Now I ain’t sayin she’s a gold digger, but will she get with someone who makes less than her, either?

American women today are still not making equal income to menAmerican women today are still not making equal income to menIn this post I review research showing that women do not care about partner’s income as much as people may think.  In fact, the research suggests that both men and women overestimate the degree to which the other gender cares about money in relationships.  These findings are particularly relevant given that some opponents of the 2014 U.S. Paycheck Fairness Act have stated that women prefer to make less money than their romantic partners.

Women’s wages in the U.S.

The U.S. Equal Pay Act of 1963 states that men and women should earn equal pay for equal work. Yet American women today are still not making equal income to men—even accounting for differences in education, experience, and type of work (Blau & Kahn, 2007).

This issue has received increased media attention lately partly because Jill Abramson, the first woman executive editor of the New York Times, was said to have been dismissed in May after she requested equal pay (See The New Yorker, Huff Post). While her boss has denied this, it is a timely scandal considering that it comes weeks after the Paycheck Fairness Act was blocked by Republicans in the U.S. Senate. The act would have prevented companies from retaliating against employees who question pay equality. Stances on this topic are varied, but among the most controversial responses are the recent comments made by political analyst Phllis Schlafly, who claims that womenlike the gender gap”.

In her Op-Ed article for the Christian Post, Schlafly argues:

“While women prefer to HAVE a higher-earning partner, men generally prefer to BE the higher-earning partner in a relationship. This simple but profound difference between the sexes has powerful consequences for the so-called pay gap. Suppose the pay gap between men and women were magically eliminated. If that happened, simple arithmetic suggests that half of women would be unable to find what they regard as a suitable mate.”

While Schlafly’s statements have angered many, it is not an original notion. The idea that women desire rich men is part of the traditional gender role narrative and is a tale as old as Cinderella (oh wait, that is Cinderella).  But today, when women can financially provide for themselves, do American women still place such high value on their partner’s income?

Do women want rich(er) partners?

Psychological research has explored gender differences in mating and dating preferences. The most well-known of which is the work of David Buss (Buss & Barnes, 1986). While the findings of this research are often over-simplified to highlight differences (i.e. men want attractive partners, women want rich partners), the original research found that both men and women selected the same 3 characteristics as the most important in a romantic partner--Kind and understanding”, “Exciting personality” and “Intelligent.Both men and women felt that income was relativity unimportant—women ranked it 9th and men ranked it 10th (out of 13 possible characteristics).

However, this research does not address comparative income. According to Schlafly, women want partners who make more money than they do, while men want partners who make less money.

To answer this question, my colleagues and I conducted a survey with Midwestern undergraduate students in which we asked women how bothered they would be if their long-term romantic partner made less money than they did (Clerkin & Hong, in preparation; Sarma & Clerkin, 2013). The majority of women were not bothered, while 12% said they would be bothered. We also asked men how bothered they would be if their long-term romantic partner made more money than they did. The majority said they would not be bothered, and 24% reported they would be bothered/very bothered.

Surprised? You are not alone. We also asked men to guess how women responded and we asked women to guess how men responded. We found that both men and women statistically significantly overestimated how bothered the other gender would be by non-traditional gender-role incomes. The differences were drastic, with 52% of men and 81% of women believing that the opposite gender would be bothered/ very bothered by non-traditional gender-role incomes (see pie charts, click to enlarge).

We also duplicated this study with a slightly older more conservative sample in Singapore. While Singaporeans self-reports were more traditional, the pattern of overestimating how bothered the other gender would be remained the same.

Why do we get it wrong?

In a way, these results are not surprising. Research has shown that people have inaccurate and exaggerated perceptions of their outgroups (groups with which they do not identify, such as the opposite gender). We tend to assume that there is more conflict and disagreement between ourselves and other groups than actually exists (e.g. Chambers, Baron & Inman, 2006).

These findings inform the current issue. In relationships, people commonly try to act in ways that will appease their partner. In heterosexual relationships, this means guessing across gender identities, which our research shows can be tricky. This could make women avoid pursuing high-paying jobs because they think it makes them less romantically desirable, when in fact, men are unconcerned. This, in turn, could lead to such claims as those recently stated by Schlafly.

But what about marriage?

In closing, I want to briefly address marriage, since Schlafly argues that If a higher-earning man is not available, many women are more likely not to marry at all…The pay gap between men and women is not all bad because it helps to promote and sustain marriages.”

Scientific evidence also suggests that this is not the case. A recent study of over a thousand married people found that women with higher incomes have more marital happiness and psychological well-being and are not more likely to get divorced (Rogers & Deboer, 2001). Moreover, national surveys show that 22% of American wives out-earn their husbands (Fry & Cohn, 2010); and that 16% of stay-at-home parents are men (up from only 10% in 1989). Therefore, if we want to promote and sustain marriages, it is important that women earn equal wages to support themselves, their marriages and their families. 


Blau, F. D., & Kahn, L. M. (2007). The gender pay gap: Have women gone as far as they can? Academy of Management Perspective, 7-23.

Buss, D. M., & Barnes, M. (1986). Preferences in human mate selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 3, 559-570.

Chambers, J. R., Baron, R. S. Inman, M. L. (2006). Misperceptions in intergroup conflict: Disagreeing about what we disagree about. Psychological Science, 17, 38-45.

Clerkin, C. & Hong, Y. Y. (2014) What do men and women really want? A cross-cultural comparison of gendered beliefs about romantic relationships. Manuscript in preparation.

Fry, R. & Cohn, D. (2010). Women, Men and the New Economics of Marriage. Pew Research Center,

Sarma, M., & Clerkin, C. (2013). The Mr. Right Ms.conception, Poster presentation, Association of Psychological Science, Washington DC.

Rogers, S. J., & DeBoer, D. D. (2001). Changes in wives' income: Effects on marital happiness, psychological well-being, and the risk of divorce. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(2), 458-472.