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Ugh, this news is kind of gross — so buckle in (and get ready to do something about it).
Two new studies of MBA students found that women in these programs intentionally de-emphasize their professional ambitions and sidestep opportunities for career advancement when they believe they will jeopardize marriage prospects with classmates or co-workers.
According to the Harvard Business Review, in the first study, both male and female students newly admitted to an unnamed elite MBA program were given a questionnaire about their personalities and professional preferences. They were told their answers would help them secure the summer internships crucial to landing desirable jobs post-graduation.
When told their answers would be viewed only by the career office, women responded similarly to their male counterparts, with only a small drop in requested salary. The women who were currently single, however, downshifted when told their answers would be viewed by classmates, saying they would accept $18,000 a year less in salary, travel seven fewer days per month and work four fewer hours per week. They also rated themselves as less ambitious. Male students and women in relationships offered the same responses in both cases.
In the second survey, MBA students were asked if they had dodged opportunities for career enhancement in their years of work before business school in fear that they’d be perceived as too ambitious or assertive. These included angling for a leadership role, raise or promotion; volunteering to spearhead sales pitches; and offering input in meetings. Seventy-three percent of single women said that they had forgone one or more of these actions, while only 60% of attached women, 43% of single men and 50% of attached men had done the same. The single women also chose less-demanding hypothetical jobs when told their single male classmates would see and discuss their answers.
The fear on the part of these women, while sad, is not unfounded. A 2015 Harvard Business School alumni survey showed that in the 25 to 30 age group (the average age of MBAs), 31% of married women were paired with an HBS alum, as were 16% of married men.
And then there’s the data showing that even highly educated and successful men prefer to pair off with women less successful and ambitious than they are. (And I would know: As a 28-year-old Harvard grad, I’ve now been on more dates than I care to remember where a perfectly pleasant guy became decidedly less so once he asked where I’d gone to school.)
Getting women to stop walking on eggshells around the topic — by talking openly about it — is something we can do to help fix this. “My sense is that simply sharing these findings with students would mitigate any tendency on the part of single women to conform to gender stereotypes in the classroom,” Harvard Business School Professor Robin J. Ely told the Harvard Business Review. “I suspect that if they were making more conscious choices about their actions, they would not underplay their ambitions.”