World Women’s Day: 5 Things That Happen When Women Have the Upper Hand In Dating

How can we find out what happens when women have the upper hand in dating? Does it ever happen? And what if? – One situation where women certainly have bargaining power is when men outnumber women. A high ratio of men to women means men compete for women and women can choose.

There are several situations where we find a high gender ratio: some countries (last week we discussed China), some immigrant communities, social groups and others.  Economists have studied several of these and have found 5 outcomes in the relationship world when women have the upper hand.

  1. There are more marriages. Groups where men outnumber women see their marriage rates go up, compared to groups with even gender ratios.
  2. Men earn more. As men have to make an effort to gain an edge over potential competitors for women, one area they excel in is income.
  3. Women tend to work less. Overall, fewer women choose to work outside the home. This suggests that, at least in the communities studied, many women had the latent wish to be homemakers.
  4. Couples earn more. Women, who choose to work, earn more on average than working women in gender-even societies. Combined with point 3, this means that women won’t get up for less than a certain salary any more.
  5. Children born in this environment are better off. After all the above, it’s an empirical fact that in societies where men compete for women, parents of young children earn more. Children grow up in wealthier households than in societies where women have less bargaining power.

In other words, based on robust evidence: bargaining power for women is a pretty good thing, for about everyone.

Why the Rise of Women Means They Marry Later

Today The Economist discusses the conflicting views on marriage between younger and older Chinese generations. Younger women in particular appear to receive increasing pressure from their families to marry and marry young, while the women themselves would prefer to wait (and be choosier). The trend goes hand in hand with rising empowerment and better career prospects for women.

What’s happening? Three things are at play here (and were missed by The Economist.)

#1 Marriage is no longer an economic necessity for women. With women earning their own living, marriage becomes a nice-to-have, from formerly a must-have.  In this situation, not only is the urgency gone, but different factors govern women’s choices. This is the situation of the young women. While the older generation may still perceive a world of must-have marriages.

#2 Professional women have other things to do. As I pointed out here, many professional, attractive, intelligent women are single at a marry-able age, and those who marry, marry later than the population average. Science says they also have better things to do than the population average. If a date competes with work that is fulfilling, bodes success and a higher income – then the date better be at least as fulfilling, easy-to-present-to-others, and liquid. Of course work and relationships fulfill different needs – but they also compete for the same, scarce resource: time. Professional women have less time and higher demands for relationships, given their alternative options. Both together are likely to keep them single.

#3 In China in particular, women wait because they can. Already in the 1990s, scientists reported skewed sex ratios at birth in China. Now, the gap between the genders is a sizeable ‘gulf’.  In this situation, with more men competing for fewer women, the gentle gender determines the rule of the game. And that likely involves waiting for their best bet. On their terms.

Support in marriage = success in business

Haven’t we guessed it. A woman’s courage and success in business likely depend on the supportiveness of her husband. A husband that respects a woman’s personal ownership of things, and income, and decisions…. and that cooperatively supports her efforts, likely has a wife that invests (herself) more, takes more risks and is ultimately more successful.

In the same context, and provided with the same opportunities, women with and without supportive husbands can perform strikingly differently. This smart paper shows some preliminary evidence in that direction.

Inspired by these findings, dear lady daters, add to your list of criteria: he has to respect your decisions (and time, and property..), bargain fairly and help with your career goals.

A Marriage Premium for Men

When economists talk about returns to marriage, they usually refer to women. There is good evidence that women, on average, ‘earn’ from marrying, through the husband’s higher wage. There is even a return to education that women can reap through marriage: highly educated women meet highly educated men (at university for example) i.e. the men who earn more than the less educated. (In some parts of the world, this will be the only return to education women will ever reap; nada with working outside the home.)

The news is that men, too, earn a marriage premium. But they earn it themselves. Here is how the story goes. Men who wish to marry make an effort in their job and by the time they marry, they actually have managed to improve their earnings. Marriage is enticing, and working towards it improves men’s professional and economic status. “If there were no returns to career choices in the marriage market, men would tend to work less, study less, and choose blue-collar jobs over white-collar jobs” writes Eric Gould who studied the subject.

There is of course the risk that you pick up the fact that more prosperous men marry more easily anyway (and got prosperous by other motivations). But Eric Gould controlled for this issue and managed to strip out the domino chain that links the prospect of marriage to effort rather than the other way round. Only pitfall: the effect only works for average and lower earning men; highly earning men do not improve themselves by dreaming about marriage, they are already motivated.

How can a woman find her man?

Dear Economist,
much of your advice appears to be geared to men, who seem to be entitled ‘by tradition’ to be the active ones in courtship. What about women? Do economists have a view on gender differences in courtship? How can a woman find her man?
Sincerely, Emma

Dear Emma,

Well spotted. Much of the economic literature we apply to dating is indeed ‘non-gendered’ and gives the same advice to men and women. It looks like we are contradicting dating advice of the Mars and Venus kind.

But not quite. Economists have sometimes even assigned extreme gender roles. Lena Edlund rose to fame for a paper that assumed women were ‘sellers’ and men ‘buyers’ of sex, whether in a lifelong contract (marriage) or a temporary one (prostitution). The assumption is that women’s relative indifference to sex gives them a bargaining advantage.

Even if we want to take it a bit easier, the idea that women are sellers and men buyers in the dating game is not counterintuitive, and Dr de Bergerac found it to resonate with friends and family. Several successfully dating ladies reported the following activities as useful: putting up their profiles at online and other dating agencies, making sure they are socially active and well known (also see this article) and paying attention to their overall visual appeal. Exactly what a seller would do.

Try it out and let us know how it goes.

All the best,

Dr de Bergerac