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High Income Women and Dating Norms

Taylor Marvin

Via Matt Yglesias, Kay Steiger has a great chart from the Chronicle of Higher Education illustrating that women received more than half of all US doctoral degrees in 2009:

Of course, increasing educational attainment by women is a very positive thing. However, it is a major social shift, and one that could have a large impact on cultural norms in our society.

Workers’ incomes are strongly related to their educational attainment. While recipients of professional degrees — most notably MDs and JDs  — typically out-earn recipients of doctoral degrees, most PhDs earn a relatively high salary:

This bodes well for the future earnings of women earning doctoral degrees. What’s especially interesting about the increasing level of female educational attainment is that it has the potential to erase the future earnings gap between men and women at high income levels. Today women still make less than men, regardless of educational attainment. For example, in 2000 a female PhD could expect to earn less than a male with a Master’s degree:

Though this income gap is shrinking, it still exists. But if women continue to receive a larger and larger share of advanced degrees it’s likely that women’s higher average educational attainment will cancel out the gender income disparity at high income levels in the later careers of today’s college students. This is very interesting. There’s a strong likelihood that in a large portion of my generation’s heterosexual marriages women will out earn their husbands, at least at the high end of the income scale.

I’m especially curious what effect this income dynamic will have on dating norms. Most conventional American dating practices are tailored for a society where the typical woman has a much lower income than the average man. Despite its inherent patriarchy these practices arose for a practical reason:  most contemporary American social norms developed in the immediate postwar era, when women did have a low income compared to most men. Many common heterosexual dating norms still reflect this: in most first-date situations men are expected to pay for dinner, a practice based on the expectation that the women have less income available to spend. This practice is also a signaling device: in the large majority of 20th century American marriages men out earned their wives, and the expectation that men pay for dinner is intended to demonstrate that the male is financially secure , making him a suitable husband. Engagement rings are an even clearer example of this logic: male sexual capital in our society is still largely dependent on income, and the tradition that a man spend three months salary on an engagement ring is a practice explicitly designed to allow for male income signaling to potential mates. Engagement rings also function as a commitment device — on some level women demand engagement rings in an effort to increase the likelihood of a proposal leading to marriage, because if a male has to invest a significant amount of money into proposing, he’s less likely to break the contract. Of course, it’s important to note that just because patriarchal dating practices arose for functional reasons doesn’t make them right.

Dating at the extreme end of the gender income gap. Flirtation, by Frédéric Soulacroix/

Dating at the extreme end of the gender income gap. "Flirtation", by Frédéric Soulacroix.

However, in a world where a large percentage of high income women-out earn their spouses these practices will be increasingly archaic. What’s the point of an expectation that a high-earning man buys a female date dinner if there’s a good chance she makes more than him? This may just be male solidarity talking, but it’s hard to argue that this practice fits any definition of fairness. Similarly the traditional requirement of engagement rings, and by extension traditions that place the burden of proposing on men, is hard to justify in relationships where the female is the higher earner. As woman educational attainment continues to increase, we can expect these practices to become less common.

However, there are reasons to doubt this prediction. First, traditions can be extremely durable despite social change. For example, dating practices for college students at my age level could be expected to parallel the norms of a equal income society. While a gender income gap exists today, it doesn’t begin to appear until mid-way through professional careers — the average college male is not expected to earn more than his female counterparts. However, despite this gender income equality in college students the expectation that the male buys dinner early in a dating relationship is still prevalent, at least at some level. It’s possible that this norm exists based on the expectation that a male’s lifetime earnings will be higher than a female’s, but this strains believability — it’s much more likely that traditions are just very durable, even when they don’t make any practical sense. Secondly, while we can expect our generation’s gender income gap to shrink across society, this convergence will be much stronger at high income levels. Because humans typically marry at similar educational levels, while we can expect many high income heterosexual females to out-earn their husbands, this trend will less prevalent for lower earning heterosexual couples. This means that social dating norms based on an equal or higher female income gender dynamic will be more prevalent in high income social groups than their lower income counterparts. However, because social norms are typically highly influenced by media representations — which disproportionately portray high income lifestyles — we could expect high income dating norms to ‘trickle down’ to the rest of the population.

This explanation also ignores the influence of biological, rather than social, determinants on dating norms. Most of human heterosexual dating practices are based around the expectation that women are more sexually selective than men (though not necessarily that they have less actual sex). The requirement that men, not women, propose is the definitive example of this bias, as is the common (and deplorable) practice of stigmatizing promiscuous females while celebrating male promiscuity. Though this can be read as fundamentally unfair, there’s a well documented biological impetus for this dynamic: because reproduction (and by extension, sexual partnerships in general) have typically much higher energy costs in female animals than males, on a poorly biological level females have a real incentive to be much more sexually selective than males. This incentive is reversed in species where males invest higher costs into reproduction than females, like some species of seahorses and birds where the males exclusively raise offspring. We can expect human dating norms (which are, again, fundamentally expressions of reproductive behavior) that are influenced by biological determinants to be much more durable than those primarily due to fundamentally transient gender income imbalances.

What do you think? Can we expect social dating norms to become more egalitarian in the future?

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tim #

    I don’t think it will matter too much, unless the dating couple are following the same career path. Usually couples aren’t, and I think people realize some careers have higher earnings potential than others. It could lead to a few awkward situations early on, but I don’t think most relationships are built on what your partner does for a living.

    October 1, 2011
  2. Socrates #

    I would suggest the dating norms will perservere from another biological factor: men are most attracted to physical aesthetics, while women are most attracted to status. As paying for dinner is a display of high financial status, men will continue to have an interest in doing this, even if they are not of high financial status themselves.

    October 2, 2011
  3. Rachel #

    Taylor,
    I’d argue that this change in dating norms as incomes equalize is already happening. My fiance and I are both PhD-holding college professors, with comparable salaries (although I earn slightly more with bonuses). While he technically proposed to me, we had jointly purchased our rings the day before. (And yes, he wears an engagement ring as well.) Since we first started dating, we’ve split our date costs down the middle, and are now paying for wedding costs 50/50 as well.

    This could just be a bad n = 1 inference, but, as I mentioned, we’re both college professors, and as such, privy to 18-22-year-olds’ conversations about dating practices. Many of my female students expect to earn as much as their male suitors, and as such, pay for dates as often as they are paid for. Students of mine who are currently planning weddings of course push most of the costs off onto their parents, but parents of college-age men and women apparently kick in equally.

    Btw, I’m a biologist, and have been sympathetic to evolutionary psychology explanations for differences in sex roles. But as sex has increasingly been divorced from reproduction, such differences seem to have disappeared much more rapidly than one would expect if they were truly evolved. (It’s taken us less than three generations to go from shunning promiscuous women to celebrating them, at least in pop culture.) Never attribute to some grand unfalsifiable theory of human nature behaviors that can be more easily explained by simple economics, say I.
    -Doctrix Rachel

    October 2, 2011
  4. Amber #

    This is very interesting analysis. I’ve wondered about it throughout college, as I dated guys who still tried to pay for things, even if we both made no money. But I think there are a few other angles one must consider to really talk about the dating life of educated women. I’ve heard from several researchers that educated and high-income earning women are finding it difficult to marry their peers. While yes, the marriage gap between educated and non educated women is shrinking, a woman with a doctorate degree is much more likely to have to “settle” for a less educated man than a man with a doctorate degree would. Perhaps it’s because their male peers, stuck in tradition, feel threatened by the idea that the woman might make as much or more as them? Then you have people like the editor of forbes.com putting out opinions like guys shouldn’t marry a career girl- who is defined as “has a university-level (or higher) education, works more than 35 hours a week outside the home and makes more than $30,000 a year.” http://www.forbes.com/2006/08/23/Marriage-Careers-Divorce_cx_mn_land.html

    I can find entry level jobs in my first year after graduation that meet those standards. If I were stuck in one of those my entire life, I’d go crazy.

    So this has the potential to create a divide in the high-income earning lifestyle. Instead of equality based social dating norms developing, you might see high-income earning men still going for women that “need” them, while high-income earning women marry those who earn significantly less, but are okay with that.

    October 2, 2011
  5. Mark #

    Amber, women don’t settle, they just have standards that are too high. Women outnumber men in college, so of course these women will not have enough college educated men to marry. There are plenty of good men out there, but women generally only look at education and income when selecting a mate. Currently, over 75% of married men are the breadwinners, so it women are not settling. Statistics show that men are the one’s who are settling. They are marrying women with less income and education, as they always have.

    Perhaps women need to accept equality and marry down for a change.

    I would like to know why you assume that women with doctorate degrees settle for men with smaller educations. Men with doctorate degrees generally marry women who have less education, so what’s the problem? I personally know 1 female nurse and 1 female teacher who are married to doctor’s. I am not aware of 1 male teacher or nurse who is married to a female doctor.

    Women marry up, men marry down. End of story.

    October 30, 2011
  6. LR #

    Actually, women are attracted to both features of men. Physical aesthetics and status. And also, men outnumber women in college and men tend to have standards that are too high. Plus, not many women enter or even graduate college because college is a man’s domain.

    December 12, 2011
  7. I kinda agree with @ Socrates. At the end of the day, our profession won’t define us.

    December 16, 2011
  8. Noelle #

    Mark needs to get around more. I personally do know a male teacher married to a female doctor. Actually, she is a resident right now. She unexpectedly got pregnant not long after they married and he stays home with the baby.

    He plans to go back to work later.

    Also, their marriage is fantastic. They are very much in love.

    January 25, 2012
  9. I kinda agree with @ Socrates. At the end of the day, our profession won’t define us.

    February 21, 2012
  10. I agree … Our jobs don’t say who we are.

    April 3, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. “I Am a Full-Blown Woman”: Links « Kay Steiger
  2. The Date Debate: Should The Man Pay For Dinner? — Catholic Match Blog
  3. Minimizing, Denial, and Backlash About the War On Women « Matrifocal Point

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