‘Acting Wife’: Marriage Market Incentives and Labor Market Investments

Single, career-driven women feel the pressure to “act wife”, downplaying professionally beneficial qualities like ambition, in order to reduce negative perceptions from potential male partners.


Single women face a trade-off between the labor and the marriage markets, as ambitious and assertive actions that lead to professional success might be considered undesirable to potential male partners. Engaging in actions such as speaking up in meetings, taking charge of a project, working late, or traveling for work, signals a professional ambition that men are unlikely to find attractive when it exceeds their own. As a result, single women may try to improve their marriage options by “acting wife” and downplaying their job investments.

To investigate this trade-off between being a successful career woman and a future wife, the authors of this paper study graduate students in an elite U.S. MBA program. In this context, many students are simultaneously investing in their professional career and looking for a long-term partner. Survey results and class participation rates among several cohorts show initial support to the idea that single women may be “acting wife.” Two field experiments provide a direct test of whether single women actually change their behavior to appear less professionally ambitious when they are observed by single men. In these experiments, students are asked to reflect on their job preferences. Some are randomly assigned to be told that their classmates (and thus potential partners) would be able to view these preferences (experiment 1) or assigned to mixed-sex groups to discuss them (experiment 2).


Observational evidence – gathered through a survey and class participation rates- show that single female MBA students present themselves as less ambitious due to “marriage market” pressures. Compared to their married counterparts, single women avoid outspokenness, taking initiative, and asking for leadership positions when men are present.

  • Using a survey, first-year MBA students were asked whether they had avoided certain actions in the two years prior to business school out of concern that these actions would make them look “too ambitious, assertive, or pushy.”
    • Overall, 73% of single women said they had avoided actions helpful to their career because of concerns about looking “too ambitious”.
    • 64% of single women stated that they avoided seeking a raise or promotion, in comparison to 39% of non-single women, 30% of non-single men and 25% of single men.
    • 52% of single women reported avoiding speaking up in meetings, relative to 33% of non-single women, 29% of non-single men and 28% of single men.
    • 40% of single women reported avoiding asking for a leadership role, compared to 24% of non-single women, 24% of non-single men and 23% of single men
    • 25% of single women reported refraining from offering to make a presentation or a sales pitch, relative to 15% of non-single women, 7% of non-single men and 18% of single men.
  • MBA class participation rates show that unmarried female MBA students have lower class participation rates than married ones.
    • While married and unmarried women perform similarly on exams and problem sets, unmarried women participate significantly less in class than married women (71.4 vs. 77.5).
    • Married and unmarried men perform similarly on exams and problem sets. They also participate at similar rates (75.9 vs. 75.0).

In the first experiment, MBA students were asked to complete a questionnaire about their job preferences and assigned a “public” or a “private” condition.

  • In the “private” condition (when students believed their answers would only be viewed by a career counselor), single and non-single women answered similarly.
  • In the “public” condition, when single women expected their classmates to see their answers:
    • Their desired compensation was $18,000 (14%) lower than single women in the “private” condition.
    • They were willing to travel 7 fewer days per month and work 4 fewer hours per week in comparison to single women in the “private” condition.
    • They reported a lower tendency to lead (3.48) and professional ambition (3.38) than single women in the “private” condition (3.87 and 4.13 respectively).
  • Non-single women and men regardless of relationship status, did not change their answers in “public” vs. “private” conditions.

In the second experiment, MBA students were asked to make choices over three pairs of hypothetical jobs, followed by a group discussion in mixed or same-sex groups.

  • When placed in all-female discussion groups, 68% of single women preferred a 55-60 hour per week job with a higher salary over a 45-40 hour per week job with a lower salary. However, in mixed gender groups, only 43% of single women made this choice.
  • When placed in all-female discussion groups, 79% of single women preferred a job with a quicker promotion to partner with substantial travel, over a job with slower and more uncertain promotion but no travel. When in mixed-gender groups, only 37% made this choice.
  • Single women present themselves as less career-focused when there are more unmarried men in their group.

While single and non-single women have similar skills and career preferences, the authors find that among single female MBA students, traits that are beneficial to career success are often avoided in order to prevent undesirable perceptions when single men are present. The same behaviors are not seen in men and women in committed relationships or single men.


The authors use four datasets coming from an elite MBA program. The first is 2010-2016 cohorts administrative data on grades, including class participation rates, in an introductory economics class. Of the 2,235 students entering the MBA program between 2010 and 2016, 70% were male, 18% were married or in a domestic partnership, and were on average 28 years old. The other three datasets, the survey and the two experiments, were collected for the 2016 cohort. More detailed relationship data was collected from this cohort to adequately differentiate between students in committed relationships (in a serious relationship, cohabiting, engaged, or married) and single students. While only 20% of students in the 2016 cohort were married, only 46% call themselves single.

The program’s 2016 cohort answered a short anonymous survey during a required class asking whether students had ever avoided behaviors that could be perceived as overly assertive or pushy, including actions such as speaking up in meetings, offering to make a presentation, asking for leadership roles, and taking initiative in negotiating a raise or asking for a promotion.

For additional observational evidence, the authors compare students´ participation and non-participation (midterm, final, and problem sets) grades in an introductory economics class.

The primary experiment took place on the first day of the 2016-cohort MBA program, as part of a mandatory 45-minute session hosted by the career center. An instructor asked students to fill out an introductory questionnaire to be used for summer internship placement. Students were randomly assigned to “public” or “private” conditions. Students in the “public” condition answered a version of the questionnaire that specified that their answers would be discussed in class. Students in the “private” condition answered a version of the questionnaire specifying that only anonymized answers would be discussed. The questionnaire asked how often students were willing to travel for work, the number of hours per week they were willing to work, and their desired compensation. Additionally, students were asked to rate their professional ambition relative to their most recent work colleagues and their tendency to lead in day-to-day interactions on a 5-point scale. Students were also asked to answer demographic questions and rate their writing skills. Writing, as a professionally desirable skill that has no negative gendered connotations, was used as a control attribute.

Three months after the primary experiment, a supplementary experiment was design to replicate the findings. Students were given a questionnaire with three pairs of hypothetical jobs and asked to choose their preferred job in each pair before participating in a group discussion. Single female students were randomly assigned to discuss their results in a group of only women, or as the only woman in a group of men. All non-single women were placed into all-female groups. Pairs represented trade-offs between high salaries and high workloads vs. low salaries and low workloads, high chances of promotion and significant travel vs. low chances of promotion and no travel, and (as a control) a job with high positive social impact and little interaction with coworkers vs. a job with little social impact and a collaborative work environment.

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