NEW YORK -- Why can't a woman be more like a man? Henry Higgins famously asked 50 years ago in the Broadway debut of Lerner and Loewe's smash musical My Fair Lady.
The words were hardly out of his mouth before women barged into bastions traditionally reserved for men, from the firehouse to the clubhouse to the International Space Station. Even Barbie became an astronaut.
While it may seem like women are doing just about everything once exclusive to men, Scottish researchers believe they have discovered a new area where women, particularly those who are financially independent, are just beginning to mimic men: choosing looks over lucre when shopping for a mate.
"We know that we are becoming more equal in the workplace and the economy. We now know that this ability of women to provide for themselves is causing them to change their mate preferences. Our preferences are becoming more like male preferences," said Fhionna Moore, who led the study at the School of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Conducted online, the study examined the responses of 1,851 heterosexual women, ages 18 to 35, who were single, in relationships or married. Most of the participants were from the U.K., elsewhere in Europe and the U.S.
The study, "The effects of female control of resources on sex-differentiated mate preferences," appears this month in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. The title may not be catchy, but the findings and their implications turn the historical rules of sexual pursuit upside-down.
"Historically, if you go all the way back to the cavemen, just like the comedy routine, the man went out and got the meat and brought it back to the woman and the woman prepared it. So, historically, women looked to men to be providers, and men, historically, have been criticized as being immediately more struck by the physical appearance of a woman," said Daniel Howard, a consumer psychologist, professor and chairman of the marketing department at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business in Dallas.
While men chose women whose youth and beauty signaled health and fertility, women had to choose partners who would sustain them during the labor-intensive raising of children when women could not provide for themselves or their offspring, Moore pointed out.
For Allison Agliardo, it's less about role reversal and more about confidence. "I've just gotten more mature and confident in myself. Instead of asking what can I give someone else, it's saying, `Hey, what can he give me?'"
And, earning good salaries, she and many of her friends are not looking for men to support them. "Now, all of a sudden, I don't need that security because I've got it; I've got my own bank account," said Agliardo, 37, a civil engineer in New York.
And, she added, women have earned the ability to be more selective. "We want them [men] to look good, but they have to be a whole package," she said.
The other major finding in the study is that the more ambitious a woman is about career, financial independence and decision-making at home and at work, the more likely she will seek a younger mate.
Moore was surprised the study found no correlation between a woman's financial independence and her age preference in a mate.
However, some older, well-heeled women are taking a dog-eared page from the masculine dating manual: scouting for prospects who are attractive and younger, sometimes referred to as boy-toys.
Ivana Trump, businesswoman and famous ex-wife of Donald Trump, is one such woman. Asked about her reaction to the study findings, Trump said in an e-mail, "I love it - life, love and a woman's salary are catching up to me!" The 50-something Trump has been dating the 30-something Rossano Rubicondi, an Italian actor and dancer, with whom she recently opened a restaurant on the French Riviera.
"I don't need a man to support me. ... I come to a relationship with a lot of assets - most importantly, I come with a zest for life. And, for that, you need a young man," Trump wrote.
In fact, finding the right match for a beautiful, wealthy 40-year-old woman from a stable of six, handsome 20-something men formed the premise of Ivana Young Man, Trump's recent two-hour reality cable show on the Oxygen network. Trump's signature line on the show: "It's better to be a babysitter than a nurse."
"The boy-toy thing is really about women who are very powerful and older," said John Gray, a psychologist and author of several books on relationships, most famously the 1993 bestseller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. While older males tend to resist a woman's power, "a younger man who has not formed an identity for himself ... is much more willing to yield in her direction," he said.
Beauty and youth are notoriously poor criteria on which to base a marriage, said SMU's Howard.
"I have a hard time imagining in the long run that this is going to be a significant lifestyle choice for a woman. Why? Because of the experiences of men: It's mostly pain," he said.
Moore hastened to point out that although she was specifically interested in studying the impact of attractiveness and wealth, those were hardly the traits women found most desirable in a mate.
"What always comes out on top with women, and sometimes with men, is kindness and things like dependable character," she said. "We're not completely shallow."
Lisa Anderson writes for the Chicago Tribune.