The Dismal Science

Men Still Aren’t Comfortable With Ambitious Women

Two new studies—one in the U.S., one in Sweden—suggest women pay a steep price for pursuing careers.

Cynthia Nixon in Sex and the City.
An actress pretending to be a lawyer who pretended to be a stewardess. (Cynthia Nixon as Miranda on Sex on the City.)


In an early episode of Sex and the City, the Harvard-educated lawyer Miranda Hobbes tries her hand at speed dating in a last-ditch effort to find a date for a friend’s wedding. She quickly finds her career successes are an instant turnoff. Switching tactics, she tells her next partner that she’s a stewardess. Her luck changes instantly.

That was back in 2000, already well past the heyday of the stay-at-home housewife. But social mores are slow to change, and based on some new research from American and Swedish researchers, ambitious and successful women are—to this day—still penalized in the marriage market. A study released earlier this week by a trio of U.S. economists found that single women in an elite MBA program responded to a career survey with lower salary targets and acceptable levels of work travel if they thought their responses might be visible to their classmates. In Sweden—a leader in gender-equity policies—a study found that when women take on leadership positions in politics or business, it doubles their chances of divorce.

The “romance penalty” that women suffer from being ambitious or successful has been documented before. The evidence includes work by me, described in Slate nearly a decade ago, in which Columbia University students participated in a speed-dating “field experiment” held in a bar near campus. We found that women who tended to be rated as ambitious by their partners got fewer dates.

Where the American study breaks ground is by showing how women—even ones who have already demonstrated considerable ambition by enrolling at an elite business school—tend to downplay that ambition in public. The Swedish study, meanwhile, suggests that there are real consequences for ambition—consequences more dire than a modest narrowing of options on the college dating scene.

In their study of career ambitions of MBA women, economists Leonardo Bursztyn, Thomas Fujiwara, and Amanda Pallais use data from a survey of newly enrolled students at an unnamed elite business school, conducted for the purposes of helping with internship placements. Students were randomly assigned to receive one of two surveys that were identical but for a single word. Those receiving the “private” version were told that “anonymous” survey responses would be discussed in a class on career preparation. In the “public” version, each student was informed that “your” answers would be discussed in the class.

The single word had a large effect on student responses—but only for single women. The women who received the public treatment reported a desired salary of, on average, about $112,000, compared to $130,000 for the private treatment. Asked how frequently they would be willing to travel, the public respondents said fewer than 7 days a month, compared to nearly 14 days for the private respondents. Nonsingle women reported identical salary goals and willingness to travel in each treatment. (Men reported slightly lower salary goals and slightly higher willingness to travel when they thought the information might be fodder for class discussion.) Given the distinct effect of public exposure on single (rather than attached) women, the authors interpret their findings as the result of a desire to appear marriage-ready in the eyes of their male classmates. As the study’s authors put it, “single women avoid actions that could help their career when these have negative marriage market consequences.”

In Sweden, the research team of Olle Folke and Johanna Rickne (themselves a couple) have convincingly shown that female career progression is harmful to marriages there. In research that can only be conducted in a society in which the government keeps well-ordered records on everything about everybody, Folke and Rickne follow the marriages of aspiring politicians. Of course, political ambitions aren’t randomly assigned. A parliamentarian, for example, will need to spend more time in the country’s capital, potentially far from home. Perhaps, for example, a woman might make a run at a parliamentary job precisely because her marriage is on the rocks, so the idea of getting away from home is appealing.

To identify a causal effect of taking a high-powered political job, the paper compares the divorce rates of national politicians who barely win a seat in parliament versus those who just miss getting elected. Candidates who barely won are essentially the same as the ones who barely lost—they differ just by who was lucky enough to get a few votes more or less. It’s as good as random. (The researchers follow a similar approach for comparing the marital consequences of becoming a Swedish mayor by using close municipal elections.)

Folke and Rickne find that the winners’ and losers’ divorce rates are identical before the election takes place. But immediately afterward the winners’ rate doubles relative to that of the losers. (They find a similar impact on divorce from becoming a CEO, but unlike political competition, it’s hard to discern when winning a top corporate job was as good as random.) The authors argue that the women’s sudden success puts extra strain on marriages in which men are accustomed to playing a more dominant role in the workforce. Consistent with this interpretation, they find, for example, that the effect is largest in cases in which the promotion results in the woman becoming the household’s dominant earner.

If even in Sweden men can’t abide by their spouse’s ambitions, what hope is there for the rest of us? First, it’s worth dispensing with the misconception that women really have it so great in Sweden. Yes, there is generous family leave and free daycare for all. But there has never been a female prime minister. And there are way more men in Folke and Rickne’s sample of political and business leaders; only about a third of political candidates are female, and fewer than 16 percent of CEO aspirants are women. Folke and Rickne still find that women in their sample take the lion’s share of parental leave. Even in comparably progressive Sweden, legal protections and government programs aren’t enough to help women break through the glass ceiling. Societal norms still play a large role. And as these new studies emphasize, in those terms, we’ve still got a long way to go.