In their 2017 AER paper, “Acting Wife,” Leonardo Burstyn, Thomas Fujiwara, and Amanda Pallais show that single women in MBA programs under-invest in career-improving activities when these actions are observable to their peers. The authors argue that single women face a trade-off between investment in their careers and investment in the marriage market. In the labor market, ambition, willingness to travel, and willingness to work longer hours are rewarded. On the other hand, research shows that heterosexual men often do not want spouses with higher ambition or higher earnings. This trade-off reduces the demonstrated ambition and career-investment of single heterosexual women compared to their non-single female peers.
The authors conducted a field experiment in a first-year MBA class using a survey that they were told would be used by the career center in summer internship matching. The survey, filled out on the first day of the MBA program, asked each student about their career preferences, desired compensation, desired hours, and leadership skills. The instructions on the top of the survey stated that students’ answers would be discussed in one of their first semester courses. One group of students had instructions stating that answers would be discussed anonymously, while another group’s survey instructions simply stated that answers would be discussed. Comparing the survey answers between these groups allowed the authors to measure how single women may avoid career-enhancing activities in front of peers who they may meet on the marriage market.
The results of the experiment show that single women consistently under-report their desired compensation, propensity for leadership, hours willing to work, and travel on the job compared to their non-single peers. Importantly, this under-reporting is only seen for women who thought their responses may be observable to classmates. Because the MBA students believed that survey answers would have a direct impact on their summer internship prospects, the under-reporting suggests real under-investment in career enhancing activities and predicts real under-performance.
The results of this paper are hard to dispute - the research design leaves little room for other possible explanations of the mechanism driving women to under-perform in this context. While I was not completely surprised by the results when I saw this paper, I was saddened by the fact that this marriage-market-labor-market trade-off may leave such strong marks on women’s participation in the labor market. To learn more, I emailed Amanda Pallais herself to see if she would talk with me about the paper, its inspiration, and her next steps in researching this topic.
EE: What led you to the idea that sparked this paper?
AP: My coauthors and I had read research that finds that men prefer female romantic partners who are less ambitious and successful than they are. This led us to believe that single women might face a trade-off between investment in the labor and marriage markets. Anecdotally, we also heard single women considering this trade-off and wanted to study it formally.
EE: How do you think about this work as part of the larger literature on gender norms in the labor market?
AP: We see our work as in line with this literature - gender norms can lead women to have worse labor market outcomes. One branch of literature studies the effect of having children on men and women’s labor market outcomes and tends to find that women’s careers suffer more than men’s after having a child. Our paper is related, but shows how these norms and the marriage market can affect women’s labor market success even before they are married.
EE: How has your paper been received by the public? I would imagine that it is hard to talk about these issues with some people?
AP: It hasn’t been particularly hard to talk with people about the results of our paper. It seems many people had a feeling that single women face a trade-off between the labor market and the marriage market - and it’s been nice to be able to formalize this.
EE: Have you at all considered using variation in sexual orientation to study whether non-heterosexual women and men face any similar trade-offs? Or have you thought to use non-heterosexual women as a sort of control group for the mechanism you’re identifying?
AP: We have thought about that, and would like to be able to explore the behavior of women who are not on the heterosexual marriage market. Unfortunately we don’t have data on sexual orientation, and even if we did, I don’t think we’d have enough power to identify anything given the sample size that we’re working with.
EE: Was there anything you found while writing this paper and running this experiment that particularly surprised you?
AP: The magnitude of these results was pretty surprising to me. My co-authors and I started this project to test whether single women respond to this trade-off, so we weren’t particularly surprised that they did. But the extent to which single women made themselves look less professionally appealing due to marriage market concerns was striking. For example, single women reported being willing to travel an average of seven fewer days a month when their answers would be seen by their classmates. That is a large difference, implying potentially dramatic professional sacrifices.
EE: So, what is your next step with this work?
AP: There are two branches of things that we’re interested in. One is to extend our results to different contexts such as high schools, colleges, and jobs, looking at the long run effects on women’s labor market and marriage market outcomes. The second is what policies could help mitigate the trade-off that leads women to under-invest in their careers. For example, we might think that we want to make women’s actions private, but that’s really hard to do. Something that may be more feasible would be to change some of the defaults, like going from hand-raising in-class to cold-calling. If women participate less in class because participating signals an undesirable trait to the marriage market, cold-calling might remove this signal and lead women to participate more.
While the results in this paper highlight some of the challenges in improving labor market opportunities for women, the paper also signifies an important line of work going on in economics. In order to increase equality in the labor market, we must understand the precise obstacles that women face. I look forward to seeing what other work this paper will motivate and how the discipline will respond.
Author: Emily Eisner