Imagine, as newspapers and magazines recently have, the “plight of the high-status woman.” She is a well-educated young woman in her 30s, earns a good salary, and has a great social life — but she is single and is worried that her success might be the reason she has not met a man to marry. Any hint of bad news about the successful or talented has always made headlines, but media pessimism about the happiness and life balance of millions of young, career-oriented women has struck a chord nationwide.
The purported “news” was never good: Smart women are less likely to marry. Successful men are romantically interested only in their secretaries. And if a woman makes a lot of money, men will be intimidated. Conservative and liberal pundits alike mythologized the failure of feminism and the “waste” of these talented women who were searching for soul mates.
For a generation of SWANS — Strong Women Achievers, No Spouse — these myths have become conventional wisdom. If you attended a good school, have an impressive job, have career aspirations or dream of future success, men will find you less attractive. “I’ve been told by well-meaning relatives: ‘Don’t talk about work on a date, dumb it down, and it’s bad to earn so much money because guys will be scared of you.’ And I got the word ‘intimidating’ a lot,” said Alexis, a 35-year-old lawyer in San Francisco.
She’s not alone. Nearly half of single women believe their professional success is intimidating to the men they meet. Put another way, many high-achieving women think their success is not helping them find love. Some 66 percent of SWANS disagree with the statement “My career or educational success increases my chances of getting married.”
Anne, a 30-year-old chief resident at a Boston hospital, said she doesn’t think of herself as intimidating or uber-intelligent, but men seem to get that impression. “I was out with two friends from residency recently and I asked one of the married guys if he had any single friends to set me up with. He said, ‘Oh, I get it, you’re one of those super-smart superachievers that scare the men off.'”
“I didn’t really know how to respond,” Anne recalled of her colleague’s character assessment, but other women have a strategy in place. They instinctually “dumb it down” or pretend to be someone they’re not. When she was 35 and single, Julia, a lawyer in New York City, would play a game when she went to bars: “I told some guys I was an attorney and they ran away from me, and then other guys that I was a secretary at a law firm and at least for the short term they seemed more interested,” she said. “There’s the idea that high-achieving men don’t like the competition, that they find us a little bit frightening, and get enough of that in the office. They want someone who is going to be at home.”
This stunt became popular enough to inspire a Sex and the City episode. Miranda, the high-powered lawyer, tells a man she meets at a speed-dating event that she’s a flight attendant. He tells her he’s a doctor. Both of them are lying — she to diminish her status, and he to inflate it.
The stereotypes are powerful, and many high-achieving women have created similar strategies. When Zara, a 26-year-old business school student, was an undergraduate at an East Coast Ivy League school, she and her friends used to fabricate identities that they assumed would be more attractive to men. “Senior year I spent spring break in Jamaica. My friends and I pretended we were from Southern Mississippi State University — which doesn’t exist as far as I know — and put on southern accents to top it all off. We met all sorts of guys. We thought they’d be intimidated if they found out where we really went to school. They’d think we were argumentative, pushy, feminazis. Really, we’re traditional in a lot of ways and are afraid of being judged negatively like that.”
Given this prevalent conventional wisdom, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the romantic lives of accomplished women make front-page headlines only to tout bad news. “Men Prefer to Wed Secretary” announced UPI newswires in late 2004. “Too Smart to Marry” read the headline in the Atlantic Monthly a few months later. Newspapers throughout England, France, and Australia jumped on the bad news bandwagon in 2005: “Here Dumbs the Bride,” “Keep Young and Stupidful If You Want to Be Loved,” and “Alpha Females Use Their Heads, but Lose Their Hearts.”
Finally, these negative ideas hit a saturation point in 2005, when outspoken New York Times columnist and feminist Maureen Dowd embraced this well-worn myth. In a series of articles and columns in the Times, and then in a book, the Pulitzer prize-winning writer asked plaintively, “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?”
Ironically, it’s two successful women, a well-educated and influential economist in her 60s and a pioneering journalist in her 50s, both of whom accomplished so much ahead of their time, who have done the most to scare off younger ones from pursuing similar paths to success.
In 2002, Sylvia Ann Hewlett presented a study of high-achieving women who weren’t marrying or having children at the same rates as other women. In her book Creating a Life, she stoked the flames of panic among successful women: “Nowadays, the rule of thumb seems to be that the more successful the woman, the less likely it is she will find a husband or bear a child.” She argued that high-achieving women who were still single at age 30 had a less than 10 percent chance of ever marrying.
Three years later, Maureen Dowd blamed her own single life on her career success. In her 2005 book Are Men Necessary?, Dowd told readers that she came from a family of Irish maids and housekeepers. Now in her 50s, she has achieved more than her great-aunts and grandmothers would have dreamed: She was one of the first women to have a regular opinion column in America’s newspaper of record, she’s written several best-selling books, and she has won the highest award in journalism. Writes Dowd, “I was always so proud of achieving more — succeeding in a high-powered career that would have been closed to my great-aunts. How odd, then, to find out now that being a maid would have enhanced my chances with men.”
These two books have had a profound effect on the way young, career-oriented women perceive their relationships.
Carolyn, 36, had recently ended a four-year relationship when the bad news books and articles began to garner large-scale media attention. She was getting anxious. “Should I be a little quieter? Should I listen more? Should I flatter more? Should I postpone talking about my stuff, should I put it off until he likes me for my personality? Should I laugh more? It feels fake, like a game, but I’m not sure what these studies are telling me to do.”
Among single women in their 20s and 30s, the topics of marriage, career, and life balance are at center stage. Jill, Kim, Angela, and Star are members of a women’s book club, and these bad news headlines were Topic #1 at a recent meeting. “I got that Maureen Dowd piece emailed to me by tons of people, including my mom, who wrote a header saying something like, ‘According to this, you’re never getting married.’ Someone in the office emailed me as well. It was just amazing how one single article can have so much resonance,” said Jill, 28, who works at a political nonprofit organization. “It was just depressing.”
Kim chimed in: “I’m on the cusp of turning 30 and people are always complaining that smart women don’t get married. You never hear about the relationships that are going well, the people who have found a great match. Instead, you hear about the single women who want to be married, as if that’s the only story.” Kim’s own observations, however, are different: “It’s a misconception that smart women don’t get married. It’s dated.”
Star and Angela agreed that the media are on the wrong track: “The men I’ve dated like my career ambition,” said Star. “They are looking for that. It’s what they are most enamored with. And most of them have gotten graduate degrees themselves.” But Angela, 31, added, “Getting those degrees delays the process. You tend to focus on school after a while. And that’s when [women] freak out.”
The deluge of dire findings about these women’s chances at love don’t help, either. In the years between Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research and Maureen Dowd’s best-seller, two depressing studies garnered national attention.
In 2004, researchers at the University of Michigan published a study in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, which, loosely summarized, found that the men in their sample would prefer to marry a woman whom they considered to be a subordinate, rather than a woman they considered to be a superior or a peer.
The media went into a feeding frenzy: “Powerful Male Looking for Maid to Marry,” “Glass Ceilings at the Altar as Well as the Boardroom,” “They’re Too Smart for These Guys” cried the news and editorial pages of major dailies nationwide. More than 100 newspaper and magazine articles, plus dozens of radio spots (aired multiple times each), plus TV commentaries — and, of course, countless Internet mentions — grew from the Michigan study.
Why question a real study, then, especially when many educated minds apparently had a chance to review it? Because the facts don’t add up. This “news” was based on the opinions of 120 male undergraduates who were shown photos of a man and a woman, given a scenario about the person as either above or below them in an office hierarchy, and then asked a series of questions about that person.
So 120 guys just out of puberty said that they were more attracted to women who weren’t that challenging to them. And this is national news?
To throw more fat into the fire, a multiuniversity English and Scottish study emerged a few weeks later, reporting that women with higher IQ scores were less likely to marry than women with lower IQ scores, whereas the opposite was true for men. This exhaustive study, well-researched and rigorous, followed nearly 900 men and women from age 11 through adulthood. With each up-tick in IQ scores, women were less likely to have married by midlife, but men were that much more likely to marry.
Once again, the researchers were reputable. Plus, in this case, the number of individuals researched and the range in their backgrounds gave the study additional validity. Finally, the study’s methods withstood examination of solid social science research procedure. With apparent justification, worldwide media gave the study thorough coverage. Scores of stories appeared on TV, radio, and in print — again, not to mention the volume on the Internet.
Why, then, cast any doubt on the results, or on the media’s exhaustive international coverage of the announcement?
Here’s why: This study was conducted on men and women born in 1921 — men and women who would be 85 years old today. These women were born seven years before the UK granted equal voting rights to women. When these seniors were coming of age in the early 1940s, women had to resign their jobs upon marriage and top universities were still closed to female students. Not until these women reached their 50s would equal pay be implemented in the Civil Service. The results may be valid, but the idea that the gender norms of Grandma’s generation are newsworthy and applicable to the lives of young, smart women today is laughable.
Does Bad News Sell?
Clearly, these studies didn’t merit the vast attention they received. So why do the news media and popular culture outlets so eagerly perpetuate destructive bad news for successful women? Harvard professor Russell Muirhead has suggested that the average Jane and Joe are comforted to think that unusually smart, successful people are living less happy lives, “that for all educated women know, they might not know enough to find love.”
A magazine journalist, Eileen, age 34, said she understands the media craze for bad news. “There’s a very powerful need to create a subcategory of people to feel superior to, so if you’ve chosen to give up your career to get married and have kids, you might feel like it’s only fair that successful women shouldn’t get married. You made your choice and they made theirs,” she states bluntly.
But then Eileen pauses, and considers yet another option: that the quest for Mr. Right is long and full of tough moments along the way, and doom-and-gloom articles will always reflect the depression of young women after yet another bad blind date, another failed relationship, another guy who didn’t call.
“The whole dating thing just feels hard, and sometimes we just want data that support the way we feel. Even if the news is great in the long run, it’s still hard, and we like to wallow a bit,” Eileen said.
Another reason these dire statistics have such resonance: They were true for our aunts and mothers and older mentors. In 1980, the median age of marriage nationwide for women was 22. But according to the 1980 Census, a woman with a graduate degree was twice as likely to still be single between the ages of 25 and 34 than a woman who had a college degree or less. In fact, 1 in 5 women with graduate degrees (20.5 percent) had not married by age 34, compared to 1 in 10 women without graduate degrees (9.6 percent).
So when newspapers report that women achievers find it difficult to find men, it resonates with a lot of ambitious SWANS who aren’t getting what they want quite yet. And though we all need a good bitch session every now and then — and though it always seems worse for us than for anyone else — the news, girls, is good.
High-achieving women marry at the same rate as all other women; they just do so a bit later in life. Smart women do get married. Men do make passes at girls who wear glasses. And though some men are looking for women to play fetch for them, there’s certainly no shortage of men who would much prefer to volley with an equal.
The Real Story
To get numbers to tell a story, it’s necessary to pull out some particular groups to test. Most researchers use education and income as a substitute for achievement, which, let’s face it, is hard to define and measure precisely, even if we all agree we know what it means. Others look at the sexiness of status (Is having a high-powered job related to sexual attraction?). And still others explore power and ambition.
The original research presented in this book defines high-achieving women as women with a graduate degree — a master’s, doctoral, or professional degree in any field — and/or an income in the top 10 percent of women in their age group; that means women ages 24 to 34 who, in 2005, earned $50,000 per year or more, and women ages 35-40 who earned $60,000 per year or more.
Certainly there are many SWANS who don’t fit this rigid national numerical definition. There are towns and cities where earning much less than $50,000 earns a woman a place in the top 10 percent of earners in her area. There are plenty of successful, talented, and ambitious women who have chosen not to go to grad school or who have taken prestigious but lower-paying jobs in public service, the arts, politics, or diplomacy. They are women who aspire to be outstanding at whatever profession or activity they choose. Success, and the aspiration to succeed, comes in many forms. Better still, success is sexy, and the new numbers show that higher income and education increases a woman’s chances of marriage.
Sex and power are often linked, but most sociological theories (and media headlines) predict that it is women who will flock to high-powered men and find them the most attractive, whereas men will be drawn to docile and subordinate women. Yet a 2005 article in the American Journal of Sociology, overlooked by the media, reports just the opposite: High-status and powerful women are rated as more attractive. Based on a study of interpersonal relationships in 60 different communities nationwide, the author concludes that women in positions of power are sexier to men than are more subordinate women.
Research by Megan Sweeney, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, adds another data point to the good news plot: Higher-earning women marry at higher rates. Among white women, a $10,000-per-year increase in salary can mean a 7 percent increase in the likelihood that she will marry within a year. For black women, that same salary bump increases the likelihood of marriage by more than 8 percent.
And the trend only improves. Economist Elaina Rose at the University of Washington studies the relationship between marriage rates and education level, and how the two have affected each other over time. By looking at U.S. Census records going back several decades, Rose has tracked the diminishing marriage “success penalty.” Twenty-five years ago, a woman with a graduate degree was 13.5 percent less likely to have ever married at age 40 to 44 than a woman with only a high school diploma. In percentage terms that’s a big number. By the 2000 Census, that penalty had largely disappeared.
There’s already plenty of data to anticipate more good news in the upcoming 2010 Census. The Current Population Survey (CPS), a yearly representative sample of 60,000 households nationwide, tracks education, income, and marriage data. Based on 2000 and 2001 CPS data, Heather Boushey at the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington, DC, demonstrated that working women between the ages of 28 and 35 who earn more than $55,000 per year (well above the U.S. median) or have a graduate degree are just as likely to be married as other women who work full-time. According to the newest available data, the 2005 CPS, for women with an advanced degree and for women who earn in the top 10 percent of all female earners for their age group, there’s no marriage penalty. High-achieving women marry at the same rates as all other women; they just do it a little later.
It’s common for high-achieving women to marry for the first time at age 30, according to CPS data. So in that first wave of late-20s weddings, successful women may be feeling a little panicky. Some 55 percent of women with graduate degrees have married by age 29, compared to 61 percent of other women.
But then the tide turns: It’s significantly more likely that a woman with a graduate degree will walk down the aisle in her 30s than a woman with a college degree or less. And SWANS’ own experiences reflect this.
Jessica, a 35-year-old entrepreneur, has an explanation for the difference in timing: “The more successful woman, or the higher IQ woman, might be less likely to get married young because she has the intellect to see through the garbage that some other people might not care to see through. She has the awareness, and has been raised to ask the questions that will immediately be obstacles to getting married.” Jessica has many smart friends who found their match and married in their 20s, but she is proud of her decision to continue to search for the right man for her, instead of settling. For women in their 30s, she added, “I would say that our education is helping us — we now have the balance, the yin and the yang, the softness and business success.”
Kama, a consultant in Chicago, said she and her friends, all in their early 30s, have been doing some studies of their own to test whether their degrees are holding them back on the dating scene — and the results have been promising. “I had a friend who did speed dating with 28 guys. In half of those quick introductions she said she went to Harvard Business School and in half she didn’t mention it. She got the same number of ask-outs from each pool. It’s a small sample, but I hope that’s a good sign.”
For Julia, the New York lawyer who told men at bars that she was a secretary, things changed at 36. “Yeah, then I met Adam,” she said with a shy smile, unconsciously playing with her wedding ring. The couple met at a friend’s party, and Julia, who had all but given up on meeting someone special, said she could tell from the beginning he was different. So she told him she was a lawyer. “Adam finds my intelligence more of a turn-on. He can talk to me and I understand him. From the time we met, it was like a first date that never ended. We were engaged in four months and married in under a year. For the first time, I felt I didn’t have to hide parts of myself.”
Melissa and Kristen, both in their late 20s, don’t understand why any woman would be concerned. They are both seriously dating men who value their intelligence, and they feel confident that their good experiences are the norm. “These studies are complete crap. Danny doesn’t know anything about finance,” said Kristen, who is starting a new job as an investment banker at a leading firm. “He runs a wine import business. I can think of so many examples where guys are sometimes attracted to beautiful, blond, popular girls when they are young, but when they are older, they are looking for girls who are brighter, and have more intellectual qualities.”
“Most of my guy friends would say they have to be able to have a conversation with their wives,” said Melissa, who has just finished her master’s degree. “I think most of my [male] friends went to good schools and are surrounded by smart women. My brother has a JD/MBA and he’s married to a woman who is a doctor, and they got married later. More so now than 50 years ago, men want women who are their equals or superiors.”
Melissa’s boyfriend, Michael, is proud of her successes. “When I meet one of Michael’s friends, they’ll say, ‘I heard that you dogged him on the ski slopes and you’re smarter than he is,’ and you know, men want that, a girl who will challenge them and not say ‘Yes, dear, here’s your scotch and soda.’ I mean, he was the one who told his friends that to begin with.”
“What I think they are mixing up in those studies is that men do like to be taken care of, but taking care of a guy doesn’t mean that you are subordinate. I would make a drink, but then I’d sit down and talk to him about any given issue,” concluded Kristen.
Like more and more SWANS, these women’s instincts are borne out by the current numbers. For instance, according to data from the 2005 Current Population Survey, an unmarried 30-year-old woman is more likely to have made it to the altar by age 40 if she has a graduate degree than if she doesn’t. There’s a two-thirds chance that a 30-year-old woman will marry if she has a college degree or less, but there’s a three-quarters chance she’ll be a bride if she has an advanced degree. By ages 35 to 39, a higher percentage of high-achieving women have walked down the aisle than their less accomplished sisters.
Geography doesn’t matter either: In cities and suburbs, large cities and small cities, these data hold true. In Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, and San Diego — the largest U.S. population centers where SWANS flock — high-achieving women marry at the same rate as all other women in their area.
The Price of the Success Myth
New data reveal that a high-achieving woman is more likely to marry just the kind of man conventional wisdom would suggest would be intimidated by her apparent success. More than half of married women with graduate degrees are married to men without graduate degrees. Clearly, men who aren’t intimidated by SWANS do exist.
Having a higher income than one’s significant other doesn’t make much of a difference in women’s marriage rates. So the idea that men are intimidated by a woman who might outearn them doesn’t hold true, either. Yet the myth that successful women are overqualified for love seems to persist.
This myth has high costs for today’s SWANS. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that, although it doesn’t affect SWANS’ marriage rates, does cause pain and anxiety and may lead to some undesirable choices. Women who are panicked about their marriage prospects are more likely to give off negative or desperate vibes to men, and SWANS who believe that men will be intimidated by their education or success may find that it’s really ego and attitude — not their success — that are getting in the way. For other women, the relentless pressure from relatives and bad news in the headlines makes them insecure enough to stay in bad relationships too long.
“I was ready to break up with [my ex-boyfriend] about four years ago — and I stayed two years too long — and part of the reason I stayed was what so many women are thinking: Do I want to go through it all again? Do I really want to date again? The whole mess of it, the uncertainty of it,” said Carolyn, 36. “So you rationalize in your mind that you can stay, that you should keep doing this because it’s your only shot.”
Carolyn blames herself for the failure of the relationship. In the past few years, she founded her own advertising company and devoted a lot of time to building her client base. “Creating my business was my priority, so it probably overwhelmed my personal life,” she said. Based on the many articles she has read about successful women destroying their relationships, men can’t handle smart women. So part of her believes that her relationship failed because it was her fault: She is too bright.
Even though the aggregate data show that success doesn’t hurt SWANS in the dating game, the suggestion alone makes many of these women angry. “Even if it’s just the perception, it puts no pressure on men and lots of pressure on women. That pisses me off. It’s unfair,” said Laura, a strikingly beautiful lobbyist in Washington, DC. “The pressure makes otherwise totally cool women seem anxious, desperate, and ‘crazy’ to find a man. These women aren’t crazy, but they are in their early to mid-30s and haven’t found someone, and because they want kids, they do things perceived as desperate.” Laura ended a one-year relationship a few months earlier and said she hasn’t given herself time to heal because all this panic in the air is making her nervous. “I have to get back in the zone and date guys before it’s too late.”
John, 29, a professor at a prominent business school, noted that this effect is obvious on the male side of the market as well. “In recent years it feels like the balance of power in dating has totally shifted. It used to be women who were totally in control. Now it seems like the men hold all the cards. Women just seem really anxious to partner up and seem to put up with an astonishing amount of messing about from men. It’s got to the point where I have started to look for the rare women who simply won’t put up with my crap,” he said.
But SWANS should relax and be themselves: Again, there is good news in newly released 2005 Current Population Survey data. Successful women in their 30s have options — and SWANS in their late 30s are significantly more likely to walk down the aisle than their less accomplished sisters. For 35-year-old women with graduate degrees, their chances of marrying by age 40 are 25 percent higher than for their sisters without the advanced degrees. Less educated women marry earlier; those brides gliding down the aisle in their 30s are more likely to be SWANS.
SWANS Have More Fun
SWANS are leading ever-richer lives. Young women are pursuing education and dream careers and embarking on international adventures of their own. “Women who are successful aren’t trying to just get married. They want to travel, be cultured. If we’re single, it has a lot to do with our decisions,” said Kim. Her book club partner Jill agreed: “We’re not in a rush. A lot of women are going to graduate school, and it strains the relationship. My mom followed my dad everywhere. It’s not for lack of opportunity that I’m single; it’s because of a generational change of priorities. If you are successful, there’s no big rush to have anyone take care of you.”
There’s some encouraging news that this strategy works. Up to a certain point, waiting a bit longer to get married, and pursuing higher education and career interests along the way, may increase the chances of marital bliss. Women without a college degree are almost twice as likely to divorce as their better-educated sisters. It’s certainly true that more educated and successful women are less likely to remain in abusive marriages, and couples with more intellectual and monetary resources are more likely to seek marriage counseling when their relationship is in trouble.
“In my 20s, I focused [on] and prioritized my professional life and I didn’t do the same thing with my personal life,” said Patricia, a 32-year-old Washington attorney. “There are more opportunities for women, and we have the ability to make the same choices as men — so women aren’t settling for a relationship they don’t want or need. If it’s just about want, it’s a more difficult thing to achieve. When women needed a provider, the arrangement was clearer. Now it just takes a bit longer to find the right guy.”
© 2021 CHRISTINE B. WHELAN