How the Ascendancy of the Alpha Female Will Impact Marriage

February 1, 2013

It’s pretty clear that the ascendancy of  the alpha female comes at the direct expense of males. When women flooded the workforce, the number of jobs did not magically increase to accomodate us. We displaced men. Regardless of how you feel about women’s rights, they changed society’s landscape dramatically and those repercussions are strongly felt today, including in the area of mating.

Look at these graphs recently published in The Atlantic:




Those numbers will continue to climb. These estimates are very much in line with my own observation that one-third of today’s female college graduates will not have the opportunity to marry a man of similar education. 

(Fun fact: Portland is in green because it is thought to explain the reason that Schlubby Jacob (the author’s characterization, not mine), from a recent post on online dating, has any options at all.)

In 1983, Marcia Guttentag and Robert Secord posited the theory that in female-heavy populations, men would become more promiscuous, and that in male-heavy populations, they’d become more faithful. Much of their thinking seemed to be confirmed in an analysis of 117 countries by Scott South and Katherine Trent. The pair found that, in developed countries, having a higher ratio of men led to more marriage for women, less divorce, and fewer illegitimate children. Other studies have had similar findings across cultures and time.

In the contemporary U.S., academics have found that female college students are less likely to have a boyfriend or go on traditional dates, and are more likely to have bad feelings about the men on campus, at schools that enroll disproportionate number of women.

What we do not know is whether significant numbers of women will marry men with less formal education than themselves. 

The 2001 study Education, Hypergamy and the “Success Gap” tests this claim by Maureen Dowd:

“Women moving up still strive to marry up. Men moving up still tend to marry down. The two sexes’ going in opposite directions has led to an epidemic of professional women missing out on husbands and kids.”

From the study’s introduction: 

In general, hypergamy with respect to say, income or social status is a common finding across societies and over time. For instance, anthropologist Barbara Miller (1981) studied areas of rural north India and found that strong pressures for hypergamy implied a lack of suitable husbands for high caste girls. This created a disequilibrium that wasresolved through female infanticide. In another context, the Talmud (a set of ancient writings outlining Jewish laws and practices) advises men to “go down a step to take a wife,” (Yevamot 63a) , and states that “a woman from a more distinguished family than her husband may consider herself superior and act haughtily toward him” (Rashi). 

Mare (1991) and Pencavel (1998) find that there has been an increase in positive assortative mating with respect to education; i.e., spouses’ education has become increasingly similar. Schwartz and Mare (2005) study marriages among younger couples and report a decline in hypergamy over time in this age group.

If hypergamy remains constant, a greater concentration of women at the top and men at the bottom of the education distribution will lead to a decline in marriage rates for these two groups.

Using census data, the study found that hypergamy has decreased over time for women with more education:

The results for men are consistent with this prediction; however, those for women are not. In fact, the data suggest that for women, education was substantially less of an impediment for marriage in 2000 than in 1980. The marriage market accommodated the shift in part through a decline in hypergamy at the upper end of the education distribution.


Net Hypergamy (all)11.310.73.5
Net Hypergamy (Ed. <12)
Net Hypergamy (Ed. > 12)4.5-4.1-18.6


However, while the marriage rate for women peaks at four years of college, it begins to decline after that point. 

Years Education

Women 40-44

Ever Married



If we do witness a sharp increase in hypogamy, or women “marrying down,” what is the likely effect on marital relationships? A very recent study, Gender identity and relative income within households produced four key findings, quoted here:

1. Within marriage markets, when a randomly chosen woman becomes more likely to earn more than a randomly chosen man, marriage rates decline. 

Across all census years and marriage markets, the likelihood that a randomly chosen woman earns more than a randomly chosen man is about 0.25 (using either measure of income). This likelihood has increased steadily over time, going from 11-14% in 1970 to about 31-32% in 2010. 

[Our] results highlight the importance of relative income considerations for marriage formation. The secular increase in the aggregate likelihood that a woman earns more than a man from 1970 to 2010 can explain up to 29 percent of the decline in the rates of marriage during that period.

2. Within couples, if the wife’s potential income (based on her demographics) is likely to exceed the husband’s, the wife is less likely to be in the labor force and earns less than her potential if she does work. 

Having the wife leave the labor force is a very costly way to restore traditional gender roles. It is less costly for the wife to simply reduce her earnings to a level that does not threaten the husband’s status as the primary breadwinner. [We found] evidence for such behavior.

3. Couples where wife earns more than the husband are less satis ed with their marriage and are more likely to divorce.

We fi nd that if the wife earns more than the husband, both spouses are 6 percentage points (12%) less likely to report that their marriage is very happy, 8 percentage points (33%) more likely to report marital troubles in the past year and 6 percentage points (46%) more likely to have discussed separating in the past year.

4. The gender gap in non-market work is larger if the wife earns more than the husband.

Our analysis of the time use data suggests that gender identity considerations may lead to women that might appear threatening to their husbands because they earn more than they do to engage in a larger share of home production activities, particularly household chores.

Across all census years and marriage markets, the likelihood that a randomly chosen woman earns more than a randomly chosen man is about 0.25 (using either measure of income). This likelihood has increased steadily over time, going from 11-14% in 1970 to about 31-32% in 2010.

The bottom line: Even if you are willing to marry a man with less education than yourself, you should choose a man who outearns you. The male instinct for dominance in provisioning is strong and has not been affected by shifting gender roles. 

If you are determined not to be in that one-third of hypogamous marriages, and wish to marry someone of similar or higher education, your best strategy is to focus on dating for marriage as soon as possible after college. If you do decide to go to graduate or professional school, you should select a program with a good sex ratio. 

If you hope to stay home with children, then you must marry a good breadwinner.