You might wonder whether men and women find different mates attractive. The answer is yes, although as in most cases with gender differences, the differences are outweighed by overall similarities. Overall, both men and women value physical attractiveness, as well as certain personality characteristics, such as kindness, humor, dependability, intelligence, and sociability; this is true across many different cultures (Berry, 2000; Li, Bailey, Kenrick, & Linsenmeier, 2002). For men, however, the physical attractiveness of women is most important; women, although also interested in the attractiveness of men, are relatively more interested in the social status of a potential partner. When they are forced to choose one or the other, women from many different cultures have been found to more often prioritize a man’s status over his physical attractiveness, whereas men tend to prioritize a woman’s attractiveness over her status (Li, Bailey, Kenrick, & Linsenmeier, 2002).
The differences between the preferences of men and women for opposite-sex romantic partners have been demonstrated in archival research that has analyzed the ads placed in the classifieds of newspapers and online profiles. The personal ads that men place when they are searching for women tend to focus on the preferred physical appearance of the desired partner. Personal ads placed by women seeking men, on the other hand, are more likely to specify the preferred partner’s status and material resources (Harrison & Saeed, 1977; Wiederman, 1993). Furthermore, women actually respond more to men who advertise their (high) income and educational levels, whereas men are less interested in this information in women’s ads (Baize & Schroeder, 1995). These findings seem to be due to universal preferences of men and women, because similar patterns have been found across cultures, and also in ads seeking same-sex partners (Buss, 1989).
Age also matters, such that the preference for youthful partners is more important for men than for women. Women have been found to be more likely to respond to personal ads placed by relatively older men, whereas men tend to respond to ads placed by younger women—men of all ages (even teenagers) are most attracted to women who are in their 20s. Younger people (and particularly younger women) are more fertile than older people, and research suggests that men may thus be evolutionarily predisposed to like them more (Buunk, Dijkstra, Kenrick, & Warntjes, 2001; Dunn, Brinton, & Clark, 2010; Kenrick & Li, 2000).
Another research finding consistent with the idea that men are looking for cues to fertility in their partners is that across many cultures, men have a preference for women with a low waist-to-hip ratio (i.e., large hips and a small waist), a shape that is likely to indicate fertility. On the other hand, women prefer men with a more masculine-appearing waist-to-hip ratio (similar waist and hip size; Singh, 1995; Swami, 2006). Recent research, however, has suggested that these preferences, too, may be in part due to a preference for averageness, rather than to a specific preference for a particular waist-to-hip ratio (Donohoe, von Hippel, & Brooks, 2009).
Men across a wide range of cultures are more willing, on average, to have casual sex than are women, and their standards for sex partners tend to be lower (Petersen & Hyde, 2010; Saad, Eba, & Sejan, 2009). And when asked about their regrets in life, men are more likely to wish they had had sex with more partners, whereas women more often than men wished they had tried harder to avoid getting involved with men who did not stay with them (Roese et al., 2006). These differences may be influenced by differential evolutionary-based predispositions of men and women. Evolutionary arguments suggest that women should be more selective than men in their choices of sex partners because they must invest more time in bearing and nurturing their children than do men (most men do help out, of course, but women simply do more; Buss & Kenrick, 1998). Because they do not need to invest a lot of time in child rearing, men may be evolutionarily predisposed to be more willing and desiring of having sex with many different partners and may be less selective in their choice of mates. Women on the other hand, because they must invest substantial effort in raising each child, should be more selective.
But gender differences in mate preferences may also be accounted for in terms of social norms and expectations. Overall, on average, across the world as a whole, women still tend to have lower status than men, and as a result, they may find it important to attempt to raise their status by marrying men who have more of it. Men who, on average, already have higher status may be less concerned in this regard, allowing them to focus relatively more on physical attractiveness. Consistent with these arguments, some studies show that women’s preference for men of high status, rather than for physically attractive men, is greatest in cultures in which women are less well educated, poorer, and have less control over conception and family size (Petersen & Hyde, 2010).