Women, Let’s Create Our Own Wealth
When superstar Cher’s mom asked her why she hadn’t settled down and married a rich man, her reply was, “Mom, I am a rich man.” I thought about this quote last week when my own mom showed me an advice column from the Sunday paper with the headline, “I can’t stop chasing ‘impressive’ men.”
A woman in her late 30s requested advice on how to end her string of failed relationships. The gist of the problem was this: I want a relationship, but I can’t get one to stick. I seem to only be attracted to men who are doing something "impressive," like having a high-paying job or an executive title. These men do not want a serious relationship with me and it hurts my self-esteem.
My mom showed me the column because I, too, focused on a man’s resume and not his character. Doing this led to disappointment at best and brutal heartbreak at worst. It was the hope of understanding my own heartbreak that led me to become a research psychologist who studies human behavior from an evolutionary perspective.
Here’s a basic tenant of evolutionary psychology: If you notice a behavior that you feel compelled to engage in repeatedly — whether you think it's good (helping your neighbor carry groceries), bad (eating too many chocolates), or in between — chances are you inherited that behavioral tendency from prior generations because the behavior helped your ancestors survive (attraction to fatty foods) and reproduce (being helpful to others attracts mates).
Perhaps not surprisingly, prioritizing a man’s resume over his character, or even his looks, led to better outcomes for women thousands of years ago during the time of human brain evolution. A woman’s survival, and that of her children, increased if a man of high status — meaning someone with wealth, but also influence and respect in society — liked her and wanted to protect and invest in her.
This was particularly true through most of human history, when a few successful men controlled most of the resources — and disease, warfare, and predators were rampant, yet food was scarce and medicine nonexistent. The motivation to swing for the fences and fall for “impressive” men, however our culture or upbringing defines them, is pre-programmed into our DNA.
You might be thinking that a man can be financially successful AND be kind, warm, and faithful. Absolutely. But, because we are wired to focus on what was most critical for 99% of human existence — a man’s status and ability to provide — the other qualities easily become an afterthought. We often do not consider whether a man has a kind heart, or whether we are authentically attracted to him, until it is too late.
So we stay involved in a relationship — or the remnants of a relationship — hoping the man we’ve chosen will “get better” or “learn” over time. (Side note: Because it is so hard to find a guy who “has it all,” women’s brains also evolved to use indirect manipulation strategies to train our boyfriends and shape them into total-package dreamboats, but these strategies are definitely not foolproof).
Nowadays landing a high status guy doesn’t help us survive the same way it did years ago. But, it still feels rewarding to land them. And this can really throw a wrench in women’s happiness. When we prioritize attracting men based on their resumes, we increase the likelihood of failure, because we are using forced effort to create a relationship that may or may not be right for us. Without even being aware of it, we often manufacture allure (sexual and otherwise) devoid of authentic connection to the person themselves.
Actress Diane Keaton, known for her failed relationships with high-profile men, reflected on why she never married, saying, “I think I should not have been so seduced by talent…I should have found just a nice human being...”
How can we stop chasing men for their big-jobs and big-wallets? Is it by becoming a rich woman, like Cher said? Yes and no. Being able to support yourself financially is an important step. But, remember our evolved programming. It’s hard to shake.
Even after becoming financially secure in my own right, I found it hard not to focus on a man’s resume. I had enough money, but I could still use more. As a single mom of two young kids, this feeling is particularly palpable. I did not believe I could do everything on my own, nor did I feel like I should have to. Surely there is a man out there who will like me enough to invest in me, help me buy a bigger house for my children, and protect me from dangerous predators…oh, wait. That pesky ancient tendency creeps back in!
It creeps back in because women did not have the opportunity to create independent wealth until relatively recently. Not needing a man for his status is a new thing. So, just like we transform our evolved tendency to eat endless amounts of fatty foods, we can transform our tendency to chase impressive resumes.
Forget impressive men. WE ARE impressive women. Women now lead companies, governments, hospitals, and courtrooms. More women than ever before are primary breadwinners and the number of women who out-earn their husbands continues to rise. The tide is definitely turning for women, but we still have a ways to go.
Only 11% of heads of state and 7% of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women. Women still earn $0.81 for every dollar earned by men. As research director for Rutgers Business School’s Center for Women in Business, our team is working hard to move the needle further for women in the workforce through advocacy, community building, and finding effective workarounds for our ancient programming. Understanding the biology behind our behavior is the best way to identify and remove barriers, and empower women with the skills and expertise necessary to succeed as business leaders.
Women: Here’s to a future of unfettered access to opportunities to build wealth, enjoy freedom of choice, men with kind hearts, and our own “impressive” resumes.
[Related: Why Are Women Satisfied With Less?]
Kristina Durante is the Associate Professor of Marketing and PhD Program Coordinator at Rutgers Business School.
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