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'Acting Wife': Marriage Market Incentives and Labor Market Investments

Leonardo Bursztyn, Thomas Fujiwara, Amanda Pallais

NBER Working Paper No. 23043
Issued in January 2017
NBER Program(s):Economics of Education, Labor Studies

Do single women avoid career-enhancing actions because these actions could signal personality traits, like ambition, that are undesirable in the marriage market? We answer this question through two field experiments in an elite U.S. MBA program. Newly-admitted MBA students filled out a questionnaire on job preferences and personality traits to be used by the career center in internship placement; randomly-selected students thought their answers would be shared with classmates. When they believed their classmates would not see their responses, single and non-single women answered similarly. However, single women reported desired yearly compensation $18,000 lower and being willing to travel seven fewer days per month and work four fewer hours per week when they expected their classmates would see their answers. They also reported less professional ambition and tendency for leadership. Neither men nor non-single women changed their answers in response to peer observability. A supplementary experiment asked students to make choices over hypothetical jobs before discussing their choices in their career class small groups; we randomly varied the groups' gender composition. Single women were much less likely to select career-focused jobs when their answers would be shared with male peers, especially single ones. Two results from observational data support our experimental results. First, in a new survey, almost three-quarters of single female students reported avoiding activities they thought would help their career because they did not want to appear ambitious. They eschewed these activities at higher rates than did men and non-single women. Second, while unmarried women perform similarly to married women in class when their performance is kept private from classmates (on exams and problem sets), they have significantly lower participation grades.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23043

Published: Leonardo Bursztyn & Thomas Fujiwara & Amanda Pallais, 2017. "‘Acting Wife’: Marriage Market Incentives and Labor Market Investments," American Economic Review, vol 107(11), pages 3288-3319. citation courtesy of

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