Old notions of masculinity still hold women’s ambitions back

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There has been a huge shift in the way people date and marry in recent decades. As the stereotype goes, successful men used to marry their secretaries; now people choose spouses with similar levels of education and earnings. The phenomenon is called ‘assortative mating’. But smart, successful women still have to navigate enormous landmines in their romantic relationships with men.

Of course, not all women want to be in relationships or get married. According to a 2020 Pew survey, just 38% of single American women are looking for dates or a relationship. But if women are seeking romantic relationships and they are uber-successful, they often have to choose between career success and romantic success. To change this ugly part of our culture, we need to radically rethink our conceptions of masculinity.

Part of the problem is that many men do not want to be in relationships with women who they perceive as smarter than they are. A 2006 speed-dating experiment involving heterosexual Columbia University graduate students found that when a man thinks a woman is smarter than he is, he becomes less interested in dating her.

And women who are hugely successful in their careers have said they think it hurts their romantic prospects. As Maureen Dowd wrote in her book Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide, the day one of her friends won the Pulitzer, the woman called her “in tears” saying that as a result, she’d “never get a date.” Federal judge Frederic Block wrote in his book that Sonia Sotomayor considered turning down her nomination to the Supreme Court because she knew it would hurt her dating life. To state the obvious, successful men don’t tend to have this problem.

A woman is also less likely to marry a man if she makes more money than he does. A large-scale analysis of census data by Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica of the University of Chicago and Jessica Pan of the National University of Singapore found that in places where women are more likely to out-earn men, there are fewer marriages. If a woman who is in a position to out-earn her husband does get married, she’s likely to jump through hoops to avoid making him feel emasculated, according to the study—and she’s less likely to work at all. If she does work, she’s more likely to earn less than she could. And if she does earn more than her husband, she’s likely to try to make up for it by doing even more housework. She’s also likely to pretend she earns less than she really does: A paper released by the Census Bureau in 2018 found that when women make more money than their husbands, they often under-report their income to census surveyors.

But despite (or perhaps because of?) all this, if a woman is the breadwinner of the household, she and her husband are likelier to be unhappy, experience relationship strife or get divorced, according to census data analysis.

When women experience other kinds of career success, it can also jeopardize their relationships. One study found that women who won Academy Awards for best actress remained in their relationships for 67% less time afterwards than men who won best actor awards. Even research out of supposedly egalitarian Sweden found that winning government office doubled a woman’s chance of divorce.

The intersection of women’s success and expectations of masculinity could well be one reason there aren’t more women in top leadership positions. Women who go out into the world and do great things should make their families proud. When women earn outsize salaries, their families— including the men—benefit from those resources.

There are enthusiastically supportive men out there, of course: Second gentleman Doug Emhoff and Vice-President Kamala Harris started dating when she was already California’s attorney general, and he put his own high-powered law career on pause to support her political aspirations. My own husband, a physician, would do the same if I wanted to run for office.

But the list of such men in the public eye is not very long. Where are the Hollywood romcoms about men who romantically pursue women CEOs? Their absence is a problem, because men privately say they feel pressured to live up to our society’s conceptions of masculinity, even when they don’t like or agree with them.

A solution would start with recognizing the problem. Once we appreciate what successful women are up against, we can look to men to treat them differently—and change the prevalent cultural tropes about masculinity and strength. Then more men might have a change of heart about relationships with successful women, and making them work.

Kara Alaimo is an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of ‘Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication’.

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