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Wednesday, March 31, 2004 - Page updated at 12:03 A.M.

Study: Success won't spoil women's marriage prospects

By Sharon Pian Chan
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Contrary to popular belief, highly educated women are now more likely to marry than they were in 1980, says an economist at the University of Washington.

Elaina Rose, an associate professor, came to that conclusion after a three-year study of U.S. census data. And she thinks the trend is due to fewer women marrying up, meaning they are less likely to choose better-educated mates.

Rose expects to present the results of her study at an economic demography workshop at the Population Association of America conference in Boston today.

"I would have expected more successful women not being married," she said. "But that is not the case. It's the perception, not the case."

Funded by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Rose examined marriage data from 1980, 1990 and 2000 for men and women ages 40 to 44.

"There was certainly this perception that educated, successful women are not getting married because their success was working at a disadvantage to them in the marriage market, and that men were not being accepting of successful women as marriage partners," she said. "So I thought, wait, we can actually look at this, we can actually put this to the data."

She did find that a woman who pursues more education after high school is less likely to get married.

"I call that the success gap. The more likely she is to get an education, the less likely she is to marry," Rose said.

But her likelihood of marriage is improving. While the gap persisted from 1980 to 2000, it narrowed. In 1980, a woman with three years of graduate school was 13.5 percentage points less likely to be married than a woman with only a high-school diploma. By 2000, that gap shrank to less than 5 percentage points.

Because the number of well-educated women has gone up, she said, "We might think it would be worse for successful women. That certainly has been the idea promoted in the media lately."

Rose points to the hoopla in 2002 when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asserted that men don't like to date successful women, and to a book published the same year by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children." The book professes that the more successful the woman, the less likely it is that she'll marry or have children.

The popular myth that accomplished women are destined to remain single has persisted since Newsweek erroneously reported in 1986 that a 40-year-old woman was more likely to die by a terrorist's hand than to take a man's hand in marriage.

"From time to time, people have raised alarms about the possible fate for highly educated women," said Robert Mare, a professor of sociology at University of California, Los Angeles. "Most serious demographers have been very skeptical of this all the way along."

Rose believes that several factors have narrowed the success gap in marriage. Traditionally, she said, women have chosen husbands with more earning power. There's even a name for this concept: hypergamy.

"If we think of the old-fashioned 'Leave It to Beaver' marriage where the wife is staying home and taking care of the home, and the husband is going to work and bringing home the bacon, that's what economists called a specialized marriage" — a context in which it made sense for a woman to marry a man who could make more money, Rose says. But as women's incomes and education levels have risen, the specialized marriage has become less common, and hypergamy has declined.

Marriage is also declining across the population, regardless of education. Less-educated men have experienced the largest decline in marriage. "Practically everybody is less likely to be married. So (women are) finding that they're less likely to be married and (saying) it's because of my success," she says. "But they can't really blame it on their success, because it is not nearly hurting them as much as it used to."

Rose also studied the success gap in terms of motherhood — whether more highly educated women are having children now than before. She found that while that gap is shrinking, it is not shrinking as fast as the gap in marriage.

She hopes that younger women in particular will pay attention to her research.

"The message is not for the educated women but the young women who are contemplating their careers and education," Rose says. "And that is to not feel that having high aspirations for their careers is going to hinder their prospects in the marriage market, because it's a small difference at this point and it's probably getting smaller."

Rose, 43, also discovered her personal prospects for marriage weren't as bad as she thought they were. After being divorced for several years, she tried an online dating service.

"As the data were crunching away, literally, and I believed Maureen Dowd as well, I met the man of my dreams," she said. They got married last summer.

Rose, who has a doctoral degree in economics, said she has more education than her husband, based on the U.S. Census' measures.

"But the marriage is certainly hypergamous in a number of respects," she said.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com


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