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.”
From WHY SMART MEN MARRY SMART WOMEN by Christine B. Whelan. Copyright © 2006 by Christine B. Whelan. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.