Some women are downplaying their career goals to find a partner. Here's how to find someone who supports you personally and professionally.
When Lauren S., 27, a mechanical engineer, met her now-ex at a festival, she fell hard. “He made me laugh, the sex was great, and he was intellectually stimulating,” she says. Jackpot, right? Right. Until her picks for dinner spots were “too lavish.” One night, he asked about her salary — then everything changed. “He couldn’t look past the fact that I made more money,” says Lauren. “He even told me I was overpaid.” He confessed that he felt emasculated by her career, and later, while she was on a work trip, he cheated on her.
Among the straight, ambitious, and unattached, Lauren’s story is familiar. More women than men now graduate college. Nearly half the U.S. workforce is female and 40 percent of those women are their family’s breadwinner. But as they strive for success, they’re hitting a snag. They can’t find a guy who’s comfortable with all that awesomeness.
Multiple studies show that, when asked, men say they prefer dating ambitious go-getters. But the reality proves otherwise. As a result, many women are playing down their drive — at work or on dates — to make themselves seem like “relationship material.”
When single female students were told their answers would be shared with male peers, they acted less ambitious and leadership-oriented — claiming a desire for smaller paychecks, fewer travel days, and fewer working hours, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Meanwhile, their partnered female classmates didn’t waver.
In a related study, when single female students were placed in groups with other women, they admitted wanting high-paying, high-powered jobs. But in groups with single men, these women were more likely to say they wanted a family-friendly job: lower paying but more flexible.
So, what: You have to choose between your goals and a BF? Not on our watch. Although guys’ attraction to girl power is more layered than you think, it is possible to find a partner who will support you. As soon as you understand what’s going on...
An Uneven Playing Field
Feminist bros seem to be in abundance. In Match.com’s 2017 Singles in America survey, men marked "entrepreneur" as the sexiest career a woman can have. That same survey found that 87 percent of men say they’d be with a woman who made more than they did and nearly 90 percent wouldn’t mind if she were more educated. (Match dubbed it the “Clooney Effect,” because ... Amal.) And according to research by Marisa T. Cohen, PhD, and Karen Wilson, PhD, as men’s academic motivation rises, so does their desire for a smart partner. In other words: Driven guys want driven gals. At least, they think they do. When it comes to who men ask out, the research looks different. A series of experiments at the University at Buffalo, for example, discovered that while men are turned on by the idea of intelligent women, the concept is tougher to swallow in practice — in fact, if a girl outperforms a guy on a test, he’ll express less romantic interest.
Jesse B., 33, a digital strategist, has been there. He is supportive of his female friends’ dreams and sees himself settling down with a career type someday. Yet he rarely picks that kind of woman to date. “It’s intimidating when a woman is beautiful and successful and has her shit together,” he says. “I’m too nervous to pursue her. What I want in my head and what I go for are not usually aligned.”
For Jesse and guys like him, in-the-moment feelings of emasculation are overriding their stated dating preferences, says psychologist Lora Park, PhD, lead researcher of that University at Buffalo study. When a man gets face-to-face with how impressive a woman is, he can feel inadequate. So rather than ask for her number, he’ll walk away.
Not to let guys off the hook but much of this stuff is deeply ingrained. Evolutionary behavior and traditional gender roles have primed dudes to be competitive and establish themselves as breadwinners. They can perceive successful women as a threat to their career goals. Or a man’s subconscious might tell him he can’t handle dating today’s super-capable, financially independent girl boss, says David Buss, PhD, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “She’s more likely to leave the relationship if she’s unhappy. He can’t just rely on the fact that he’s pulling in a paycheck to keep her around.”
Shifting Into Neutral
Some single women faced with this situation keep on with their bad selves, refusing to settle for a BF who can’t appreciate their accomplishments. Others, though, tone down their ambition — or even drop goals altogether — in order to attract or keep a guy around. As Yi S., 31, a finance professional, learned the hard way, the latter can lead to bigger problems down the line.
She’d just gotten into grad school when she met a guy. After a few happy months, he asked her not to move and she agreed to defer her acceptance. “He said, ‘If you give this up now, I will support you in whatever you want to do later,’” Yi recalls. But that never came true. When she started vocalizing her career aspirations, he’d throw out comments like, “But who will make dinner?” He did want a smart wife, Yi says — just not a successful one. “I stifled my dreams to make him happy and I never felt like myself.”
Of course, some women are content to give up careers to accommodate love and there’s nothing wrong with that. But forgoing or subduing your dreams for a man can breed resentment. And you may be handing over the majority of your ability to make decisions in the relationship because you’re signaling that your partner’s desires override yours, says economist Marina Adshade, PhD, author of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love. Bottom line: Taming your ambition may land you a boyfriend. However, if you have a big vision of what you hope to accomplish in your career, there’s a strong chance you won’t be satisfied for long.
Finding a Happy Balance
The good news: There are guys who want to help you chase success. And finding them isn’t impossible. Look for a man within a few years of your age with similar interests, recommends Adshade. Maybe that’s a Bumble match who claims to have just read your favorite book or a bachelor in your grad program. Operating on similar intellectual levels will help ensure you have an equal partnership. And research indicates that partners who have common mindsets are the happiest, says Adshade.
Next, when you’re on the first few dates, look for evidence that this is a person who will cheer you on, suggests Susan Walsh, dating expert and founder of Hooking Up Smart. Most women fail to evaluate this early on but it’s crucial if you want to sniff out someone who’s only saying he supports you. “Observe whether he has specific curiosity or feedback about your work,” says Walsh. “If he’s genuinely interested, his enthusiasm will be obvious.” A red flag: “If he doesn’t respond or just gives you platitudes.”
But don’t dismiss him simply because he shows that he’d like to provide for you in small ways, such as paying for the date or making dinner. Of course you can do these things for yourself — but it could be that he’s trying to show you affection. And those type of acts, in any relationship, are genderless.
Finally, join in trying to wake the unwoke men: Guys, stop discounting female strivers as GF prospects. School the men in your life who are still judging dates by outdated biases. There are perks to being with an alpha female and feelings of emasculation should no longer be holding men back from the women they want.
At the same time, women should get more comfortable with the idea of being equal partners ... or being the alpha. If you’re crushing it at work, a man who has a less demanding schedule could be an ideal fit, so it’s worth reevaluating your deal-breakers in terms of a guy’s job and/or income. “It’s not that you need to find a Mr. Mom,” explains Adshade, “but someone with career flexibility can fit well with your work-life balance.” That cute male substitute teacher may make a great match — even for you, lady boss.
This article was originally published as "Ambition or Love: Do You Have to Choose?" in the July 2017 issue of Cosmopolitan