Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The loneliness of the highly-educated, high-status career woman in the 21st century

A recent series of articles in the New York Times has been documenting some aspects of what they term ‘The Gender Divide’. For example, they find that women are outperforming men on average throughout the educational system, some men who lack college degrees are unable to marry, and other men prefer to be unemployed rather than take a low status job. Another aspect is that successful career women are less likely to get married, more likely to marry late, and less likely to have children.

These journalistic observations are highly interesting and relevant, but the socio-cultural explanations offered typically ignore basic evolutionary psychology. The main root of these profound social trends among men and women is quite clear and simple. It is the increasing success of women in the economy acting upon evolved biological sexual preferences. The change in women’s status is primary, and personal problems of both women and men are secondary to this.

In brief, women are mostly attracted by men of higher status than themselves, so high status women are much choosier about who they marry. This generates are two groups who are less likely to marry: high status women and low status men.

Because it is based on evolved preferences, the problem of increasing numbers of lonely, unfulfilled career women and unmarried, unemployed, uneducated men are likely to increase – unless people can understand why this is happening and make rational adjustments to their preferences and behaviour.


Women’s economic success and women’s sexual preferences

It is a striking aspect of modern economies that women are being recruited to the workforce in ever increasing numbers. And women increasingly outperform men in modern educational systems. As modern economies value educational skills more than strength, women are occupying ever more high status positions.

This has profound effects on marriage and in the sexual arena generally, because when it comes to sexual attraction, men and women are different. The key difference is that men most value beauty, while women relatively value high status. In a nutshell, the most attractive sexual partners are rich and successful men, and healthy young women. By contrast the least attractive partners are low status men and old, sick-looking women.

The gender differences in sexual attraction are well established by decades of work in evolutionary psychology, originating from researchers such as Don Symons and David M Buss. These preferences are based on fundamental evolutionary considerations – male preferences are for women with the greatest reproductive potential (young and healthy looking women); and female preferences on the advantages of high status partners (eg. good genes, good brains, good immune systems etc.). These preferences have been supported in dozens of empirical studies and found in dozens of culture around the world. Presumably, men genetically-attracted to post-menopausal women and women who deliberately married losers both left behind fewer children, and their genes (and preferences) became extinct.

As the research of Robert Trivers showed more than 30 years ago: in a biological sense, women are the shortage sex. Men compete and women choose.

In traditional societies, only men worked in the economy, and almost all men had a job. In some societies, therefore, almost all men were higher in status than almost all women – so most women would have found almost all men somewhat attractive – even those who had failed in the competition for status. Almost all men could find a women who would marry them.

But in modern societies, women have entered the economy in large numbers, and by now have probably achieved a level of status higher than the average status of men. As women continue to increase in status, fuelled by their educational and economic success, this will automatically reduce the status of most men relative to women, and make men as a whole less attractive. The ‘awfulness’ of modern men is another standard media topic in columns, comedies and drams – this is an accurate reflection of the perspective of the modern career woman. She perceives herself as surrounded by men who are ‘losers’, ‘wimps’ and idiots.

Effects of the increasing status of women

Generally, women will only look for a marriage (or sexual) partner among men of at least the same status as themselves (preferably higher), and as a woman increases in status, there will be fewer and fewer such men around her.

But, as a woman goes through life gathering advanced educational qualifications and then climbing the career ladder, two things are happening – first she is getting older, and second she is attracted to fewer and fewer men (because only the men equal or higher in status attract her). The longer she delays marriage, and the older she gets, the choosier but less attractive she will become.

So, the first major social trend is the loneliness of the successful career women. Increasing status (in effect) reduces her choice of partners. It is not that high status is unattractive in a woman, more than she high status makes her pickier. Of course, if she is very attractive and retains her youthful looks, the career woman may be able to ‘have it all’ in the sense of a stellar career and a husband of high status (there are some famous examples). But if the career woman is less attractive, or gets too old before marrying, she may find herself without much prospect of marriage to someone she herself finds attractive. Her choice is then to stay alone, or to marry ‘beneath’ her, socially.

This is not a problem for the career man, because his increasing status will make him more attractive even though he gets older. Indeed, as a man increases in status, his choice of marriage partners increases – just the opposite to a career women. A 45 year old highly successful man might even be able to marry a 20 year old beauty – indeed this happens quite frequently. But a near-menopausal 45 year old successful career woman is unlikely to be able to marry a 45 year old successful man – because she is in competition with women who are anything up to 25 years younger.

Therefore, in modern society the people left-out of the mating and marriage game tend to be the high status women and the low status men. The low status men might well be pleased to marry the high status women, even if the women are older, because men are less choosy and someone is better than no-one– but usually a successful career woman is simply not attracted by men whom she considers ‘losers’.

Any solutions? It is up-to the career women.

It is possible that current trends will continue. High status women may marry less often, later, and be childless more often – or have very small families. And this may lead to loneliness and frustration. Low status men will suffer similar problems without the consolation of career fulfilment, but with increased possibilities of entertainment and creative activity via cheap communications media such as e-mail mobile phones, and the internet.

One way that career women might diminish their loneliness would be banding together in colonies, rather like women’s residential colleges. These could be places where like-minded women would live in a private by semi-communal life – perhaps easting and socializing together. This might even lead to elective lesbian partnerships.

Alternatively, observation and rational analysis may lead some intelligent women to forgo their potential for education and careers, or delay advanced education and career-building, and instead marry younger and have children. This would be a loss to the national economy, but lead to a gain in personal satisfaction.

In contrast, while women might opt to be less educated, the incentive for low status men is to get as much education as possible – even though they may lack the aptitude or find education unappealing. New ways of educating this low-motivation, low-ability group might be devised.

It is also interesting to speculate as to the extent which understanding their own sexual preferences can lead to women rationally modifying their own sexual preferences. The ideal solution would be if those who are currently left-out of the marriage market could pair-off voluntarily – for the career women to hitch-up with the lower status men.

For example, if high status career women who don’t happen to be unusually beautiful can understand why they have difficulty in finding their ‘ideal’ high status partner, maybe they can compromise and seek a partner among lower status men who display other characteristics that they admire: for example a kind and steady ‘house husband’, a physically-attractive ‘toy boy’, or a man who shares the career woman’s religious or political convictions, hobbies or pastimes.

The key players in this are the career women, because men compete and women choose. Highly educated, high status women are faced with the challenge of career success leading indirectly to lack of personal fulfilment. The first step for them is to understand why this has happened, the second step is to decide what to do about it.