Let’s get this out of the way: I’m an author, an editor, and a person with a lot of bucket-list goals. This is allegedly attractive to the men I’ve dated — progressive, liberal guys who are proud to have been raised by badass working moms. Until it isn’t. At some point, it seems, they subconsciously interpret my drive as a threat, not an asset.
For example, last winter, I matched with a tech entrepreneur on Hinge. He mentioned he recently sold his company. I complimented his work, which seemed impressive, and asked a question about it. “Did I see you wrote a book?” he asked. (My profile lists my job title as “author.”) I replied, “I’ve written a few.” His response: “Wow, you didn’t have to flex on me that hard ;)” It wasn’t a flex — just a fact.
He asked me out. We met on FaceTime first. He told me my vibe was “presidential” and that I was “very well-spoken” and “like, an adult” (he was 32 to my 27). But the way he said it, those didn’t sound like compliments. Still, I agreed to a second date: dinner outdoors at a bistro in Chelsea. Our banter over everything from politics to pop culture to style was fine enough. But he really lit up when I stood up to use the restroom — that’s when he made an enthusiastic comment about how I looked in my leather pants. I only wished he could summon that same level of enthusiasm for anything I had actually said. He was obviously ambitious, successful, and opinionated, but it seemed as if he didn’t want to see any of those same qualities in me. We never went out again.
The tech entrepreneur wasn’t the only person I ran into this issue with. When I sold my first book, the guy I’d been seeing for two months showered me with Champagne and roses then constantly teased me about how old I’d be when it hit the shelves — 25, the age he pinpointed as “when women start to get less hot.” (I wish I had been wise enough to walk away at that point, but we dated for three more months.) Another date questioned if I could balance work and a relationship. Someone else detailed why it wasn’t worth his time to write a book, never bothering to ask me anything about the actual books I’ve written. Countless others have put me down for not writing anything “more serious,” as if my work were sillier than theirs. They’re all variations on the same theme, fear that my achievements and goals take away from theirs.
I believe most of these men have good intentions and don’t know how they’re coming across. They seem genuinely attracted to ambitious women’s passion, energy, drive, competitive spirit, and intellect. Ask any of them, and I bet they’d tell you they want an equal partner, a wife who works, a woman who can hold her own financially.
But all that’s easy to say and harder to live with. In my experience, that ambitious spark is alluring only up to a point, then it can make men feel insecure — as if there’s only room for one ambitious person in a relationship, and traditional gender roles dictate it has to be them.
There’s a big difference between how a person might conceptualize gender roles in theory and how they play out in practice. Even the “good guys” may think they’re okay with breadwinning partners — proudly posting pictures on Instagram from the Women’s March or tweeting about their crushes on Shiv from Succession — but when it comes to the state of their actual marriages, research doesn’t bear this out. A 2020 study published in the American Economic Journal found that women who earn less than their husbands are five times likelier to get divorced if their career suddenly takes off compared to men who suddenly become their household’s breadwinners — and this research was conducted in Sweden, one of the most gender-egalitarian countries in the world.
In this far less egalitarian country, high-achieving women can be found pretty much anywhere you look. Women make up just under 60 percent of all U.S. college students, a record high. In 2019, the Harvard Business Review found women outperform men when it comes to demonstrating a range of leadership skills; the same year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the number of women-owned businesses jumped by 21 percent, while businesses overall increased by just 9 percent.
Ambitious women should be prouder than ever of their accomplishments, which is why it’s so disheartening when they become turnoffs. One friend who works in publishing told me about a date who completely tuned out once she mentioned she owned her apartment. Another friend regularly finds her dates going quiet when they realize exactly how successful she is in the startup space. A third friend once lamented to me that seeing a kickass job title on a guy’s dating app profile makes her more intrigued, but she senses her own impressive journalism career doesn’t inspire that same kind of excitement.
I know, of course, that there are lots of men who love ambitious women. I’ve seen my friends find them, date them, marry them. I’ve dated them, too: A boyfriend threw me a surprise party to celebrate the launch of my first book; someone else I dated read my work and showed up to our third date with questions and compliments. But I don’t encounter that supportive attitude as often as I’d like. To me, there’s nothing sexier than a go-getter who’s confident in what they bring to the table — and it’s disappointing to repeatedly meet men who don’t seem to feel the same way.
Still, I’m not giving up on meeting the right person (I mean, hello, I write rom-coms). I didn’t make it this far in my career by quitting when things are tough, and I’m not going to do that in my personal life, either. As far as I can tell, the tech entrepreneur is single these days, too. I see him on Hinge every once in a while — and then I swipe left.
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