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Why Don't Talented Single Women Get Promoted?

Analytically talented single women are disadvantaged early in their careers.

More and more young, talented single women without children are pursuing jobs in business and STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). They should have it made. Because they are not mothers, they are not at risk for the workplace penalties mothers sometimes face. And because employers may see them (whether accurately or inaccurately) as especially committed to their work, they could have certain advantages when it comes time for a possible promotion.

But that’s not what happens, research finds. In a set of studies, Jennifer Merluzzi of George Washington University and Damon J. Phillips of the University of Pennsylvania showed that analytically skilled young single women with no children are less likely to be promoted early in their careers than comparable married women, married men, and single men.

These single women get it coming and going. Their analytic skills are held against them—those are the kinds of skills that men are supposed to have. At the same time, the single women are seen as lacking the kinds of leadership skills that get credited to married mothers (warm, nurturing, communal). The findings were published online in “Early career leadership advancement: Evidence of incongruity penalties toward young, single professional women” in the journal Organizational Studies.

Exact Same Credentials, Different Judgments About Suitability for Promotion

In the first study, 301 business school students, including executive MBA graduate students, judged the suitability of a candidate for promotion, based on a brief profile. All the candidates were described in the profiles as MBA graduates with “sharp analytic skills” who were working at their first job at an investment bank. In fact, the descriptions of the candidates were identical except for their gender and marital/family status. The study participants evaluated a single woman without children, a single man without children, a married woman with children, or a married man with children.

The participants judged the candidate’s suitability for a number of positions. Most importantly, they evaluated their suitability for a promotion to a Vice President position. The participants also explained their decisions in their own words.

The results were clear. The single women with no kids were judged as least suitable for the promotion. All the other candidates—the married women, the married men, and the single men—were seen as more suitable. There were no differences among those three favored categories of candidates.

The explanations the business students gave for their judgments were just what the researchers expected. The single women were criticized as being “too quantitative” and as not having the people skills needed to be a good manager. The other candidates—who were described in identical ways except for their gender and marital/family status—were given credit for the exact same qualities. For example, a participant who was evaluating a married man said, “He has shown that he is a hard worker and has stellar analytical skills.”

Promotion Histories of MBA Graduates: Analytically Talented Single Women are Again Disadvantaged

In the second study, Merluzzi and Phillips were able to track down the promotion histories of 582 graduates of a graduate business program. The researchers had a measure of the graduates’ analytic talent (their quantitative GMAT score) as well as a measure more relevant to communication talent (their verbal GMAT score). They also had access to lots of other relevant information about the backgrounds and characteristics of the graduates.

The key question was whether the graduates had been promoted at their first job. Again, the results were straightforward. The graduates who were least likely to have been promoted at their first job were the single women with great analytical talents. Everyone else—the single women who did not have particularly high quantitative scores, and the married women, married men, and single men (regardless of their analytic skills) were all more likely to have been promoted. The graduates’ communication skills (as measured by their verbal GMAT) did not have much to do with whether they were promoted.

The Analytically-Talented Single Woman Penalty

In theory, businesses and STEM professionals are making greater efforts to recruit and retain women. And yet, they are biased against promoting the young, analytically talented single women they hire. Merluzzi and Phillips describe their findings this way:

“Young, analytically-talented, single professional women as a group with high potential to commit to advancement in their early careers are nonetheless penalized when assessed for leadership roles because of these commitment displays and talents which are perceived as incongruent with leadership expectations and thus block their advancement.”

There are hints that this bias against single women without children is not limited to the early stages of their careers. For example, the authors looked into the backgrounds of the 24 Fortune 500 women CEOs and found that 23 of them were married. The other one was divorced. Of the 24, 17 had publicly stated that they were mothers.

I want to know what can be done about the documented bias against promoting analytically talented single professional women. The authors, unfortunately, offer no policy recommendations. At other points in a career trajectory, there are some potentially useful steps that can be taken. For example, when hiring new people, employers can be barred from asking about gender, marital status, or parental status on applications. When it comes time for promotions, though, employers will already know that information. We’re left hoping that an awareness of this systematic disadvantage will be a good first step toward monitoring it and rectifying it.

This post was adapted from a column originally published at Unmarried Equality, with the organization’s permission. The opinions expressed are my own.

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