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What Women Want in Men

A recent study reveals the qualities women look for in a partner

What do women look for in a man? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, isn't so straightforward. Generally speaking, men place more importance on beauty, while women value social status and access to financial resources. Yet things become more complicated depending on the context. Research has identified two factors that women take into account when assessing a potential sexual partner. First, is the relationship of a short-term or a long-term nature? And second, is she likely to become pregnant?

According to Parental Investment Theory, reproduction is a much more costly proposition for females than it is for males. While women invest nine months in a pregnancy, a man's initial contribution to the joys of parenthood boils down to just a few minutes. Thus, women need to be particularly selective when it comes to choosing a mate. Aside from a man’s resources, his genetic gifts are decisive in the selection process. Why? The thinking goes that in our ancestors' harsher environment a hardy constitution went a long way in advancing evolution's ultimate aims: survival and reproduction.

Numerous studies have found that women's mate preferences shift according to their menstrual cycle. During peak levels of fertility, they prefer more masculine and socially dominant men. In the literature, these men are known as “cads.” Indeed, they tend to be sexy, with their narrow eyes and strong jaws; but they also tend to be flashy and exploitative of others. Even worse, these masculine men often embody the Dark Triad, a personality constellation that encompasses Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. Typically, these men offer only short-term prospects.

By contrast, during less fertile phases women are drawn to more feminine and compassionate men. These men are referred to as “dads.” They tend to be more reliable, warm, and faithful than their caddish counterparts. They also offer greater prospects for a long-term relationship.

Building on this research foundation, psychologists Debra Zeifman and Jennifer Ma wanted to further investigate the nature of women's mating preferences under a thoroughly modern condition: artificial insemination. Would women who are seeking sperm donors have a different set of criteria than those seeking a long-term partner? The beauty of this study is that selecting an anonymous donor is, in essence, the “ultimate test” of what women believe to be good genes for her future child since the purpose is strictly for procreation. The onus of meeting and attracting a genetically gifted suitor to have his baby is wholly removed, a woman can just pick him out of a binder.

In this experiment, participants were first asked to construct an “ideal man,” indicating their preferences for height, body type, hair color, skin color, overall attractiveness, age, education, income, race, religion, and political viewpoint. The classifications for body type were in keeping with those used by online dating sites (i.e., slender, athletic and toned, about average, a few extra pounds, heavyset, and other). The choices for physical appeal were: below average, average, above average, and well above average.

Second, the participants were asked to fill out a 20-item questionnaire about traits women might find attractive when selecting a mate. It drew on four domains, with five traits per category: The first category was “good gene indicators,” which included the traits of masculine, good looking, physically fit, sex appeal, and intelligent. The second category was “good resource indicators,” which included the traits of good earning capacity, college degree, ambition and industriousness, social status, and older than you. The third category was “good parenting indicators,” which included the desire for home and children, likes children, cares about raising children well, emotionally stable and mature, and kind and understanding. The fourth category was “good partnering indicators,” which included the descriptors of being a loving partner, devoted to you, loyal, romantic, and compromises easily. As a next step, the participants rated and ranked the importance of these characteristics.

The researchers then analyzed the data. What did they find? The women seeking sperm donors cared about good genes more and partner potential less than women seeking life partners. When strictly contemplating a man's genetic contributions to their future child, women tended to care more about man's physical attractiveness than his character.

What can we learn from this study? The authors argue that when it comes to women's preferences, it's indeed complicated and depends on the situation.


Reference: Zeifman, D. M., & Ma, J. E. (2013). Experimental examination of women’s selection criteria for sperm donors versus life partners. Personal Relationships, 20, 311-327.

More from Vinita Mehta Ph.D., Ed.M.
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