September 24, 2023

Almost one half of the US 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.”

Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist who has been studying the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people for years, calls this phenomenon “singlism.” But even she was surprised by the study. She pointed out that “one of the stereotypes of single women is that they are obsessed with their work – in the most disparaging version of this, they throw themselves into their work supposedly to compensate for not having a life.” DePaulo had always assumed that “the silver lining for single professional women with no kids is that they would be rewarded for their perceived investments in their jobs with a greater likelihood of being promoted. It was such a letdown to learn from this research that not only are they not promoted more often, but they are also actually disadvantaged in that regard.”

So how can these attitudes be turned around so that single women with strong analytical abilities are successful, not penalized? There is an increasing amount of research on how to interrupt gender bias in the workplace, such as establishing objective criteria for promotion and ensuring transparency in decision making. Part of the solution also turns on a larger goal of employers’ creating a cooperative, rather than a competitive, work environment according to a 2022 Harvard Business Review article.

Until those broader changes happen, there are strategies that women can take, such as finding allies and mentors, recognizing their own strengths and the biases they might face, and even engaging in gender judo, using the stereotypes in one’s own favor, such as pitching companies to venture capital funders as having a social and environmental impact.

The first step, as always, is knowing about these stereotypes. The second is recognizing they can be difficult to dislodge.