Social relationships are so complex and complicated that it is not surprising that they are the focus of many studies. In this case, I’d like to comment on a couple of recent papers that focus on one of the psychological factors that come into play in male-female relationships.

Apparently, men feel uncomfortable when they are with women who are more ambitious and “successful” (in work or social life) than they are.

The Romantic Penalty

The “romantic penalty” suffered by ambitious women is not a new issue. There are quite a few studies related to it, although these two new works reinforce this concept.

The first, carried out in the United States, shows how single women reduce their ambitions in public , while the second, carried out in Sweden, reveals a real consequence of ambitions in marriages: the increase in divorces .

Single women hide their ambitions

The study conducted by Leonardo Bursztyn, Thomas Fujiwara and Amanda Pallais, three American economists, first consisted of offering a questionnaire to be filled out to a group of new students for a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA), as part of their initiation into it.

The questionnaire contained questions about job preferences and personality traits that one should have in order to run a business. But there were two types of questionnaire that only differed in the use of a single sentence: in some cases it was indicated that the results were totally anonymous ; and in others that the answers were to be made public and the name had to be indicated.

Hiding ambition

The results were immediate. When looking at the private responses between single, committed women and men, there were no significant differences. But things were not the same in the public ones.

While women with partners and men maintained the same response as the previous ones, in single women a totally different pattern of responses appeared and always below the scale of ambition. In the question about the desired salary to be received, for example, the amount was reduced to $18,000 per year less than the answer in private. The willingness to travel was also affected (7 days less per month); and so was the desired weekly working hours: 4 hours less per week.

Thus, in the answers of the single women that were revealed to the rest of the class a reduction of the professional ambitions and leadership expressed was noted . The authors concluded that these women do not want to appear to be ambitious because of the “bad image” that this produces in the search for a partner. As one of the authors indicates: “single women avoid actions that could help them in their career when they have negative consequences in the ‘marriage market'”.

Women’s success associated with divorce

The second work was done by the couple Olle Folke and Johanna Rickne, in Sweden. This study shows how career progression in women negatively affects their marriage, as opposed to men.

This research was made possible by the Swedish government’s providing an extensive record of information about its inhabitants (to the delight of sociologists). In fact, they focused on a sector where the ambitions are very clear: on married couples of aspiring parliamentarians .

Among the politicians in this country you see a high divorce rate. The number of these before an election is similar between future “losers” and “winners”, but changes dramatically after the election, with an increase of almost twice as much among the winners. But this is more accentuated if I know that the winner is a woman .

There are several relevant factors in this phenomenon, such as age differences, but in a general way, it can be seen that when a woman obtains a promotion with a salary increase (in this case, also associated with a position of political power), the divorce rate is significantly higher than if the man had obtained the position. This has also been seen in promotions within private companies , although sometimes it is difficult to discern when a promotion in a company is positive or negative, it does not always lead to better conditions.

New life… in every sense

The authors conclude that when women have sudden success in the workplace they put their marriage at risk if men have always been the dominant force in household income. To reinforce this, they stressed that a greater number of divorces are seen where the woman becomes the main force of income in the household over the husband .

Nor, of course, can these results be gleefully extrapolated to countries other than Sweden, as culture and traditions are different in each country. Still, one might ask to what extent it is likely that elsewhere women’s gender roles are less constricting than in Sweden.