The recent, and revealing, Shriver Report, “An Insight into the 21st Century Man” (2015), suggests that men’s valuations of attractiveness, sweetness, independence, and strength differs greatly depending on whether they are talking about their wives or their daughters.
The report was based on the responses of 818 men who completed an online survey featuring 10 items. Among other things, they were asked to select the two or three traits that they most valued in a wife and in a daughter. Although intelligence topped the list for both wives and daughters—72% of men selected intelligence as important for wives and 81% did the same for daughters—after that, men’s preferences diverged. For example, 45% of men said they valued attractiveness in wives, compared to only 11% who valued good looks in daughters. Similarly, 34% of men valued sweetness in wives, while only 19% valued it highly in their daughters.
What traits did men value more for their daughters? Those likely to help their girls succeed autonomously, without having to depend on men for support: About twice as many men valued independence for daughters (66%) than for their wives (34%). Being strong was also valued much more highly in daughters (48%) than in wives (28%). Independence and strength are the traits most likely to foster both emotional and financial autonomy, and men’s high valuation of these traits in their daughters suggests that they envision their daughters pursuing careers rather than devoting their energies to home and family life.
Although this survey relied on an online, non-probability sample of only 818 men, it echoes the results of peer-reviewed academic research using large probability samples. Having a daughter, then, may lead men to embrace more gender-progressive attitudes (Shafer and Malhotra 2011) while marriage may be associated with a shift to a less egalitarian union (Baxter 2005; Baxter, Haynes, and Hewitt 2010; Meggiolaro 2013).
Still, the gap between men’s preferences for wives and daughters does not necessarily demonstrate an ambivalent acceptance of gender equality (as suggested, for example, by Horwitt 2015). Instead, the explanation might be found in men’s differing relationship to their wives and daughters. Obviously, physical attractiveness is a desired trait in sexual partners of both genders. Likewise, married life may be easier with a sweet-natured partner. Men may trust themselves not to take advantage of a tractable wife, but may not trust their hypothetical daughter’s future partner as much. A strong-minded, independent daughter might be less vulnerable than a sweet-natured, pretty one.
Although the Shriver Institute did not prepare a parallel report surveying women, women could also theoretically value physical attractiveness and sweet temperament more highly in a husband than in a son. If women’s preferences for husbands and sons were to follow the same pattern as men’s preferences, then the explanation may rest in the social relationship rather than the rater’s gender or gender attitudes.
Men’s priorities for wives and daughters might also differ because men identify more with daughters than with wives. If children (of either sex) are seen as an extension of oneself, then parents might simply prefer the same traits in their children as they would like in themselves. If so, men might value what are stereotypically male traits in their children, regardless of gender.
Although it remains unclear why men have different priorities for wives and daughters, the Shriver Report suggests that men’s aspirations for daughters are gender-progressive. If men’s preferences actually shape their parenting, they may help foster independence and self-confidence in their girls. Thus, regardless of the underlying reason, men’s valuation of agentic characteristics in daughters (and devaluation of beauty) may benefit the next generation of women.