Female Traditionalists

Women have indisputably arrived.  Full-time female workers in America may still make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by males in equivalent positions, but the wage gap disappears and even reverses in certain cases.  Take single, childless urban workingwomen between 22 and 30.  According to the research firm Reach Advisors, this group earns eight percent more than their male counterparts.

Naysayers may argue that this demographic’s exclusivity implies that it’s the exception that proves the rule.  Not necessarily.  Women outperform men in important ways.  They outnumber males in college enrollment by a 4 to 3 ratio, and in 2011 earned 60 percent of all master’s degrees and the majority of doctorates.  A dearth of women in the boardroom indicates that the glass ceiling endures, a topic of recent focus with the success of Sheryl Sandberg’s businesswomen’s manifesto, Lean In.  However, Corporate America is sure to become more female-friendly, not the least because more than one-third of all MBA recipients are women, according to federal data, a marked improvement over the past decade.  And if polls are to be believed, our next president may well be Hillary Clinton. 

While it’s true that our society has yet to achieve gender equality in many respects—for example, we’re the only high-income country that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave, forcing new mothers to choose between caring for their child or earning a paycheck—women have made enormous strides towards achieving parity with men.  This should be applauded.  We’re better off for it, women and men both.  Yet a sexism-free society or its close approximation probably isn’t in the cards anytime soon, nor is it even necessarily even a desirable goal for many women, though they would be loath admitting as much.

Evidence of this latent female male-chauvinism derives from that great barometer of gender politics, the world of dating.  I’ve lived in that world for some time and can report of its curiously traditional dating protocols prescribed to by the same upwardly-mobile women in the professional vanguard whose earning potential exceeds that of their male counterparts.

Men are expected to assume the dominant role during the initial courtship.  Custom dictates that males initiate contact, drive the conversation during the encounter, and propose a formal date.  Men are also expected to pay for drinks and/or the meal during the subsequent encounter.  A second date may require a woman’s consent, but it won’t happen unless the man solicits it.  Rarely is it otherwise.

Therein lies the paradox: women are increasingly self-confident in the workplace that is more and more gender-blind, but when it comes to dating, they’re old fashioned Victorians who expect their male counterparts to take the lead, or to be what’s euphemistically called “chivalrous.”  Various polls confirm the perseverance of women’s antiquated beliefs about gender roles during courtship.  Majorities still expect men to pay for the first date and most are more inclined to reward those who do so with a second date.

A survey by the free dating site SweetLuck.com confirmed that women tend to favor men who lead and take the initiative.  Women want to know that “if they found themselves in any type of emergency, including those that are financial in nature, their mate can step up and provide a safety net,” observed the site’s founder, Martin Encarnacion.

Why are otherwise go-getting women so traditional?  One possibility is that progress has been uneven in the two generations since women’s lib.  Some antiquated and arguably benign views endure.  However, perhaps there’s another explanation that suggests across-the-board equality won’t ever happen.

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Los Angeles–based psychiatrist an author of several books on gender relations, believes that men are expected to take the lead on dates for deep-seated reasons.  On mint.com, a website dedicated to financial planning, Lieberman elaborates: “There are certain psychological and biological factors that have created long-standing traditions, and those are the natural way the sexes should treat each other.  The man should be the knight, and the woman should be the princess.  People say that sounds quaint and old-fashioned, but fairy tales come from the collective unconscious of society.”

Lieberman’s assertion, like the whole field of evolutionary biology, is hard, if not impossible, to verify.  Can we really know whether dating protocols reflect “biological factors?”  Doubtful.  We can only speculate.  But it’s an intriguing possibility.  It would explain why many self-identified feminists are male chauvinists when it comes to gender roles during courtship.  They can’t help it—it’s hard-wired.

And if such gender roles are to some degree intrinsic, what does that say about the possibility for achieving true societal equality between the sexes?  Might it be foolhardy to expect that traditional gender roles, with males serving as stereotypical breadwinners and females as caretakers, disappear entirely?  Perhaps.

That would be a bitter pill to swallow for some, especially dyed-in-the-wool feminists.  The notion would surely strike them as offensive, but, then, so would the notion of splitting the bill during a date.

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