Women, don't sell yourselves short


November 12, 2006|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

Meet the SWANS. Strong Women Achievers No Spouse.

The SWANS are powerful, driven women professionals who live in urban areas and have advanced degrees and high-status jobs. The trouble with SWANS is, they aren't married, and some are afraid they never will be.

SWANS have been added to the lexicon of demographic acronyms by Christine Whelan, one of their own.

She has an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a doctorate from Oxford University and is the author of a book.

She started writing the book after seeing wedding announcements in The New York Times for two guys she'd dumped and after being dumped herself by a guy who said he couldn't date her because she was "intellectually intimidating."

"I cried myself to sleep, terrified I'd be alone forever because no one wanted to date a dorky Ph.D."

In Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women (Simon & Schuster, $24), Whelan examines the common belief that smart, successful women are overqualified for marriage.

She found that in the '70s, '80s and '90s, successful women were indeed less likely to marry.

But, using 2005 census information and a national survey she commissioned - plus interviews with more than 100 men and women from nine cities - she concluded that the so-called "success penalty," the price women pay for being smarter or richer than most guys, is disappearing.

She found that successful, well-educated young women marry at the same rates as all other women - maybe just a little later - and that their income and their education may in fact make them more attractive.

The reason? Times have changed, even if our perceptions haven't. And SWANS are still buying into the old, bad news. Her book is full of the testimony of young women who hide or play down their degrees, their job titles or their salaries to keep guys from fleeing the room.

Some even confess to wearing crummy jewelry, for heaven's sake.

Who are these SWANS?

Whelan defines them as women with a graduate or professional (law or medicine) degree and income in the top 10 percent of women in their age group. That would be women ages 24 to 34 who earn $50,000 a year and women 35 to 40 who earn $60,000 a year, although geography might skew those salaries up or down.

Practically speaking, the pursuit of an advanced degree for a toehold in business or the professions is likely to delay the wedding.

But Whelan's reading of census data shows that SWANS in their early 30s are just as likely to walk down the aisle as their less accomplished sisters. And women in their late 30s are significantly more likely to marry.

The reason? Guys have changed.

Because their mothers probably worked outside the home, because their teachers or their professors or their pediatrician might have been a woman, their ideas of success and family include a working woman.

In addition, men are relieved to know they don't have to be the chief breadwinner. And they are looking for a partner - an equal - not household staff.

If there is a downside here, it is that SWANS are so busy working nights and weekends that they aren't - literally - available.

So it is all good news. Smart, accomplished women can and will marry if they wish. Their success is attractive to men and their paychecks are a bonus.

Swans, she writes, are also "strong, graceful birds who sail alone for more than a third of their lives, but when they mate, as most do, they generally do so for life."

How did we get here? To a place where smart, accomplished women need so much reassuring?

We can almost pinpoint the moment: June 1986. Newsweek magazine reported that college-educated women who are still single at 35 have only a 5 percent chance of getting married.

And then, in an unfortunate choice of hyperbole that has haunted the magazine since, Newsweek said that a college-educated 40-year-old woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married.

In the two decades since then, Whelan points out, social research has demonstrated a steady shift in the attitudes and patterns of marriage, but Newsweek's goofy terrorist analogy - which was nothing more than a reporter's offhand remark - has stuck in the consciousness of women like popcorn in molars.

This summer, Newsweek revisited the subject, explained and sort of apologized for its poor choice of words and reported the same sea change Whelan found: 90 percent of baby-boomer men and women either have married or will marry, a ratio that is in line with historical averages.

Likewise, Newsweek affirmed Whelan's finding that today, a college degree makes a woman more likely to marry, not less.

But at almost the same time this summer, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was making the rounds promoting her new book, Are Men Necessary?, in which she laments her single status and concludes that she'd have had a better shot at marriage if she had been a simple maid, like her Irish immigrant ancestors.

Dowd's whining stole the headlines, Whelan concludes, because the media love bad news. "No wonder that high-achieving women are depressed," she writes.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.