal of finding a mate, then they would be motivated to emphasize or de-emphasize their career-orientation.”
The “only surprise in the findings,” Kray says, was that single men did not “adjust upward their stated career aspirations when they thought it would be shared with other students.” She says this finding could “possibly be explained by a shared understanding that too many hours devoted to work is a turnoff for men and women alike.”
Fellow Haas faculty member Kellie McElhaney showed her MBA class the study right before hopping on a phone call with Poets&Quants. “The assumption was that it was done at Harvard. And the perception was it would be vastly different here,” says McElhaney, an associate adjunct professor who focuses on gender studies. “But my thought was, I don’t know why it would be any different at any top-25 business school.”
Either way, the report put data behind a gloomy conclusion.
“Single women shy away from actions that could improve their careers to avoid signaling undesirable personality traits to the marriage market,” the report states. “Three-quarters of single female students at an elite U.S. MBA program report having avoided activities they thought would help their careers to avoid looking ambitious, assertive, or pushy. They are more likely to have avoided these activities than non-single women or men.”
‘AWARENESS IS THE FIRST STEP TO MAKING REAL CHANGE’
As for solutions, Kray believes continual shifts in attitudes toward “greater support for gender equality and egalitarian rather than traditional gender roles” is needed.
“Additionally, organizations need to shift policies to enable dual-career couples to manage the demands of two full-throttle careers,” Kray says. “Until this happens, single women may be motivated at certain points of time to downplay their ambition for fear it will turn off potential mates.”
McElhaney believes there is some good happening in the effort to achieve gender equality in the United States, but there is much more to work to be done. “I think gender roles are changing in the United States, but gender norms are not,” she says. Conversations about gender norms and roles need to continue and grow on B-school campuses and within workplaces, she adds.
“I think this needs to be a conversation within the cultural norms of a business school,” McElhaney says. “Awareness is the first step to making real change.”