Of course, not all women want to be in a relationship or get married. According to a 2020 Pew survey, only 38% of single American women are looking for dates or a relationship. But if women are looking for romantic relationships and they are very successful, they often have to choose between professional success and romantic success. To change this ugly part of our culture, we must radically rethink our conceptions of masculinity.
Part of the problem is that many men don’t want to have relationships with women they perceive to be smarter than them. A 2006 speed-dating experiment involving heterosexual Columbia University graduate students found that when a man thinks a woman is smarter than him, he becomes less interested in dating her. (Happy Valentine day!)
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 would “never have a date”. Federal Judge Frederic Block wrote in his book that Sonia Sotomayor considered turning down her Supreme Court nomination because she knew it would hurt her love 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 earns more money than him. 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 earn more than men , there are fewer marriages.
If a woman who is able to earn more than her husband marries, she is likely to jump through hoops to prevent him from feeling emasculated, the study finds – and she is less likely to work at all. If she works, she is more likely to earn less than she could. And if she earns more than her husband, she will probably try to make up for it by doing even more household chores. She’s also likely to pretend she earns less than she actually does: A 2018 Census Bureau article found that when wives earn more than their husbands, they often underreport their income to census enumerators.
But despite (or perhaps because of?) all of this, if a woman is the breadwinner in the household, she and her husband are more likely to be unhappy, experience relationship conflict or divorce, according to the analysis of census data. When women experience other types of professional success, it can also jeopardize their relationships. A study found that women who won Best Actress Oscars stayed in relationships for 67% less time afterward than men who won Best Actor awards. Even research in supposedly egalitarian Sweden found that winning a government post doubled a woman’s chances of divorce.
The intersection of women’s success and expectations of masculinity may well be one of the reasons why there aren’t more women in leadership positions. Women who go out into the world and do great things should make their families proud. When women earn excessive wages, their families, including men, benefit from these resources.
There are, of course, men who enthusiastically support her: Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Vice President Kamala Harris began dating when she was already Attorney General of California, and he put his own legal career high level on hiatus to support his political aspirations. My own husband, a doctor, would do the same if I wanted to run for office.
But the list of such men in the public eye is not long. Where are the Hollywood rom-coms about men who romantically pursue female CEOs? Their absence is a problem, as men privately say they feel obligated to respect our society’s conceptions of masculinity, even when they don’t like or agree with them.
The solution begins with recognizing the problem. Once we understand what successful women face, we can look to men to treat them differently — and change our cultural tropes about masculinity and strength. Then more men might change their minds about dating successful women and making them work.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Kara Alaimo is 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.” She previously served in the Obama administration.