How men attract women is a much more difficult question than vice-versa because women are both more selective and also more individualistic in what they want.
How Many Criteria Count?
Men are evaluated as aesthetically less pleasing than women in research using male and female raters of pictures. This suggests that physical appeal was not selected so strongly for men as for women in our evolutionary past (1).
Even if sexy appearance is less important for men, it still matters a lot. In many cases, women react more strongly to negative traits than to positive ones. Some are turned off by baldness, some reject short men, and others are most put off by a protruding stomach (2).
Reading between the lines, most women are attracted to strong, healthy, physically fit specimens who project confidence and are more likely to succeed in surviving, reproducing, and prospering in any society.
Physical attractiveness is more critical early in a relationship—presumably because it colors first impressions so much—and women who are interested in a short-term relationship are likely to have their fling with someone who is above average in physical appeal.
The key traits of kindness and generosity are important to men as well as women in their search for a mate and this makes sense considering that any relationship is a partnership that functions best if each takes account of the interests of the other.
Even so, many skilled womanizers are far from being nice people. Instead they are successful sales people who succeed mainly by telling their mark what she wants to hear. Needless to say, this strategy has a limited shelf life and torrid romances often precede equally heated split-ups.
Whereas most men may fall for a stereotypically attractive woman, women are more idiosyncratic in their tastes, possibly because they take so many criteria into account. Some are wowed by bookish college professor types. Others are drawn to the physical charisma of a football player. Many gravitate to successful artists and musicians.
Most women avoid unemployed drunks and seek out partners who have at least good prospects for being gainfully employed. They use an economic filter for selecting a mate—even today in online dating (3). This makes sense because getting united with success is a better recipe for the future than getting hitched to failure.
Even given the economic pickiness of most women, some set much more stringent criteria than others and it helps if they have high mate value themselves. For instance, Marilyn Monroe targeted men at the top of the tree from baseball legend Joe DiMaggio to President John F. Kennedy (2).
In general, though women are drawn to people who are from similar backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, politics, and religion and researchers find that married couples are remarkably similar in about every trait one can measure, from intelligence to relative height for gender (2).
What's a Guy to Do?
When women want to attract a mate, they lavish a lot of attention on their appearance, buying new clothes and working hard on grooming and makeup. In contrast, men expend a lot less effort on their appearance, although any effort to appear healthy and physically fit is well spent.
Clothing is important also, and although men spend considerably less than women on apparel, they spend substantially more if they are actively dating as opposed to being married.
One reason that dress is important for men is that it projects social status and women who reject a man in a Burger King uniform might be willing to go out with someone in medical scrubs. The quality of non-work clothing also conveys an impression about where a person shops and their disposable income.
Women are attracted to other signs of high social status, from elite diction to driving an expensive car, or dining at a posh restaurant (3). Perhaps for this reason, many still prefer if the man pays the expenses of a date. In our society, this is a sign of having disposable income and being generous enough to dispose of it.
Even in societies that did not use money, men were expected to bring gifts when they courted. This practice bears analogy with the nuptial gifts of birds and insects where the female is lulled into a sense of security by getting a morsel to eat.
The act of generosity is invariably by the male. This fits in with Bateman's Principle according to which males are more eager to mate and therefore must do something to win over the female. So men can bring gifts, including gifts of food.
1 Barber, N. (1995). The evolutionary psychology of physical attractiveness. Ethology and Sociobiology, 16, 395-424.
2 Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.
3 Hitsch, G., Hortacsu, A., & Ariely, D. (2010). What makes you click?—Mate preferences in online dating. Quantitative Marketing and Economics, 8, 393-427.