Research Examines The Effects Of Gender On Stated Ambition
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about ambition. We have known for a while now that when women express a lot of ambition in the workplace, they pay a price for that. NPR's Shankar Vedantam is in the studio with me to talk about some new social science that reveals a different aspect to all this. Hi, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. That's exactly right. I was speaking with Leonardo Bursztyn. He's an economist at the University of Chicago along with Thomas Fujiwara at Princeton and Amanda Pallais at Harvard. Bursztyn was wondering whether the disparity between men and women, the fact that men seem to push themselves forward more aggressively, more ambitiously in the workplace might be driven by a dilemma that pits women's professional goals against their personal goals.
LEONARDO BURSZTYN: Men tend to avoid women that actually make more money than they do. Well, if that's the case, then single women might face a trade-off. Many actions that they take that could actually help them in the professional sense could actually hurt them in their personal side on the terms of their dating prospects.
MARTIN: So he's suggesting that a single woman who's really ambitious might not get as many dates. How did they go about trying to test this?
VEDANTAM: So this was their hypothesis. They ran a field experiment among MBA students at a top university. The school requires students to fill out a questionnaire to get placed for a summer internship at the end of the first year of business school. Now, these internships matter a great deal, Rachel. They often end up being places where graduating students find full-time jobs.
Here's the catch. Students were led to think that sometimes only a career counselor could see how they filled out their questionnaires. Others were led to think that classmates could see how they filled out the questionnaires. Compared to men and to married women, unmarried women systematically reported being less driven. And they said they wanted a substantially smaller salary when they thought their classmates could see how they were filling out their questionnaires.
BURSZTYN: When we asked them about their desired compensation, it goes down by $18,000 when they expect their peers to observe their answers. Similarly, when they're asked about the number of days they're willing to travel, for example, every month goes down by seven days, how many hours per week they're willing to work - the number goes down by four. Four fewer hours per week they're willing to work just when they're told that their classmates will observe their answers.
MARTIN: So there's something about being public about your ambition that's making single women second guess themselves.
VEDANTAM: That's right. Now, we don't know whether this is happening consciously. We don't know it's happening unconsciously. This is obviously one study at one university, but it does suggest that these women at least at some level feel they are paying a price if they express ambition. To be too ambitious might harm your prospects in terms of your social life.
MARTIN: Of course, I have to point out there are plenty of single women out there - I was one once - who were really ambitious and weren't afraid to talk about their professional ambitions in a romantic setting.
VEDANTAM: Absolutely right. And I think that's important to say, Rachel. It's also important to say I don't think the study is basically saying the problem is with single women. The problem is that single women are making this bad choice.
What the study is really pointing to is the playing field isn't level. Men do not pay a price when they express ambition in the workplace. What the study is suggesting is that women pay a price and that might reflect the choices that they're making.
MARTIN: So what does that mean? Are there bigger policy implications for this?
VEDANTAM: Well, there are several implications. One is that when schools and teachers are getting feedback from students or when employers are negotiating with job candidates, it's worth keeping in mind that the playing field isn't level. Men are not facing the same penalties as women are facing. The second thing is that attitudes matter. Our beliefs about how men and women ought to behave shapes whether the playing field is level.
MARTIN: NPR's Shankar Vedantam. He joins us regularly to talk about social science research, and he's the host of the podcast Hidden Brain. Thanks, Shankar.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Rachel.
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