Q: I’m a 32-year-old woman with a really intense job that I love. I work long hours every week, and I often work weekends, too—by choice. I don’t want kids, but I’d love to have a relationship. I just worry that guys will want more of me timewise and energywise than I can give—which is basically some nights (into mornings) during the week and on weekends—and will feel neglected and resentful.—Work First
A: Understandably, not everyone is into the sort of relationship where a sleepover entails setting up a yurt inside their partner’s office.
Like you, I’m pretty fiercely “work first.” Because of that, I don’t cook; I heat. I’m annoyed by my body’s demands for sleep. Every night! And my home seems less like a home than … well, as my boyfriend said—stepping over the endocrinology research papers and corresponding Post-its laid out all over my bathroom floor: “It looks like an academic crime scene.”
You and I are actually somewhat unusual as women who see a “healthy career-life balance” as a threatening crimp in the work that means so much to us. In fact, it turns out that there are some pretty strong sex differences in ambition. This isn’t to say that women aren’t ambitious. Plenty of women are; it’s just that women, in general, more often want “normal” lives—with, say, a job they enjoy but go home from before the owls start pouring each other nightcaps.
There’s a great deal of research that reflects this. In a 2015 study, economists Ghazala Azmat and Rosa Ferrer surveyed young lawyers on their level of ambition: “When asked to rate, on a scale from 1 to 10, their aspirations to become an equity partner in their firm, 60 percent of male lawyers answered with 8 or more, compared to only 32 percent of female lawyers.”
However, there’s an assumption that women should want to join the cutthroat race to the corner office. Psychologist Susan Pinker criticizes this as the “male standard” being forced on women. In her 2008 book, The Sexual Paradox, Pinker points to countless studies that find that women tend to be more motivated by “intrinsic rewards”—wanting to be happy more than they want to be on top. As an example, she profiles “Donna,” who quit her prestigious job as a tenured professor in a computer science department for a lower-status job that allowed her more one-on-one engagement with people. Pinker explains, “Donna decided to opt for what was meaningful for her over status and money.”
Like you, I don’t want kids. However, Pinker notes that there’s “plenty of evidence that many more women than men”—including women at the top of their game—put family before career advancement. She tracked down “Elaine,” the author of an op-ed titled “My glass ceiling is self-imposed,” about why she’d declined a promotion that would have put her third from the top in a large, international company.
The president of the company was dumbfounded. But Elaine wrote that she was happily married, with children (and grandparents nearby). The promotion would have required relocating, and that would have destabilized her family. She concluded her piece with the observation that “many companies … would like nothing more than to have more senior female executives, but not all females are willing to give up what it might take to get there.”
These sex differences in ambition make evolutionary sense. Because women evolved to prioritize finding high-status “providers,” mate-seeking men evolved to duke it out to occupy the spot of Ye Olde Big Man On Campus. Sure, these days, mover-and-shaker men typically seek women on a par with them in intellect and education. However, men are still vastly more likely than women to date the hot barista—probably because, over evolutionary history, men evolved to prioritize signs of health and fertility in women.
Getting back to you, though guys are likely to be surprised that a woman would be so job-obsessed, there are those who’ll be good with the limited amount of girlfriendhood you have to provide. Zeroing in on them just takes disclosure—on your online dating profile and when you go on dates. Giving clear forewarning is the right thing to do for anyone with any unusual or obsessive pursuit—whether it’s a sex fetish, spending all of one’s time and disposable income tracking Sasquatch or building a nuclear reactor in the basement. As for you, sure, you do eventually see yourself leaving the office—but probably in a vintage Japanese cloisonne urn.