The Gender Divide in Dating Expectations
Are women asking too much or are men offering too little?
When it comes to dating, women tend to be more selective than men. In a recent survey, we found that women, especially those with a college degree, expressed more reservations about certain qualities in a partner than men—their political views, educational background, employment status, and even smoking habits. Close to half of college-educated single women report having trouble finding someone who meets their expectations.
How are we to understand the disparity between men and women when it comes to dating expectations?
One explanation lies in the growing achievement gap between young men and women. Young women seeking a partner who can match their ambition and drive for success may be disappointed. Nearly 60 percent of undergraduates are women, and gaps in academic achievement are widening. In Of Boys and Men, Brookings scholar Richard Reeves meticulously documents the ways young men fall behind. Reeves suggests that women have a much greater “appetite for success” than young men, whether it’s academic pursuits or career goals. He states:
Most young women today have it drummed into them how much education matters, and most want to be financially independent. Compared to their male classmates, they see their future in sharper focus.
This is hardly theoretical. This issue emerged in interviews we conducted among young adults. A young woman preparing to graduate college talked openly about her less ambitious boyfriend and the doubts this has raised about their relationship. She said:
I don't think that our goals and our motivations necessarily line up, whereas I have a 4.0 and I'm very academically motivated and I can't wait to get a real job. … [My boyfriend’s] not on the same track. At the moment, he's struggling with college a little bit. We're not sure if he's gonna graduate on time and he has no experience in his field, so I think I just worry about his future. Knowing that my aspirations in life are so motivated... I'm not sure where [the relationship] will go after graduation.
This achievement discrepancy creates a dating market mismatch. Most college-educated women are looking for partners with similar educational backgrounds, but there are fewer to be found.
Another reason lies in the fact that partner selection bears more heavily on women’s career prospects than men’s. Young people, and especially young women, are being raised in families that prioritize personal ambition and financial independence. A recent Pew poll finds that parents emphasize career success for their children over marriage and family. For young women contemplating a future that includes marriage, children, and a career, a lot rides on their choice of partner. As I’ve written previously, when it comes to dating:
[An important reason] women may have different requirements in mind is that for those who want to start families, their choice of partner can have a profound impact on their future career ambitions. Mothers pay a steep price in terms of their career earnings. Even as men have taken on a greater share of household responsibilities in two-parent households, it is hardly equal. Women still take on a disproportionate share of childcare and domestic labor. It’s a reality that looms over the decisions that women make when deciding who to date.
Despite dramatic social changes over the last few decades, the disparity in domestic labor largely endures. Women do much more around the house than men, even when both are working full-time jobs. Having children can make this disparity even worse.
Finally, as I’ve documented in a previous newsletter, the growing political gap between men and women may limit dating opportunities for both of them. Young women have become far more liberal than young men in recent years, and are much more concerned about abortion in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Young men are significantly less liberal and more apathetic on abortion. These ideological divisions are exacerbated by our polarized politics. Conservatives cast feminism as an existential threat to traditional masculinity, while liberals blame toxic masculinity for many societal ills. Political views may not matter to everyone, but college-educated women are more likely to notice and to care about them.
One obvious consequence is that fewer men and women get married. The percentage of Americans living single, less connected lives continues to grow. Another worrying possibility is a growing antagonism between men and women. Women express dissatisfaction with their dating options while men become defensive. Sexist comments and behavior multiply and women withdraw in response. For every sexist comment like the one below, there is a reply from a woman about how grateful she is to be single.
If this feels a bit dispiriting, you’re not alone. But it's crucial that men and women do not blame each other for societal failures. Modern society almost certainly asks too much of men and women. In a previous era, men and women were prescribed separate, if somewhat overlapping, spheres of influence. Of course, this was a deeply problematic arrangement as it precluded women from having their own careers and attaining financial independence. But it did not require women to be corporate dynamos and perfect mothers. Unfortunately, this is precisely what has happened. When women entered the workforce, they did not shed their domestic responsibilities but ended up trying to succeed in both roles simultaneously. Today, young men and women are expected to be nurturers and healers, providers and protectors—often with little guidance and less support.
In the end, most of us do not approach dating with an extensive set of criteria. When we talked with young women about their dating expectations, most reported looking for kindness, consideration, and respect. One young woman put it this way:
We ask for simple things, you know, remembering things that we talked about in conversations. You know, flowers occasionally. Date nights. Every once in a while, just to have that reassurance that our relationship is worthwhile and feeling like we can spend really great quality time together and share special moments.
It turns out that being nice goes a long way. This may be why so many young women are choosing to date their friends. Half of young women say that their current partner was once a friend, a dramatic increase from the past.
The last thing I want to add is that we are all works in progress. For many Americans, marriage has shifted from being a cornerstone that a life is built on to a capstone of a successful early life. But regardless of when people marry or commit to each other, it is always a union of two incomplete people. It makes a lot more sense to look for potential in a person or a relationship rather than a finished product. The measure of a good partner or spouse should be their willingness to grow, respond to changing needs, and adapt to new roles. The good news is that, wherever you start, that goal is always attainable.
"Are women asking too much or are men offering too little?"
My guess? Probably both.
I hope we can figure it out. As nuanced or technical as it could be the "battle of the sexes" is the ultimate challenge in human evolution, especially with the particular form of conscious behavior we exhibit. Coupled with industrialization and tech it's a doozy. But no other major human issues or hurdles concerning species longevity can be overcome until we figure out this Venus Mars Thing.