The Sad Reason Single Women Downplay Their Career Ambition

Do they have dull their own shine in order to have it all?

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Aug 1 2017, 2:00pm

Andrew Neel

Imagine, for a second, that a single woman in a competitive graduate program lowers her salary standard by $18,000 a year—only if someone can see the salary she's requesting, simply in order not to look too ambitious to romantic partners.

A study from April found that single women in a reputable MBA program asked for significantly less money and said they wanted to work fewer hours and travel less for a prestigious internship when they thought that their peers could see their responses versus when they believed these responses to be private. This might seem like a throwback to a less enlightened time, before this year's millions-strong Women's March, and prior to the encouragement to "lean in."

Neither men nor married women changed their responses in this way. Single women also took part in fewer activities that might help their career and participated less in class, compared to both partnered women and men, because, as the study states, "they did not want to appear too ambitious." The reason, asserted the study: "Single women might try to improve their marriage prospects by 'acting wife'"—or outwardly displaying qualities that studies have shown men look for in a traditional wife.

Could it be true that single women today are still forced to subscribe to the theory that they must dull their own shine in the face of the psychological and social pressure to get married? The study—which included 600 women—attempted to provide a snapshot of the influences and actions of single, partnered, and married young career-focused women today.

While the research focused on MBA students, pursuing an advanced degree in several competitive fields can foster a specific type of societal pressure. One former master's student, Tatiana Tenreyo, says that, while in a graduate program for journalism, she recognized some of her classmates' actions in the study's findings. "Some of my female classmates downplayed their ambition, while many of my male classmates openly bragged about their ambition and success, constantly naming the large news organizations they had worked for."

She adds that while women outnumbered the men in the program, a disproportionate percentage of men in the class won awards. "It often felt like men were being celebrated for their accomplishments while women were forgotten, even though they worked equally hard throughout their time in the program."

Tenreyo says didn't know the relationship status of most of her female peers, but believes the women in her program more broadly could be seen as hiding their ambition when speaking in a group of mixed genders. That could be because they tended not to publicly discuss their accomplishments, perhaps because of social pressure to be humble or demure—qualities that the study's authors also note are desirable to the opposite sex.


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Joanna Reed, a writer and government consultant, says that she has downplayed her ambition—and witnessed many other women doing the same—for her entire career, both when in a relationship and not. Her experience echoes Tenreyo's: "Men seem to be encouraged and rewarded when they talk about their successes and their ambitions. Women, at best, are not rewarded for talking about this, and often even told to stop bragging."

This aligns with the anecdotal behaviors that the study notes are exhibited by single women, but neither accounts for the differences between partnered and single women. What's also is notable is that neither respondent saw their actions, or those of their classmates, as motivated by finding a mate, but rather a response to larger social pressure.

Leonardo Bursztyn, one of the study's authors, says that due to the relatively limited nature of this study it was difficult to assess whether the single women were responding to other pressure by the men or professors in their courses. "I agree... that more generally this pressure may be there by men outside of a dating situation," he says.

Thus, Bursztyn and his fellow researchers tried to connect their findings to the motivation to find a partner (in this case male, as they couldn't assess non-straight relationships due to the limitations of the data). But he admits that this pressure could have other sources, such as what Tenreyo and Reed spoke to.

None of this surprises creative arts therapist Briana MacWilliam, especially in fields that are more hierarchical, such as the corporate world, politics—or even within the power differential in graduate school. She says, "What becomes important is power distance—it often goes hand in hand that if you find people who are drawn to a hierarchical structure they tend to respect power structure and distance." In essence, a woman who is drawn to one of the fields—such as those who were in the study's MBA program—is more likely to buy into the inherent hierarchies, which traditionally have had women in positions of lower power than men.

MacWilliam says that this does mentally affect single women more so than partnered women. "I think women have felt that if their success is threatening to a man, they might lose their opportunity with a mate," she says. "Sometimes I wonder if having that internal perception generates behavior that creates the result."

These internal perceptions, MacWilliam notes, are often passed down from generation to generation, making it harder for men and women to counter traditional roles. She says, "If we observed our mother downplay power in her relationship because it was less desirable, we take it in" as the ideal path to finding a mate. This can be particularly challenging for single women who, in this context, might be seeing potential mates among their classmates, whereas partnered women are more likely to deal with this power differential with their mate at home.

MacWilliam offers her clients ways to counter this behavior, but notices the burden on women to "fix" this problem. It's quite likely, she says, that there are male professors, colleagues, and even female allies who are in more of a position of power to support women in the stating—and realization—of their ambition.

Bursztyn agrees that while there were certain limitations to this study, this a good place to start to bring awareness to this phenomenon. He hopes other researchers explore different populations and contexts. And he believes that we can begin to counteract these cultural pressures starting earlier on.

"If the beliefs of these women are correct, then we should think about changing men's view of what might be considered desirable in a woman, [and] teaching boys that having an ambitious partner might be a good thing."

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