Does Being Smart Hurt Your Chances for Love? Busting the Success/Marriage Myth

By Elina Furman

Smart woman on a dateContrary to popular belief, highly educated, professional women are now more likely to marry than they were in 1980. For years, the common conception has been that women who are highly educated and successful would have a harder time finding a suitable mate. Fueled by columnist Maureen Dowd’s statement that men prefer not to date successful women, myriad of articles claiming that the more successful the woman the less likely she would marry or have children, and the 1986 Newsweek article that mistakenly reported that a 40-year-old woman was more likely to die by a terrorist’s hand than to get married, the myth of the success/marriage gap persisted.
A Current Population Survey (a nationally representative survey of 60,000 households commissioned yearly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) found that there is 75 percent chance that a never-married 30-year-old woman with an advanced degree will be a bride, compared with a 66 percent chance that a 30-year-old with a college degree or less will marry.
Dr. Christine Whelan, author of Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women, believes that smart, successful women marry at the same rates as all other women, and once married, they have children at the same rates as well and set out to prove this by commissioning a large-scale Harris Interactive survey commissioned especially for the book. SMW sat down with Dr. Whelan to discuss some of her findings:
SMW: So what do men really look for in a woman?
Christine Whelan: The conventional wisdom is that men are intimidated by smart, successful women—and that’s just not true for this generation of young, accomplished women. Both men and women are looking for a partner, someone who shares their dreams and goals. 90 percent of men say they married – or are looking to marry – a woman who is as or more intelligent. While I’m sure some men are still looking for women to play fetch for them, there’s certainly no shortage of men who would prefer to volley with an equal.
SMW: So what was really behind all those myths about single successful women?
Christine Whelan: For women of previous generations—including our mother’s generation—it was true that well-educated, successful women were less likely to marry. According to the 1980 Census, a woman with a graduate degree was twice as likely to have never married between the ages of 25 and 34 as a woman who had a college degree or less – and twice as likely to have no children at home by age 40 as women with a high-school degree or some college.
For young women today, that “success penalty” has disappeared. High education and income now have little negative effect on marriage rates for women, and in many situations, they can be a bonus.
SMW: So what kind of partners should a successful, professional women look for?
Christine Whelan: In the past, women needed to marry for financial security. Today women have the option of marrying for love and compatibility – and for high-achieving women, this may mean thinking outside the box a bit. If you’re a high-flying corporate lawyer, perhaps you might want to marry a man with a more flexible schedule. If you’re an investment banker, maybe a more creative and artistic type would bring out a new side of you.
Women today are marrying older men, younger men – and branching out to date and marry men outside their race and religion. There’s no shortage of wonderful men out there—but when women achieve great success, garner more education on average than men, and are equal to men in the workforce, “marrying up” just isn’t practical anymore. It’s not about getting married, it’s about meeting the right person and having a happy marriage. Both men and women need to search for an equal, but complementary, life partner.
SMW: And what about children? Do these women have the same chances of having children?
Christine Whelan: High-achieving married women have children at the same rates as other married women. The hidden story is a story of marriage: Smart, successful women are much less likely to have children outside of marriage – so that lowers the birth rates.
When women marry later, the time horizon for children is shortened, there’s no way around that. But since smart, successful women are marring at the same rates starting around age 30, the choices to delay children are no more a concern for high-achieving women then they are for other women. Plus, two-thirds of men in my survey agreed with the statement: Smart women make better mothers – so it’s time we let go of these out-of-date ideas.
SMW: When it comes to dating, what is your advice for women who have reached a certain level of success?
Christine Whelan: Be honest about your achievements and who you are. Don’t tell a man you are a stewardess when you are actually finishing law school. It’s insulting to everyone. If you are lighthearted and fun, if he’s attracted to you and finds you interesting, a man won’t care very much what you do. Getting to know someone isn’t about comparing resumes.
SMW: What is the reaction to this book? And do you have any plans to write more books in the future?
Christine Whelan: I’ve spoken to thousands of women about my findings, and the overwhelming reaction is relief. Women are sick and tired of hearing bad-news messages about their chances of career success and personal happiness. Armed with the right data, SWANS can enjoy their single years, confident in their odds of marriage.