Research from multiple countries around the world has found that men tend to place more emphasis on youth and beauty while women tend to emphasize status and resources in their search for sexual and romantic partners.1 The sheer number of studies conducted and the diversity of the samples utilized suggest that these gender differences in mating preferences are nearly universal. The explanation for why these differences ever emerged remains a hot topic of debate, with some theorists arguing that they reflect an evolved adaptation and others that they are a product of persistent societal inequalities that favor men. A new set of studies published in Psychological Science appears to provide some support for the latter perspective.2
The evolutionary explanation for why men go for looks and women go for wealth stems from the fact that producing children is a more costly and time consuming act for women than it is for men. Just think about it—men can do their part in seconds to minutes, whereas women’s role continues for at least nine months beyond the sexual act itself. As a result, it is theorized that men and women have evolved preferences for very different things, with men focusing on physical characteristics that signify health and fertility (such as a woman’s waist-to-hip ratio and age) and women focusing more on characteristics that suggest her partner will be reliable and able to help care for any potential children (i.e., status and resources).
In contrast, the social structural view is that gender differences in mate preferences are a function of sharply defined gender roles that dictate the place of men and women at home and in the working world. For instance, if women are expected to stay at home and raise children, then it would be logical for them to focus more on the provider qualities of potential partners. At the same time, if men are expected to bring home the bacon, they should be less concerned with wealth and earning potential as they search for mates. To the extent that gender roles and expectations change, however, we should see corresponding changes in male and female mate preferences. Two recent studies support this idea.
In both studies, researchers examined the mate preferences of men and women in countries that vary in terms of their Global Gender Gap Index, a relatively new measure of the degree of gender equality that exists within a given country. Across both studies, researchers found that in countries with greater levels of gender equality, gender differences in mate preferences were smaller. Specifically, in those countries with the most gender-parity such as Finland and the United States, gender differences in preferences for partner age, appearance, social status, and finanial prospects were noticeably smaller than they were in low gender-parity places such as Korea and Turkey. Thus, as equality increases, men and women seem to express more similarity in desired partner characteristics.
However, it is important to note that even in nations with greater gender equality, men consistently placed more emphasis on looks and desired younger partners than did women, whereas women placed more emphasis on financial prospects and status than did men. It is also noteworthy that men’s emphasis on beauty did not vary with level of equality—what differed was that women’s emphasis on beauty was higher in countries with more equality. Some media reports on this research got this point wrong, such as Time, which ran the headline “When Men Stop Seeking Beauty…” and summarized the results as “the more equal men and women became, the less emphasis men placed on youth and beauty.” This is an inaccurate conclusion because the data did not suggest that men cared any less about beauty; rather, they suggested that women cared more about beauty when they had greater power.
It is also worth mentioning that women seemed to care less about wealth and status in countries with greater equality; however, men's preferences for wealth and status did not increase in such cases. Overall, men's preferences tended to be more consistent across countries, whereas women's preferences varied more with changes in equality.
So what do these findings tell us? They provide additional evidence that men and women do place different emphasis on wealth and beauty in their mating preferences and suggest that these differences may be a function of socially prescribed gender roles. However, we are still no closer to conclusively saying why these gender differences ever emerged in the first place. It is important to keep in mind that these data are correlational in nature and that even in the most equal of countries, the traditionally documented gender differences still emerged. Perhaps this is because even "equal" societies are still far from being truly equal. In short, while these results are provocative and compelling, they do not necessarily rule out other explanations.
1Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioural & Brain Sciences, 12, 1–49.
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