Many factors can influence a woman’s choice of career. Cultural, or family, traditions. Her specific skill set. Her interests and passions.
And whether she senses an abundant supply of available men.
That’s the conclusion of newly published research, which finds the mating market, not just the job market, impacts the way women pick their professions. The finding, which is rooted in evolutionary biology, has fascinating implications given the rapid rise of women both on college campuses and in the workplace.
“Does the ratio of men to women in the local population influence women’s career aspirations? Real-world archival data and a series of laboratory experiments suggest that the answer is yes,” writes a research team led by Kristina Durante of the University of Texas at San Antonio. “A scarcity of men leads women to seek out more lucrative careers.”
The paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, begins with a little-known historical fact: “A substantial portion of women in Northern Europe achieved economic parity with men during the late 12th century.” This “relatively short-lived” phenomenon (it had largely faded away 100 years later) occurred during a period when there was “a scarcity of marriageable men,” the researchers write.
Coincidence? Hardly. As Durante and her colleagues note, cause-and-effect seems easy to detect. Then as now, “the relative scarcity of men decreases the likelihood that a given woman will find a long-term mate,” they write. This increases the odds they’ll have to support themselves (and their children, should they decide to give birth), leading them “to prioritize money and material success.”
A reasonable-sounding theory, but does it hold up in real life? To test it, the researchers examined three sets of statistics for each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia: The ratio of unmarried men to unmarried women ages 15 to 44; the ratio of men to women in 10 high-paying jobs, including chief executive, pharmacist and lawyer; and the average maternal age at first birth.
They found “a strong relation between sex ratio and the percentage of women in the highest paying jobs. As the number of marriageable men decreased, the percentage of women in the highest paying jobs increased. In addition, as the number of marriageable men decreased, women had fewer children, and when women did have children, they had them at later ages.”
Three laboratory experiments replicated these findings. In one, 87 female undergraduates read a fake news story about sex ratios on area college campuses. Half read a version where women outnumbered men; the other half read a version where men outnumbered women.
All then completed a survey designed to gauge their self-perceived mating value. On a one-to-seven scale, they indicated their agreement or disagreement with such statements as “Members of the opposite sex notice me.”
The results: “Although a scarcity of men did not alter the career aspirations of high mate-value women, it led low mate-value women to seek careers over family,” the researchers report. “Moreover, a scarcity of men led low mate-value women to be especially motivated to seek careers that offered financial rewards and higher pay.”
So the “local mating ecology,” to use the researchers’ phrase, impacts the career choices of women, except for those who don’t doubt their ability to find a long-term partner. While that dynamic may not have changed since the 12th century, a lot has—particularly over the past couple of generations.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1979, women in the U.S. earned an average of 62 cents for every dollar made by men. Today, that figure has risen to 81.6 cents, and the gap will surely close further in the coming decades, as more women than men earn college degrees.
Plugging this mating-market effect into the equation exacerbates what Durante and her colleagues call “the ironic effects of women’s economic success.”
“Most college campuses, for example, currently have more women than men,” they write. “As a result, college-aged women are less likely to find a mate,” which will motivate many to pursue high-paying careers.
“In addition to delaying reproduction, climbing up the economic ladder will make it even more difficult to find a desirable mate, as women’s mating standards continue to rise while the pool of available mates continues to shrink,” the researchers write. “This may lead more women to end up childless, end up in undesirable relationships, or become single parents.”
Unless you have an extended family willing to regularly take on child-care duties, that last choice is burdensome and expensive. So perhaps it’s time to add a corollary to the cliche: If a good man is hard to find, you’d better find a good job.