It’s one of those everlasting questions: What qualities do (hetero) men want in a woman? In order to put this question in context, we compared men’s desired characteristics in a (female) romantic partner with their desired characteristics in a (female) colleague.
Why? A student I worked with, Natsuki Kubotera, decided to explore this question for her honor’s thesis. As you might guess, the question was inspired by her personal experiences. She designed the study, collected the data, and analyzed it.
Who? The study included 87 unmarried heterosexual college students age 18-25. We looked at this age group because 1) most male undergrads have had experience with both dating & work, but aren’t yet married or settled/established in their career and 2) there’s a lot of data on college students.
What? We asked about 2 sets of characteristics, “instrumentality” and “expressiveness,” as defined by Janet Spence & Robert Helmreich’s 1978 “Personal Attributes Questionaire”. Instrumentality includes characteristics that are about doing things and getting things done, while expressiveness refers to characteristics that are related to expressing one’s feelings and responding to other people’s feelings. You might think of instrumentality and expressiveness as aspects of the masculine and feminine stereotypes, respectively. Participants completed the scale twice, once for their desired (female) dating partner and once for their desired (female) colleague. They also gave us some information on their past dating and work experiences, such as age of first date, number of non-family jobs, etc.
When we analyzed the data, we found that men’s preferred dating partners were more expressive than instrumental and that their preferred colleagues were more instrumental than expressive. In other words, they wanted someone whose characteristics were relevant to the situation: work or romance. As I’ve said many times on these pages, guys aren’t all the same, so we also looked at how egalitarian the guys are. It turns out that the more egalitarian guys desired the same levels of expressiveness and instrumentality in both work and romance; the more sexist guys wanted women whose characteristics fit the situation.
So what? The big implication here is that guys – at least as an undifferentiated group – want women to behave differently in different contexts. And we’re not just talking about wanting women who are prim & proper in public and phreaks in the bedroom. We’re talking about wanting women to be competent, decisive, and reliable coworkers who are capable of getting the job done, and wanting women who can “be there” and be responsive to their dating partners. These things require different skill sets. This was especially apparent for more sexist guys – guys that are often described as “traditional;” they expect this kind of switching. For more egalitarian guys – guys who are described as “liberal” – they don’t really want the switching; they want women to have these characteristics regardless of context. Unfortunately, this feeds into the expectation about being “superwoman” (or “supermom”) that many women experience.
Other stuff: Natsuki is on her way to becoming Dr. Kubotera. As I write, she’s about to start her 2nd year at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
In order to get this published, I updated and altered large swatchs of Natsuki’s honor’s thesis. Academic publication and peer review require a level of background knowledge and a specific format that effectively prevents undergraduates from publishing.