November 30, 2010
By KATRIN BENNHOLD
PARIS — Remember “Sex and the City,” when Miranda goes speed-dating? She wastes her eight-minute pitch three times by giving away that she is a corporate lawyer. The fourth time she says she is a stewardess and gets asked out by a doctor.
What made the episode poignant was not just that Miranda lied about her success, but that her date did, too: it turned out he worked in a shoe store.
Is female empowerment killing romance?
Sexual attraction in the 21st century, it seems, still feeds on 20th-century stereotypes. Now, as more women match or overtake men in education and the labor market, they are also turning traditional gender roles on their head, with some profound consequences for relationship dynamics.
There is a growing army of successful women in their 30s who have trouble finding a mate and have been immortalized in S.A.T.C. and the Bridget Jones novels. There are the alpha-women who end up with alpha-men but then decide to put career second when the babies come. But there is also a third group: a small but growing number of women who out-earn their partners, giving rise to an assortment of behavioral contortions aimed at keeping the appearance of traditional gender roles intact.
Anne-Laure Kiechel is an investment banker in Paris who makes more than five times more than her boyfriend, a communications consultant. She keeps watch on their finances and pays for all big invisible expenses, like vacations.
But in public, it is he who insists on pulling out his credit card to avoid, he said, looking like a “gigolo.”
“It makes me laugh,” Ms. Kiechel said. “But if it pleases him, that’s fine.” (Not long ago, he asked her to book hotels in his name because he doesn’t like being referred to as “Mr. Kiechel” upon arrival; future bookings would be made in both names, she said.)
Timothy Eustis, once a teacher in New York City, is a proud stay-at-home dad and occasional wine consultant, who moved to France with his wife, Sarah, when she was offered a senior management post at the French lingerie brand Etam. Neither has a problem that she is the breadwinner and her salary aliments the joint account. But both cherish what he calls “those little traditions” to keep the romantic spark alive.
“I make an effort to hold the door, I almost always drive the car, and when it’s time to pay the bill, I pay the bill,” he said. “Sarah probably intentionally lets me do these things because she thinks it benefits the relationship.”
Some men have more fundamental issues. One 38-year-old Italian manager complained that her boyfriend suggested she change jobs because he no longer felt able to “seduce her” after her salary rose above his. A French management consultant said her husband, a teacher, stopped coming to parties with her because he felt inadequate every time anyone asked him what he did. A German banker said one reason her ex-husband left her for a physiotherapist was “because she would have more time for him.”
“It is amazing how even many liberal-minded men end up having sexual and emotional difficulties being with more obviously successful women,” said Sasha Havlicek, the 35-year-old chief executive of a London research group. A high-flying friend of hers resorted to ritually feigning helplessness with her partner to promote his sense of masculinity. “The male ego can be a more fragile thing than the female ego, which is used to a regular battering and has hence developed a sense of humor!”
Anke Domscheit-Berg of Microsoft Germany, who has stories of past would-be boyfriends fleeing after seeing “director” (of communications) on her business card, put it this way: “Success is not sexy.”
Dating sites seem to suggest that highly educated women have more trouble finding a partner than women in more traditionally female jobs. “Care and social professions work well; the really educated profiles are more difficult,” said Gesine Haag, 43, who used to run match.com in Germany. An elite dating portal at the company, trying to match up highly educated men and women, was abandoned and refocused more broadly, said Ms. Haag, who now manages her own Internet marketing agency.
“Men don’t want successful women, men want to be admired,” she said. “It’s important to them that the woman is full of energy at night and not playing with her BlackBerry in bed.”
Bernard Prieur, a psychoanalyst and author of “Money in Couples,” says men who earn less than their partners struggle with two insecurities: “They feel socially and personally vulnerable. Socially, they go against millennia of beliefs and stereotypes that see them as the breadwinner. And the success of their partner also often gives them a feeling of personal failure,” Mr. Prieur said in the November issue of the French magazine Marie-Claire.
So are ambitious women condemned to singledom? Or are things changing as the number of female high achievers inches higher?
Ms. Kiechel in Paris says her boyfriend actively encourages her career and brags to friends how intelligent and hard-working she is. Ms. Haag and Ms. Domscheit-Berg both earn more than their husbands and report that their men actually enjoy watching the waiter’s reaction when they say their wife will pick up the tab.
Ms. Domscheit-Berg, who is also active in the European Women’s Management Development International Network, has three bits of advice for well-paid women: Leave the snazzy company car at home on the first date; find your life partner in your 20s, rather than your 30s, before you’ve become too successful. And go after men who draw their confidence from sources other than money, like academics and artists.
“The more different their activity from your own, the better,” said Ms. Domscheit-Berg, “because that makes an immediate comparison harder.”
Indeed, in S.A.T.C., Miranda, the lawyer, eventually finds happiness with Steve, a waiter-turned-stay-at-home dad who doesn’t mind her success one bit.