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single. academic. female. January 26, 2010

Posted by Onely in "Against Love"...?, Food for Thought, single and happy, Your Responses Requested!.
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Over the weekend, I took a walk with my friends B & A, and B — who is male, pursuing a PhD in my program, and married to A — asked me about how I felt about something he had heard: That women who begin pursuing their PhDs while single are less likely to find partners or be married in the long run when compared with men (my apologies to B if I’ve paraphrased incorrectly, but this is what I remembered). B sounded pretty stunned about what he had heard, but I was not.

So although I have not found any statistics to verify whether what B heard was true or not, I want to go over the reasons why this fact seems relatively unsurprising to me (as a single academic female myself) and to see what you, Copious Readers, have to add to the conversation (especially if you have access to any useful statistics or personal experiences related to this issue!):

1. The way B understood it — and what bothered him most (because he’s a good feminist!) — was that this correlation implies that many men are intimidated by well-educated, independent women, which therefore suggests that even intelligent and well-meaning men are influenced by popular sexist stereotypes. As a woman who has dated off and on throughout my graduate career, I can attest to feeling a bit anxious about how smart might seem “too smart,” which for whatever reason might equal “not sexy.” I can’t speak for the men I’ve dated, but I will admit that there have been times when I’ve thought something *really smart* but not said it for fear of sounding snarky, snobby, or decidedly unsexy. That’s not my date’s fault, of course, but it does suggest that even well-educated women like me are influenced by the same sexist stereotypes that men might unwittingly buy into.

2. As I progress through my academic career, I personally feel more satisfied and fulfilled with my work and feel more independent as a person. Although I would never say that married people are less independent than me or less fulfilled with their work lives, I would say that my education has helped me get to the happy place I am as a single woman.

3. In fact, the more educated I become, the more aware I am — and critical — of everyday instances of sexism. I am also much less tolerant of ignorant and disrespectful behavior and am quick to point it out to potential (or current) partners. People who know me well know that I will speak my mind — I always have been this way, but the difference is that today I don’t feel nearly as bad about it (as long as I haven’t been unkind or rude).

4. And on a more practical level, given the rigors of doctoral work and the career I hope to have, it will be easier for me to succeed if I don’t have a partner or a family. It’s relatively well-documented that women tend to be less successful in their academic careers than men because of institutionally-grounded and socially-sanctioned sexism, especially in the sciences. Quite simply, I will have an easier time of it if I don’t have a partner (who would have to be willing to move — possibly thousands of miles away — to give me the best possible future) or children (because even in this progressive society, women still tend to bear the burden of raising their children, no matter how many degrees they earn).

So, Dear Readers: What do you have to add (or contest) about what it means to be a single female academic in today’s world?

— Lisa



1. Jenn - January 27, 2010

There’s been some press lately about this (or at least, the related issue about women in general becoming more educated and earning more and the impact that’s having on marriages) and personally, I think it’s one of those issues where people believe something (like that men are intimidated of smart women) and so they either act in ways that then reinforce that (like smart women watching what they say) or only noticing circumstances that are consistent with what they believe in the first place. Personally, I’ve always worried that people (not just men) will be intimated by me and I tend to downplay my educational background (e.g., when I meet someone for the first time, I will say I ‘teach at State’, not ‘I’m an economics professor’), but the reality is that I can’t remember a single instance of anyone not wanting to talk to me or date me because they were intimidated (though maybe I just don’t know it). On the other hand, I have had a LOT of dates with guys who think it’s cool that I’m so smart (since I have done a lot of online dating, they know my educational background before we even meet). My current boyfriend tends to tell everyone that I have a PhD, to the point that it embarrasses me, but he thinks I should be really proud of it, and he’s proud of me (he ‘only’ has a bachelor’s degree).

As for whether female PhDs, in general, are less likely to get married than male PhDs, I don’t necessarily find it surprising but, to channel Bella DePaulo, I wonder about the methods of those studies. Are they comparing all male PhDs to all female PhDs and asking if they’ve ever been married? Or asking if people who start PhD programs single end up marrying eventually? In my program, which was very male dominated, all of the women in my class (and most other classes that I can remember) started the program single but many men came to grad school already married. And interestingly, a lot of women in my program ended up marrying men they met in the program – I don’t know if that’s common in other fields but there seems to be a very high prevalence of economists marrying other economists.

Rachel - January 27, 2010

Pew Research recently published a report touting that women are now more educated than their husbands. They failed to mention that in 3/4th of the marriages men are still more educated than women… So, while there’s been progress, it’s minor.

BUT, I do whole-heartedly agree with you: We need to question the assumption that men don’t like to date smart women… Because this assumption might be reinforcing the behavior…

2. Therese - January 27, 2010

A PhD is a serious time commitment. Anything that requires extra time and energy has the potential to distract a person from that endeavor. I think many people who are partnered are less than understanding when their partner has an interest – hobby, profession, whatever – that they feel may take too much time away from them! My husband is still shocked that I have no issue with him going to local sporting events with his friends! The ex wife complained that she felt abandoned on weekends when he went to watch a game with the guys! I think a female academic would maybe have more success with a partner who was also an academic and understands the demands or just someone who…how can I say this delicately…someone who has a life!

I also think that women are given that line “you’re career won’t love you back!” That’s BS, I think because if your career is something that you really love to do, who cares if you spend most of your time doing it? It would be another thing if it was just something a person did to collect a paycheck, but that is not the case for you.

3. Lauri - January 28, 2010

Lisa, very interesting post.

I would share your impression that being “smart” is often not “sexy” on a woman. Moreso, I would say being *educated* isn’t sexy. A woman who pursues a PhD (or other higher degrees for that matter), as you said, is going to be an independent thinker. She’s going to care about important things. She may even realize that there are higher priorities than getting pregnant and pumping out a few namesakes.

Less educated men also tend to get very defensive about the issue. I only have a 2-year professional masters, but almost everyone I’ve ever dated has been less educated. I’ve noticed some trends- one, they downplay education. I guess women could do this too, but the men I’ve dated who didn’t have very high quality educations would claim that college is useless; that hey, if you want to shell out for grad school that’s your problem, but it’s stupid; that you can’t make money while in school or with a liberal arts and science degree, etc. This to me is very sour-grapesy, as well as insulting because I worked very hard at my education and wouldn’t trade it for anything.

But also, there is more simple reason why single female grad students would be less likely to marry than males: there are WAY more female grad students in- I think- every field except business. My professional school class of about 120 was something like 75% female (the year before me was 85%!). Men don’t go to graduate school. They don’t like the idea of foregoing paychecks, they think women won’t date them if they don’t have money. The ones that do go get their pick of all those single women!

There’s also the correlation/causation issue. If you really want to settle down and get married, you’re not going to be focusing on graduate school in the first place, you’re going to be out looking for a husband. The kind of people who go to grad school, whether they realize it at the time or not- may be less likely to even care about all that marriage stuff in the first place.

4. Simone Grant - January 31, 2010

A very interesting and timely post, indeed. There have always been men who like to date (and marry) smart women. But the Pew data shows us that in the majority of cases, men are still better educated than their partners.

We seem to be at an odd place in history, now. Women are pursuing education, especially advanced education, at greater rates than men. And we’re aggressively pursuing our careers and personal fulfillment. In most cases, men who’ve achieved “less” (in terms of career/education) are not interested in dating UP. Whereas many men are perfectly comfortable dating women with significantly less career/educational achievement.

5. Doctor M - April 27, 2010

I came across this googling ‘Do women make better academics’. I am surely not the best (though I love to learn… deadlines are not my friend).
I’ve date up and down. The only reason men might be less attracted to women who we perceive as smarter than ourselves would be that they perceive that as unattractive quality, i.e. it hampers their self confidence.
Someone needs to write a brief, trite sitcom whereby a single academic/intelligent female has a dangerous liason or two with a less academic/intelligent guy. It’ll be utter trash. He’ll work on cars, and be all greasy and have no sense of taste and stare intently at things, and that’s the way she’ll like it because it reminds her that she’s a woman and helps her get away from her work stress. That way you guys can know it’s possible for these things to work.
Ok I’m being cruel… but I’m actually quite serious. I think we can both admit to a belief (with sexist implications in itself) that women are more easily persuaded into assuming these negative stereotypes.
Now I see you’ve only got one useful option here…. write the script. If it flops you’ve undone a logic neither of us wants to be party to, if it wins you’ve made yourself some money and learnt a sad truth.

6. Mo - December 3, 2011

What I can say is that as a single male PhD student (who study 6 hours per day in the library), I prefer to marry with a so called smart, educated and academic woman. To put it in another way, I can’t tolerate girls with the normal boring codes of behaviour. I think you need to change that stereotype that “men” like this or that. “Men” is not a single, homogeneous category!

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