she's the boss

Are Men Actually Intimidated by Powerful Women?

I have an ongoing debate with several of my friends about whether men are actually intimidated by successful, assertive women. For a long time, I believed this type of intimidation was, at best, a romantic-comedy myth invented to make flawless type-A women seem like victims. (See: J.Lo in The Wedding Planner.) Or maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, like how I never feel bad about my beach body until I am instructed to think about my beach body. At my most skeptical, I’ve wondered whether “he’s intimidated by you” is the female equivalent of “you’re in her friendzone,” a ego-coddling excuse for romantic failure that deflects blame from the brokenhearted. After all, I know so many women who are the “alpha” in their relationships, and so many men who find female power sexy. The sexiest music video this summer was Rihanna violently humiliating a couple who owed her money. GQ once said the “hottest woman of the century” was the same one who wrote “Bow Down [Bitches].” Female power is hot. The boss ladies I know get everything they want, including men.

And yet, last week, when Drake wanted to attack Meek Mill, the most stinging insult he (or his ghostwriters) could come up with amounted to “your girlfriend is more successful than you are, which means you are an emasculated wimp.” And this is Drake, the man who writes odes to women who make him proud. Drake, who celebrates women who “sound so smart like you graduated college.” Certainly there is more backstory here. But if Drake, the so-called male-feminist rapper, adheres to the belief that female success emasculates the men closest to it, what hope is there for anyone else?

When I started asking the men I knew, I found no shortage who professed to be actively attracted to female power. Multiple men told me about powerful women they’re sexually obsessed with. “She wasn’t that hot, physically,” one man recalled of a higher-ranking woman he once worked with, “but something about the way she talked and acted, and how confident she was, just made her hot.” One day, he and another man were discussing how sexy this woman was, just as she walked up from behind them and brushed by. She gave no sign of whether she’d overheard them — but the notion that she might have known how hot they thought she was and ignored them anyway only made her seem hotter.

No men were willing to admit to avoiding powerful women in their love lives. Then again, I guess I wouldn’t expect them to: Who admits to feeling emasculated? Tellingly, though, while every man I asked claimed he himself was cool with powerful women, each also said that other men aren’t. Hence the Drake conundrum: He’s cool with powerful women, but he assumes he’s the exception.

“You’re not trained, as a man, to be thought of as ‘second fiddle’ in a relationship and dudes are very self-conscious about their own success, in a vacuum,” one man theorized. “So often times, it’s like, well, if I’m not peak successful, at least I’m successful-ish to someone, as in, the woman that I’m with. I guess it’s just intuitive to me. Women aren’t considered men’s equals in society. Why would it be different in dating?”

Men, in general, do seem to be intimidated by female power in the workplace. Female bosses make men feel threatened and emasculated, and feeling emasculated makes them more likely to become sexual harassers. (The toxicity of the male ego really never ends.) But does that intimidation carry over to dating? When I looked to social science for an answer, the conclusion seemed to be that men weren’t romantically intimidated by success so much as, well, indifferent to it. (Is that more or less depressing?) “Too good for him” isn’t actually a problem — until population-wide trends come into play. If powerful women only want to date men they consider equally powerful, but men don’t consider status when choosing mates, then the powerful women will eventually run across a deficit of powerful men. All of which feels horribly old-fashioned to me — are women really as superficial about male success as we’ve long been told men are about looks? As recently as 2008, researchers found that people of both genders pay more attention to “high-status men,” but no such attraction exists for women, who mostly capture attention with their looks. Whether this gap translates into dating decisions, however, is unclear: A Canadian study conducted in 2009 found that, though everyone had the same understanding of what made a person “high rank” or “low rank” in hypothetical social and workplace settings, those ranks had “very little effect” on whom members of either gender chose to date.

Still, those studies deal in hypotheticals. When it comes to my actual social circle, one friend suggested that my ability to deny the male intimidation quotient probably means I’m living in a self-selected pro-woman bubble. “I think some of that might be New York,” a successful woman who routinely dates men a decade younger than she is said. “Everyone is a careerist here. Ambition is never a problem.”

“I mean, look at me, slinging Swedish hotties that are way out of my league, attractive-wise, because they want a job,” another workaholic woman laughed. Maybe some men are intimidated — but who cares how they feel? She gets the sex she wants, and when she’s in the mood for a boyfriend, she’ll get one of those, too.

“Maybe this is like The Secret, and by denying the phenomenon I can will it out of existence,” I said to a man who adamantly believed men fear female power.

“I think you thinking it’s a myth is how myths like this continue to work in men’s favor,” he replied. “Men change when they’re shamed. It’s pretty much the only way.”

So, men, consider this your notice: If you think dating a successful woman is scary, you are a coward and should be ashamed. If you think another man’s relationship with a more-successful woman is a sign of his weakness, that is your shameful weakness. If you find female bosses threatening to your manhood, then you are threatening my entire gender with your outdated understanding of masculinity. And should be ashamed.

But, really, who cares what men think? Let us take a page from Nicki Minaj’s playbook: While the boys take turns emasculating each other, she has mostly stayed out of this pissing match. She’s too busy being a boss.

Are Men Actually Intimidated by Powerful Women?