It’s a common notion in some circles on both the left (feminists) and right (borderline or full misogynists) that successful women paint themselves into a corner when they become successful and demand an equally or more successful man or otherwise are spurned by less successful men who feel threatened. There is also the notion that since women have excelled in the workplace, assortive mating has become a deeper problem since male lawyers are now marrying other lawyers instead of their secretaries and doctors are marrying female doctors rather than nurses. I’m not going to get into the veracity of either of these notions except to say that there is some truth to it but the picture is actually a lot more complicated in the longer and deeper views.
I say this as a segue to a couple comments that I’ve been making recently that SFG has picked up on and asked me to elaborate on. While it’s true that people very frequently marry into their level of success and that if there is a difference it’s usually the man that is more successful, the notion that doctors marry doctors (or lawyers or others of similar success) doesn’t mesh with the reality that I’ve seen on the outside looking in to my wife’s medical profession. The male doctors I’ve come to know generally seem to partner up with future homemakers. More interesting to SFG is that female doctors seem more inclined to marry engineering and computer types than fellow doctors or otherwise “alpha males” (unless one uses the term circularly to define anyone that lands a doctor). Male doctors seem to marry cheerleaders, female doctors seem to marry nerds.
The careers of my wife’s female colleagues go as follows: IT grunt (me), engineer, engineer, IT grunt, engineer, low-wage service worker, grad student (major unknown), IT-something, military man (rank unknown), cowboy, IT-something. There are a couple that haven’t met their partner yet and others I don’t really know about, but of the female docs that have a partner that I know about, 7 of the 11 are or were either in an engineering or IT career or some sort and none were doctors.
I should add a disclaimer here in that my wife is in a particular field that is likely not representative of the medical profession as a whole. Family practitioners on the whole tend to be less money-oriented, more politically liberal, and more family-oriented than say surgeons for instance. That may skew the results a little, but it seems to be a pattern wherever we go. There are also other things that lead me to believe that doctors frequently (if not always) favor nerd-types.
To explore this, I think it might be best to go back all the way to medical school. One interesting observation that Clancy shared with me shortly after we first met was that in her medical school class, about two-thirds or three-quarters of her male classmates were married, engaged, or in a serious relationship likely headed in that direction. The same was only true of about a third of her female classmates. There is a certain contingent of woman that flocks to (or is extremely receptive towards) a man with the intelligence, discipline, and earning potential of a doctor. To the extent that there is a contingent of men that do the same, it’s much smaller. So to support the first notion above, being successful helps men a lot more than it does women securing a mate.
So we can pretty safely assume that female doctors have fewer options than their male counterparts. There are a lot of reasons for this. Being a doctor has a mystique all its own to the point that there is a generational custom that they are the picks of the litter. Women haven’t been doctors for nearly long enough to have that sort of reputation and there are other social obstacles to prevent that from being true even if it were so. More often than not, above a certain income line (a line that doctors are certainly above) the male is the primary earner and if there are children involved it will be women that either leave the workforce or take a career-progression hit by needing to bow out for extended periods and work fewer hours to take care of the children. So a woman’s earning power is on the whole less advantageous than a man’s.
One of the things that I’ve learned is that it can be quite frequently harmful to one’s career to be married to a doctor in particular. My case may be unusually so because I’ve had to move twice in the last three years and three times in the last six. But it’s often true even without our particular circumstances. You have to pick up and move to the location of her residency. Then you have to move again to wherever you’re going to practice. The places that you’re moving to are not necessarily places that are going to help your career. If you have children during this time, you will have to be the one to take time off work to pick up the slack that she can’t because she’s so frequently working or sleeping. Three of the above-mentioned 11 have children and two of those three (both engineers) became stay-at-home fathers for their young children while their wives were residents and only one wife of a male resident worked (part time, and their marriage did not survive the residency).
Another factor to consider here is that female doctors are smart. They not unreasonably want a man that is also smart. So what they need is a man that is simultaneously smart but without the ambitions that smart people often have. This is not a significant portion of the male population. It does, however, describe a lot of nerds.
In the IT sector, other than software developers it seems to be a career that people stumble into more than anything. That’s true of my generation at least. We were introduced to computers, liked them, then eventually realized that there was money to be made there. Nerds are notoriously inflexible in some things, but when it comes to their careers I think that they are more flexible than most. The job isn’t something that energizes us so much as it is something to do to make the money to buy the toys that do energize us or in the alternative allow for us to take care of our families. If computer nerds don’t have to worry about making a whole lot of money, we can satisfy achievement-hunger and purpose-thirst working on our set-ups at home, writing our own software, designing our own websites, and so on.
Engineers are a bit tougher to figure out, though, because they spent a lot more time and energy getting their qualifications than most computer people did. I think it’s the case there, too, that a lot of them went into engineering primarily for the paycheck rather than to take the world by storm as a captain of industry or whatnot. Those that want to advance seem to often want to do so for primarily financial reasons rather than the raw ambition of making a difference. Maybe if you worked for NASA in the 1960’s or are today are an environmental engineer on a crusade, but I think it’s often the case that they found that the tasks of the job fit their strengths and it was a good paycheck. Further, engineers are generally practical individuals and marrying a doctor is often a practical thing to do!
And on the subject of practicality, engineering and IT work are (in my experience) tend to be full of people that are, if not liberal, pretty open-minded and somewhat socially open-minded or sometimes even progressive (at least prior to having children). They’re probably less likely than most to be bothered by the idea of being out-earned by their spouse. They’re less likely to be competitive about it. IT people in particular often veer towards passivity (remember that they did sort of stumble into their career much of the time). Some respond by insecure and defensive, but a lot don’t.
It seems that most other careers I can think of don’t meet one of the important above characteristics. Professors may be open-minded, but they’re ambitious in their own way and their job isn’t portable. Business majors are more likely to ambitious and are much more frequently competitive. Lawyers as a class are not well-regarded by doctors, so that’s a problem all its own, but you usually have the ambition problem in addition to that. With blue collar work there is frequently an intelligence gap or a lack of social progressiveness. Teachers are probably often a good fit (my personal experience in Southern Tech University’s College of Education notwithstanding), though you do have issues varying from transportability (if you’re trying to take your license across state lines) to political conflict (teachers frequently believe that medical care should be as free as education and doctors fear that free medical care will be as good as our free education system).
There is also one last thing that SFG himself touches on, which is the idea that it’s frequently the case that female doctors are former nerds themselves. I’m not entirely sure because I don’t know what my wife’s female colleagues were like when they were younger. I should point out that Clancy herself is the daughter of an engineering economist and herself went to college with the intention of becoming an engineer. Part of the problem here is that there really isn’t much of a stereotype of a female nerd to draw from. They are almost by definition inordinately book-smart. Maybe I need to start finding out what their fathers did in addition to what their husbands do since most female nerds are the product of nerdy fathers.