The dating gap: why the odds are stacked against female graduates finding a like-minded man

The dating gap: why the odds are stacked against female graduates finding a like-minded man

More women than men are graduating in many countries – but according to Date-onomics, a new book on hook-up culture, there’s a downside: there may not be enough educated men to go round. Is it time to widen the search?

 Illustration: Scott Garrett

There were, says Cat, perhaps one or two male students on her English degree. It was the same, she noticed, on her friends’ courses. “There were a lot of girls at my university,” she says. “You would look around tutorials or lectures and there would be one or two token guys.” While there are some degrees, particularly in science and engineering subjects, that are overwhelmingly filled with male students, the general trend in many countries is for more women to go to university than men. How great to have so many clever, educated young women spilling out every year, but there could be negative consequences, as a new book, Date-onomics, points out: there may not be enough educated men to go around.

It’s hard to write about this without sounding like you believe young women must place finding a husband above forging a successful career (I don’t), or you believe more men should be admitted to university at the expense of women to plug the husband gap (I don’t), or that marrying someone with a lower level of education is a terrible thing (I don’t believe that either). But, as the business journalist Jon Birger relates in his book Date-onomics, if an educated woman wants to form a long-term partnership with a man of similar education, the numbers are stacked against her.

Cat, who works in social media and graduated last year, says of her group of female friends, “only one of them has a boyfriend and [the others are] all really attractive, fun girls, clever, educated, and can’t find a boyfriend. It’s really odd.” She thinks it has a lot to do with dating apps such as Tinder,where everyone’s thinking there’s something better around the corner”.

But it could just be a numbers game, she says (though Birger will say these two things are linked). “Maybe because there is more choice of girls than there ever was, it’s more difficult to find a guy because the pool is smaller.”

Birger had started noticing that he was around far more single women than men. “It struck me as odd because the women seemed to have a lot more going for them [than some men he knew in relationships], which is my way of saying they were better looking and better company,” he says over the phone from New York. “This was also true of my own circle of friends outside of work – I knew a lot of single women, and my wife and I used to try to play matchmaker, but it got to a point where we didn’t know any single men any more. I wanted to figure out why.” His book (“normally I write about much more boring stuff like the stock market and energy”) set out to find out what was going on.

Illustration: Scott Garrett
Illustration: Scott Garrett

At first he thought it was just a big city problem – perhaps more educated women than men were drawn to New York, where he lives, or cities such as Los Angeles or London. “But as it turned out, it wasn’t a big city phenomenon at all. The numbers are pretty much the same across the United States. Across young people, age 30 and under, [there are] about four college grad women for every three college grad men. In many cases, this gender gap is even bigger in rural states than in urban ones. It’s not just the US, it’s most western countries, whether it’s Italy, the UK, Australia.”

In the US, he writes that among 22-to 29-year-olds, there are 5.5 million college-educated women, and 4.1 million college-educated men. We are seeing a gap in the UK too. Last year, a record number of women outnumbered men, with nearly 58,000 more women than men. “In the vernacular of the bestselling dating manuals, it’s not that He’s Just Not Into You,” writes Birger. “It’s that There Aren’t Enough of Him.” In the US his book has been greeted with relief (women have told him it’s a comfort to know there’s nothing wrong with them, just that they’ve fallen victim to the numbers) but is also described as “depressing” and “patronising” (one of his bits of advice for single women is to move to Silicon Valley and snap up the educated single men there).

To be clear, we are talking about heterosexual women who want to find a partner; there are plenty of straight women who don’t feel finding a man is a high priority.

But, “for educated women who refuse to date non-educated men, it creates two problems,” says Birger. “

It creates a statistical challenge, because they are voluntarily limiting themselves to a dating pool that has four women for every three men, but it also gives way too much leverage to those college-educated men, and I think it encourages those men to be overly choosy and to delay settling down.”

This kind of classism “doesn’t penalise the men because the supply of educated women is so large.”

He thinks one of the drivers of the so-called hook-up culture is the number of men who have found a wealth of available women to choose from. “I’m not trying to be the morality police,” he says, and he’s not saying that everyone wants to be, or should be, seeking marriage or that there aren’t women who enjoy casual sex as much as men. “But I do think the imbalance gives men more incentive to play the field.”

It isn’t really that surprising that we like to form long-term relationships with someone like ourselves, and assortative mating – the term sociologists use to describe this tendency – has been rising. “I suppose it’s horrible to say, but I guess if someone is more intelligent or better-qualified, I feel less that I have to be wooed by them,” says Holly, 27, who has an MA and works in post-production for television. She is mainly attracted to Oxbridge graduates, she says with a small laugh. “I do prefer dating people who are intellectually superior.” For her, she says, it’s a curiosity thing – the idea that her partner will be able to teach her things.

Illustration: Scott Garrett
Illustration: Scott Garrett

“Both men and women prefer someone who is of similar education,” says Professor Michele Belot, professor of economics and director of the Behaviour Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh. “When you look at marriage data and you see that people are married to similar people, you don’t know if it’s because they are more likely to meet similar people, or they actually want similar people.” What she and a colleague did instead was look at a pool of speed daters who had been put together. “You can actually see who they pick between people who have different types of education. That indicated there is a preference for similarity. I think it’s almost a biological thing. There is very strong preference for similarities along a range of attributes, such as age, height, occupation, interests.”

The increasing prevalence and efficiency of online dating has also had an effect, says Birger, because of the filtering tick-box nature of it (or as Evan Marc Katz, a dating coach whose advice I like to read, warns: “you don’t marry a list of traits, you marry a human being”). “Online dating is a little like buying a car,” says Birger. “We’re used to checking off options we want on a new car – and so it is with online dating, there is so much box-checking: height, weight, race, dog-person, cat-person. I think what happens is people end up seeking a partner who is just like them and the one box that educated people don’t even think twice about checking is ‘college education’.”

They never even see the dating profiles of people who don’t have a degree, whereas when we meet potential partners in person – at work, in a cafe, on the train – their educational achievements aren’t the first things that are obvious and when we find out later, they may cease to hold as much weight. “If you and I met and I’d dropped out of college and we hit it off, maybe it wouldn’t matter,” says Birger. “But now, those two people would never see each other’s dating profile because of the way online dating works.”

Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, says women looking for equally-educated male partners, “will be forced to compete, I guess, and those that lose will have to downgrade their expectations and are likely to marry later as a result.” There is historical evidence for this – he points to analyses of parish marriage registers from an area of Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. “We see this in the historical data – actual ages at marriage are later for those who marry down the social scale than those who marry up or at the same level.”

Illustration: Scott Garrett
Illustration: Scott Garrett

This isn’t just an issue for educated women, though the focus has been on them (women’s romantic choices are always analysed, of course, with a skew towards the scaremongering; I doubt anybody was too worried about men’s prospects when male graduates outnumbered females). If there are more graduate women than men, who are those men with lower levels of education dating if the educated women won’t consider them? “In hindsight, I almost wish I had made this a bigger part of the book,” says Birger. “This same trend makes dating hard for working-class men as well. In the US, among people aged 22-29 who do not have a college degree, there are 9.4 million single men, versus 7.1 million single women. So the dating world is just as hard for those blue collar guys. But the reality is that we don’t talk about their dating challenges the same way we talk about the challenges faced by educated women.

One of my bits of advice in the book is that I think we all need to open our hearts and minds to dating across socioeconomic lines.”

Birger predicts that we will see “more pairings [of] college-educated women and working-class guys.

I refer to these as mixed-collar marriages. You see it much more in the African American community, where the gender disparity in college education is more extreme – you certainly see more educated women married to working-class guys.”

He doesn’t like the idea that choosing a mate with a lower level of education is somehow considered “settling” (and of course, having a lower level of education is strongly correlated with a lower income, but not always).

“I hate that kind of an association. My wife and I have a friend from college, an Ivy League educated schoolteacher and she’s married to a blue collar guy – they’ve been very happily married for 20 years and have raised a fantastic son together and it really bothers me that somebody might tell their son some day that his mom settled or compromised in order to marry his dad. I just think it’s offensive.”

There is also evidence to suggest that couples in which the woman is more educated than the man are happier. One study of more than 1,500 interviews with couples found that in relationships where the woman was more educated than the man, they were more likely to stay together than in couples where both had low levels of education, or where it was the woman with the lower level.

In the past, couples where the woman was better educated were more likely to divorce than other couples, but no more. “Among marriages in the US formed from the 1990s on, that was no longer the case,” says Professor Christine Schwartz. Is this mostly down to changing attitudes? “I think probably a large part of it is changing attitudes and we do know that young men and women today, their ideal type of marriage is an egalitarian marriage. We also know that from surveys of people’s preferences, men [now] say it will bother them less to be in a relationship with women who out-earn them. We can see from data from around the world that men are marrying women with more education than themselves. There seems to be a very tight relationship between changes in the gender gap in education and what happens to marriage and cohabitation patterns. To me, looking at the demographic data, it doesn’t seem that there is a widespread aversion to forming serious relationships [across educational lines] – there are more and more relationships in which women have more education than their male partners.”

She doesn’t see large numbers of educated women holding out for an educated partner, and remaining unhappily single, in other words.

She cites a study by Marianne Bertrand of women who had higher incomes on average than men: “She argues that this can account for some of the decline of marriage rates, but I think there is very little actual evidence – this is the only paper that I know of that points to that and we do have a lot of evidence that shows patterns of relationships have changed over time.”

However, Belot thinks women may be increasingly accepting of the fact that they may not meet the sort of partner they want and therefore choose to be alone: “One of the developments we see is single women deciding to have a child by themselves, for example, something that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.” But she adds, “I have yet to meet a woman who says they wouldn’t consider a guy who was less educated. I think the question is more, do you have the opportunity to meet?”

A study by the Pew Research Center think tank last year found that for the first time in the US there were more couples in which the woman was more educated than her husband than the opposite. They found from the 2012 census data, 21% of women were married to men with a lower level of education than them – a threefold increase since 1960. And this was even more marked among newlyweds – 27% of couples had women who were better educated, against just 15% in which the man was the better educated.

But there is still a stigma, says Genevieve Zawada, who runs a matchmaking service, particularly for women over 40. She says a potential partner’s education level is “usually the first thing any woman specifies. I think people think that if someone is not educated to the same standards they are, they won’t have anything in common, which is absolute nonsense. People think, ‘I’ve dedicated my life to my career and I’m not going to settle for anything less than I am’. Funnily enough, men hardly ever discuss it.”

Among younger women, recent English graduate Cat isn’t convinced that today’s single female graduates are that worried about their prospects. “I suppose it depends what sort of person you’re going for. If you’re going for a lawyer type maybe it’s more challenging, but I find myself going for musicians and creative people who are intelligent but not scarily academic.” And who don’t necessarily have a degree. “I think it’s more about drive and ambition than education. That’s the most attractive quality someone can have.”

Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game by Jon Birger is published by Workman Publishing