Women still sacrifice personal happiness for professional brilliance

Why do women still have to choose?
Why do women still have to choose?
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When Priya* was head of her division at a global investment bank in London back in 2017, she was only too happy to attend meetings of the business’s women’s leadership network.

The 10 female executives seated around the table during those fortnightly lunchtime gatherings ranged in age from late 30s to early 50s and had much in common: they were all passionate about enhancing diversity in a traditionally male-dominated profession; they were all fiercely ambitious in their quest for swift promotion; and—perhaps least obviously—almost all were single with no children.

“Only about two out of 10 of us were married and maybe one person had children,” Priya—herself then married with no kids—recalls.

“It wasn’t something I noticed at the time but looking back it’s quite striking,” Priya says (she asked that Quartz not publish her real name in order to not single out her bank). And this is a trend that prevails across the banking industry.

Ample evidence shows that women are more likely than men to prioritize caring for family over their profession, a fact that seems to drive the global gender pay gap. But it’s an equation that works both ways: Women who make it to the top of their professions have often made huge personal sacrifices that men in comparable positions typically have not. What’s more, a growing body of research shows that social conditioning is leading women and men to make decisions unconsciously that perpetuate this trend.

In 2016, a study by Swedish academics published in the American Economic Journal found that a woman who earns less than her partner or doesn’t work at all when they get married is significantly more likely to get divorced if her career suddenly takes off.

“The main thing we saw from doing this research is the continued prevalence of gender nuance,” says Johanna Rickne, one of the authors of the study. “Women still marry up and men marry down—in terms of education, but also image and income.”

Strikingly, the research found that, eight years after the promoted women in the study got divorced, only around 20% were living with a new partner, which was significantly lower than a control group of women who got divorced but not promoted. And it implies that the impact of the promotion on personal success is far from short-lived.

Rickne says that the intergenerational transmission theory—the social learning that explains why children tend to emulate their parents’ behaviors and values—is one explanation for this. In many communities around the world, boys are taught they are the providers and girls the homemakers; this theory portends that these values shape us more than shifting contemporary gender norms. This also helps to explain studies like the one by the US Census Bureau from 2017. It showed that the average pay gap within a heterosexual couple two years before the birth of a first child is only half the size of the average spousal pay gap a year after the birth, with the average man out-earning the woman.

Earlier this year, the Fawcett Society, a UK charity that campaigns for gender equality, published research showing that stereotyping in childhood can have marked negative consequences for both women and men. More than half of respondents to the study said that gender stereotyping had constrained their career choices, while 44% said that it had harmed their personal relationships.

“But the media also conveys these stereotypes,” Rickne emphasizes. “The media makes it very clear what’s considered a good catch for a woman and what’s considered a good catch for a man.” That in turn, she says, means that a woman is far more likely than a man to have to choose between her professional success or her personal happiness.

The powerful woman penalty

The study that Rickne and her colleagues published is not the first to highlight the personal penalty that women often face for professional ambition and success.

In a pioneering 2003 study, Columbia University researchers described a fictional entrepreneur to a group of business students. Half the students were told the individual’s name was Howard, while the other half were told it was Heidi. Howard’s and Heidi’s resumes, achievements, and other characteristics were identical, but the students overwhelmingly rated Howard to be someone they would enjoy as a colleague, while they perceived Heidi as far less appealing or even selfish.

Things didn’t seem to be much better nearly a decade later. A 2010 Harvard University study showed that female political candidates often evoke emotional reactions of “contempt and disgust” in a way that their male counterparts don’t. Of particular note, women were just as likely as men to have negative reactions to power-seeking female politicians.

How we perceive women at work affects how their romantic partners perceive them, too. Although couples are more frequently meeting online these days, a Stanford study from earlier this year showed that around 11% of couples still meet at work.

In fact, in another study published in 2017, single female students were asked to complete a questionnaire about their desired salaries and willingness to travel and work long hours. The results showed that, when the women anticipated that their classmates—and therefore, the researchers noted, potential romantic partners—would see their answers, they tended to provide a lower desired salary and a reduced willingness to travel and work long hours.

This indicates that, consciously or unconsciously, female students tend to adjust their behavior to appear more likable and to show a willingness to compromise their professional success to perform  stereotypical caring duties.

“Think leader, think male”

Entrenched stereotypes, along with persistent pay inequality, prove just how difficult it is to power progress towards a fairer world.

But Allyson Zimmermann, executive director for EMEA at Catalyst, a non-profit consultancy that helps organizations create a more gender-balanced workplace, says that there are solutions.

“Our research absolutely shows that women do not need to be ‘fixed’ with development and training programs, but rather given opportunities for advancement,” she explains. “If women had access to ‘hot jobs’, for instance, as our research coins them—[jobs] with large budgets, large teams, and good visibility to senior management—they will advance and they will take [other] women with them. Again, we know that women are excellent at bringing female talent with them.”

She explains that filling more senior management roles with female professionals—including women in successful marriages and with children—will also challenge stereotypes about what women can do, gradually chipping away at the social and cultural norms that shape our workplaces. “It’s up to companies to fix their working culture,” Zimmermann says.

Men also need to take responsibility for helping their female colleagues advance. “Until women are seen in the top roles, it’s hard to give up that pervasive ‘think leader, think male’ mindset that both genders suffer from,” Zimmermann adds. “Structural biases and barriers need to be broken down to allow a new way of working which is of benefit to both sexes and not to the detriment of one.”

Rickne agrees. “As is the case with other unconscious biases, the first step to fixing it is to be aware of it. Women need to fight back against these stereotypes and traditional perceptions. They must raise awareness of the fact that [those stereotypes] are outdated,” she says.

“The most important career advice I would offer a woman is to choose a good husband. That means someone who accepts whatever career or professional success you might have,” Rickne  adds.