How Do Men Really Feel About Dating Ambitious Women?

March 30, 2017

A new study conducted by Harvard Business School suggests that single female MBA students actively hide ambition and leadership potential so that single guys in the program won’t be turned off. Since we might expect this population to be among the most ambitious women in the country, I find this extraordinary. If female Harvard MBAs are hiding their light under a bushel, what does that say about the rest of us?

From the study’s authors:

“Our results suggest that single women avoid actions that would help their careers because of marriage market concerns. Many schooling and initial career decisions such as whether to take advanced math in high school, major in engineering, or become an entrepreneur occur early in life when most women are single.

These decisions can have labor market consequences that last long after these women get married. While extrapolating to other settings is beyond the scope of this paper, elite female MBA students comprise a selected group that presumably places a higher value on career success than the general female population. This suggests the effects of marriage market signaling are perhaps even larger in other contexts.”

The first thing researchers did was have single and partnered female students fill out a questionnaire about career goals. When students believed their responses were private, there was no difference between the two groups of women. When they believed their responses would be shared with their classmates, partnered women and men didn’t change at all. But single women responded very differently:

  • Reduced annual income expectations by 18K
  • Willing to travel 7 fewer days per month
  • Willing to work 4 fewer hours per week
  • Indicated less ambition
  • Indicated lower tendency for leadership

In another survey, researchers found that 73% of single women reported avoiding activities that would further their career because they didn’t want to appear ambitious. Other findings:

Single WomenPartnered WomenMen
“I avoid activities that make me look ambitious, assertive or pushy.”64%39%27%
“I avoid speaking up in meetings.”52%33%28%

Perhaps most alarming, it turns out that single women MBA students have significantly lower grades than partnered women and men. While their written work, e.g. exams, case analyses, is equal to their peers, single women earn much lower grades for class participation. (For you statheads, the difference was one-third of a standard deviation.)

At HBS in particular, this spells doom because the school relies very heavily on the case study method of class discussion. These women are intentionally weakening their career prospects at graduation!

They’re usually in their mid to late 20s, so they’re thinking about finding a long-term partner at the same time they matriculate into the program. Clearly, they perceive that men prefer less ambitious and accomplished women. The HBS authors agree:

“Even in the 21st century, men prefer female partners who are less professionally ambitious than they are (Fisman et al., 2006).”

Curious, I looked up the Fisman study Gender Differences in Mate Selection. First they affirm that men place more emphasis on physical appearance, while women prioritize intelligence. Roger that. Here’s the conclusion referenced in the HBS study:

“We observe that a man’s demand for intelligence and ambition does not extend to women who are more intelligent or ambitious than he is. In fact, a man is significantly less likely to accept a woman who is more ambitious than he.”

Fisman conducted 21 rounds of speed dating sessions to assess dating preferences. Again, we have a very highly accomplished set of subjects, all recruited from Columbia University’s graduate and professional schools. 26% are from the Business school, and another 11% from the Law school. 43% hail from PhD programs, pursuing careers in academia. Here’s what Fisman found:

“Men strictly prefer women with their own level of ambition to women more ambitious than they are.”

Whoa – do you see what happened there? The HBS profs characterized Fisman as finding men want women less ambitious than they are. But what Fisman actually found was that men want women with their own level of ambition, not women who are more ambitious than they are. This is a very important distinction. And one that should make us all very suspicious of academic research!

Indeed, HBS reports that among their b-school alums aged 25-30, a third of the women are married to fellow HBS alums. This ratio was very similar for my own class at Wharton back in the 80s. Perhaps these are the women who pretended to be “less than” – we can’t know. What we can say is that there is a strong tendency toward assortative mating among the highly educated.

It’s also important to reiterate that the subjects in both of these studies are among the most promising students in the U.S. It’s hardly surprising that these highly ambitious men aren’t seeking to marry the 1-3% most ambitious women in the world. Perhaps the single women MBAs simply want to signal that they’re not planning to prioritize their careers to the exclusion of a personal or family life.

Incidentally, the 2017 Match Annual Singles Survey turned up some interesting findings along these lines. The #1 top turnon for men – at 38% – was “female entrepreneurs.” Men defined “a strong woman” this way:

  • Intelligent: 69%
  • Confident: 64%
  • Independent: 53%

I’ll close with an anecdote from my own business school days. My husband and I were in a Management Simulation class together, though we weren’t dating yet. The class was split into two teams, each of which had to simulate bringing a profitable product to market. He and I were assigned to the same team, and somehow I wound up as the faux CEO. Our team cleaned up, and Mr. HUS fondly nicknamed me Queen Bee, which has led to a lifetime of bee-related stocking stuffers and small gifts. I wasn’t more of anything than he was, but I was as much. And he liked it. 🙂