‘Acting Wife’: Is this relevant to gender equity in Vietnam?

Even in the twenty-first century and in North America, men prefer female partners who are less professionally ambitious than they are.(1)

Men tend to avoid female partners with characteristics usually associated with professional ambition, such as high levels of education.(2) It is relatively unlikely that a woman will earn more than her husband,(3) and when she does, marital satisfaction is lower and divorce is more likely.(4) Promotions increase the chance of divorce for women, but not for men.(5)

Single women may thus face a trade-off: actions that lead to professional success might be sanctioned in the marriage market because they signal ambition and assertiveness. For example, while volunteering for leadership roles or asking for a promotion might help women’s careers, they may also send negative signals to the marriage market. This trade-off can be pervasive and is not limited to large, discrete decisions. Daily activities such as speaking up in meetings, taking charge of a project, working late, or even certain outfits, haircuts, and makeup can be desirable in one market and not in the other. Hiding career-enhancing actions from potential partners may be challenging for single women: it is likely difficult to hide working late or traveling for work, for example. Moreover, the workplace is the most common place to meet a partner.(5) On the other hand, for men, the consequences of actions in the labor and marriage markets are more closely aligned: women value their partner’s intelligence and education, even when these exceed their own.(6)

According to the results of a recent study,(7) single women shy away from actions that could improve their careers to avoid signaling undesirable personality traits to the marriage market. Three-quarters of single female students at an elite US MBA program report having avoided activities they thought would help their careers to avoid looking ambitious, assertive, or pushy. They are more likely to have avoided these activities than non-single women or men. Unmarried women participate much less in class than married women, despite the fact that they perform equivalently on the parts of the grade unobservable to their peers. When they expect their classmates to observe their answers, single women report substantially less career ambition in a questionnaire designed to be instrumental in finding them a summer internship. They also express much less career ambition in front of their (single) male than female classmates.

The results have implications for understanding gender gaps in labor market outcomes. It also highlights the importance of social norms—particularly what is differentially expected from (and preferred in) a husband and a wife—in explaining gender gaps. Women make many important schooling and career decisions while looking for a romantic partner. The results raise the possibility that a desire to succeed in the dating or marriage markets may affect choices that range from investment in middle- or high-school math to college major or industry of work that have long- term consequences for women’s careers.

The content of the above paragraphs (which are excerpted from a recent study by Bursztyn et al., reference 7) describes issues related to gender equity in North America, in which the struggle for equity has a long and reasonably successful history. The results and implications are likely to be highly relevant to the fight against the gender gap in Vietnamese society. The Vietnamese Students Union has taken a positive leadership position on gender equity, for example with a support program for pregnant students, and 50% of female students in leadership positions with the Union. The lessons learned from the study by Bursztyn et al. 2017 are highly relevant for program planning and communication strategies by the Union. On this occasion, we are reflecting on the challenges faced by female students in universities as well as in the work place.

Pham Dinh Ba, Ph.d- Toronto University, Canada


  1. Fisman, Raymond, Sheena S. Iyengar, Emir Kamenica, and Itamar Simonson. 2006. “Gender Differences in Mate Selection: Evidence from a Speed Dating Experiment.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 121 (2): 673–97.
  2. Brown, Stephanie L., and Brian P. Lewis. 2004. “Relational Dominance and Mate-Selection Criteria: Evidence that Males Attend to Female Dominance.” Evolution and Human Behavior 25 (6): 406–15.
  3. Bertrand, Marianne, Emir Kamenica, and Jessica Pan. 2015. “Gender Identity and Relative Income within Households.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 130 (2): 571–614.
  4. Folke, Olle, and Johanna Rickne. 2016. “All the Single Ladies: Job Promotions and the Durability of Marriage.” IFN Working Paper 1146.
  5. Rosenfeld, Michael J., Reuben J. Thomas, and Maja Falcon. 2015. How Couples Meet and Stay Together, Waves 1, 2, and 3: Public version 3.04 [Computer files]. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Libraries.
  6. Lee, Soohyung. 2016. “Effect of Online Dating on Assortative Mating: Evidence from South Korea.” Journal of Applied Econometrics 31 (6): 1120–39.
  7. Leonardo Bursztyn, Thomas Fujiwara, and Amanda Pallais . ‘Acting Wife’: Marriage Market Incentives and Labor Market Investments. American Economic Review 2017, 107(11): 3288–3319.

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