What Do Women Really Want?

Studies of modern mating reveal a new pecking order.

Posted May 04, 2015

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Choosing a potential mate for a long-term relationship is always tricky. Evolutionary psychologists conducted numerous studies examining what factors men and women consider when making a choice. This kind of research has usually focused on two basic types of sexual selection at work: First, there is intrasexual selection, i.e., when males compete with males to demonstrate their fitness. Instead of antlers or sharp teeth, human males often rely on physical displays of prowess or conspicuous displays of wealth to attract potential mates. Second, there is intersexual selection, or mate choice, with men and women demonstrating key qualities that cause them to stand out from other potential candidates. This can include clothing, physical attractiveness, or even a nice car.

When women choose a mate, they focus on various qualities such as physical attractiveness, displays of wealth, intelligence, athletic ability, as well as less instantly obvious qualities such as humor, compassion, empathy, and kindness. One fundamental issue in choosing a potential mate is whether a prospect would be a good father as well as husband. 

Researchers have distilled these qualities down to the "Three Gees"—good genes, good providers, and good fathers. Men who can demonstrate all three qualities stand the greatest chance of winning the mate selection competition.

Good Genes

A man with good genes signals to females that he may be a good reproductive choice. Along with physical attractiveness, other signs of good genes include creativity, a sense of humor, good facial symmetry, muscularity, or risk-taking behavior. Men often attempt to out-compete one another to demonstrate that they are high in testosterone and likely to pass on positive characteristics to their children. 

Good Providers

Men who are financially successful tend to have an advantage over poorer competitors. Such males often display their wealth with expensive cars, residences, clothes, and travel choices. But this can also include other types of assets that demonstrate the potential suitability to be a good mate, such as a high-status job or an education as a medical doctor or academic. Men who have traits that allow them to be good fighters may sometimes be regarded as attractive as well. 

Good Fathers

Men who demonstrate an ability to stay at home and not wander are deemed to be especially attractive. In most mammalian species, fathers act as protectors for females while they care for children and are unable to gather food. In human terms, men who demonstrate an interest in raising children and show that they are capable of forming emotional attachments with their children are the most likely to attract mates. 

But just how important are the Three Gees for modern women? 

As more women have become independent and able to support themselves and their children without having to rely on any partner, there is clearly less need for men to be good providers. More women than ever are in the workforce and spend less time caregiving, fostering a greater need for their partners to share childcare responsibilities. Women also rely more on daycare centers, babysitters, and older family members to provide what they might have once done exclusively by themselves.

These shifting responsibilities have led to apparent changes in what women seek in partners. Recent mate preference surveys conducted in China, Singapore, and the United States suggest that women now regard kindness as being more important than physical attractiveness or earning ability. In other words, being a good father is now more important than having good genes or being a good provider.

A recent article presents four studies that examine the factors influencing women's mate choices. The studies surveyed hundreds of women in cities across China, including urban and rural populations. There has also been an experimental study comparing how women viewed the Three Gees under different economic conditions. 

Overall, the studies found that women prefer men who show good father characteristics over other factors such as physical attractiveness and material wealth. Most of the women surveyed had relatively high levels of education and came from financially proficient families. But even when the survey was repeated for women from more economically deprived areas of the country, men showing good father characteristics were still preferred, although good provider characteristics were favored in this cohort as well.

None of this is to dismiss the value of good genes and evidence of being a good provider. These qualities are more likely to be viewed as "icing on the cake" rather than essential factors in choosing mates. There also seems to be more evidence of assortative mating—seeking a mate based on how similar they are to the woman. For example, tall women prefer tall men while women who are highly educated prefer men who are equally educated. 

So what characteristics do women seek out as indications that a man will be a good father? In the survey, traits that loaded onto the "good father" dimension included such things as "stays at home," "considerate," "loves children," and "caring." While this research was based on self-reporting and looked exclusively at women seeking long-term relationships, the results suggest that obvious displays of wealth and physical attractiveness are not the lures that men may believe they are.  

Men should consider displaying their sensitive side more often. In today's mating competition, nice guys do not finish last.

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