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Single, Female And Looking For Business Success: New Research

Almost one half of the U.S. population is single, and the number of single people has almost tripled since 1950.

Companies run by single CEOs may be faster growing: a 2014 study found that companies with single leaders engaged in much more aggressive investment behavior.

But that study does not give advice for single people looking to be leaders. That’s where new research by Jennifer Merluzzi of George Washington University and Damon J. Phillips of the University of Pennsylvania comes in. The researchers set out to study whether single young women faced a penalty in seeking leadership positions. Earlier research had shown that female MBA students who were single tended to deemphasize their ambitions when they were with their classmates.

Single women might, Merluzzi and Phillips theorized, not fit into the masculinized model of an ideal leader, and also might not fit into the feminine ideal of marriage. They predicted that, compared to married or single men, as well as married women, single women might face the lowest likelihood of promotion.

To test their theory, they first studied how business school students evaluated promotion candidates with the same credentials, and who varied based solely on gender and family status. Single women were rated as “least suitable” compared to the other groups, and the explanations that participants provided focused on the single women’s lack of “analytical, people management and leadership ability.” Study participants’ age, race or own familial status did not make a difference to the assessment.

Next, they looked at the actual promotion histories of MBA graduates, focusing on the role that “analytical skills” played. It turned out that single women with analytical skills were, in fact, penalized with respect to promotion to leadership positions compared to all other groups based on familial status.

Merluzzi offered a potential explanation as to why: these women, who are ambitious and accomplished, do not conform with the image of what a female “leader is supposed to look like.”


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