What Women Want, What Men Want
Does partner choice depend on greater gender equality?
Posted Nov 26, 2020
Sex differences in what men and women find attractive in an opposite sex partner have consistently shown that men have a preference for physically attractive women, with women showing a preference for men with wealth, power, and earning potential. Furthermore, women, more than men, have been found to settle for partners lower in terms of physical unattractiveness, provided they possess earning potential or wealth.
These sex differences in preferences for romantic partners have been observed across various different cultures and can be explained in evolutionary terms as being a mating strategy adopted for selecting a partner able to maximize the health, strength and fitness of any potential offspring. For example, men with wealth or earning potential are better able to support and care for their offspring than men with less wealth and lower earning potential.
Social role theory presents another explanation for the sex differences in preference for either wealth or physical attractiveness described above. This theory suggests that the different roles which men and women adopt or are expected to adopt within a society, ultimately determine their relative preferences for different qualities in a romantic partner. Furthermore, are these gender differences still evident in a world of greater gender equality, where women have greater earning potential themselves and therefore may have little or no need to rely on the financial resources of a male partner?
Does female earning potential matter?
The issue of whether gender preferences for either physical attractiveness or wealth in romantic partners are determined by evolution or whether such preferences are now mitigated in societies with greater gender equality, was investigated by Lingshan Zhang and colleagues (Zhang, Lee, DeBruine & Jones, 2019). In their study, they employed over 900 male and over 2,000 female heterosexual participants from a variety of 36 countries who completed either or both of a trait-rating mate preference task and a trait-ranking mate preference task.
In the trait rating task, participants were required to rate on a scale ranging between indispensable to irrelevant or unimportant, various characteristics in terms of how important they were when choosing a romantic partner. Example traits included such things as being a good cook and housekeeper, emotional stability, good financial prospects, good looks, desire for home and children, love, good health and intelligence.
In the trait ranking task participants were asked to place traits in order of desirability from most desirable to the least desirable those traits possessed by a person they might seek to marry. Example traits were exciting personality, good cook and housekeeper, intelligent, good earning capacity, college educated, and physically attractive.
Replicating a previous study by Eagly & Wood, (1999) the researchers only analysed participants’ preferences for good earning capacity, physical attractiveness and domestic skills, which were represented by the traits good financial prospects, physically attractive and good cook and housekeeper.
Gender equality measures for the 36 countries the researchers surveyed were assessed in two ways. The United Nations Gender Inequality Index which measures inequalities in reproductive health, empowerment (political positions and secondary education of each gender) and economic status (employment). The Gender Development Index measures differences in living standards, health and knowledge for each gender.
Sex differences in mate preferences
Overall, the researchers found sex differences in participants’ desirability for physical attractiveness and good earning potential in romantic partners to be similar to those reported in previous studies supporting the evolutionary model of mate preferences. More specifically, women desired good earning capacity in men more than men did in women, while men desired physical attractiveness in women more than women did in men. Such differences were similar for both the trait-ranking and the trait-rating methods.
In this study at least, the findings indicate that sex differences for male and female mate preferences in terms of earning potential and physical attractiveness still prevail. The researchers found no sex differences in preferences for partners with good domestic skills that remained relatively equal for men and women.
Countries with greater gender equality
However, the real issue involved an examination of sex preferences for wealth and physical attractiveness in countries with greater gender equality, and so did the above finding still hold for such countries or did it vary?
When the researchers looked at this, they found little evidence of any variation in the typical sex differences in male and female preferences for physical attractiveness in countries where there was greater gender equality. That is men reported a higher preference for physical attractiveness in women, than women did in men.
However, they did find that gender differences in preferences for wealth in a partner was smaller in countries with greater gender equality. This finding was only observed with the trait ranking and not the trait rating method. Overall, these findings provide partial support for the notion that a woman’s earning potential or financial capacity reduces her preference for a male partner with similar qualities.
The message seems to be that males still display a preference for physical attractiveness in a female romantic partner more than females rate the same quality in a male partner, and this finding prevails across various cultures. However, the long-known female preference for earning capacity in a male partner seems to decline in cultures of greater gender equality, where women have the potential for greater earning potential.
Eagly, A. H. & Wood, W. (1999) The origins of sex differences in human behaviour: Evolved dispositions versus social roles. American Psychologist, 54, 408.
Zhang, L., Lee, A. J., DeBruine L. M. & Jones, B. C. (2019) Are Sex Differences in Preferences for Physical Attractiveness and Good Earning Capacity in Potential Mates Smaller in Countries with Greater Gender Equality? Evolutionary Psychology, 17 (2). 1-6.