The image of the single, childless “career woman” is drawn so sharply in our minds, so deeply ingrained in culture and overused in media, it obfuscates the real story. Contrary to popular belief, most working women are not putting their careers ahead of love, marriage and motherhood.

Never mind that there are no “career men” — no one accuses a single, childless man of prioritizing career over love and family just because he’s single and can pay the rent. But women are made to wear this label — though I have yet to meet a woman...

The image of the single, childless “career woman” is drawn so sharply in our minds, so deeply ingrained in culture and overused in media, it obfuscates the real story. Contrary to popular belief, most working women are not putting their careers ahead of love, marriage and motherhood.

Never mind that there are no “career men” — no one accuses a single, childless man of prioritizing career over love and family just because he’s single and can pay the rent. But women are made to wear this label — though I have yet to meet a woman who has declined a date with a guy she’s interested in because she’d rather be on a Zoom call.

While college-educated women are settling down and having children later than was once the case, the “career woman” is mostly a mid-century myth, an outlier like Mad Men’s Peggy Olson, who belongs to a time when women went to college to earn their “MRS” degree. Young women who didn’t go to college, or didn’t find a husband at the fraternity mixer, were heralded in Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl and encouraged to take advantage of the thrills of youth and independence before the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood. But it wasn’t long before second-wave feminism informed young women that there was no need to move on from the carefree, childfree life. Marriage and motherhood were aspects of patriarchal oppression, they warned, designed to keep women tied to the home. And so single ladies kept careering on, epitomized by just about any female lead detective, attorney or doctor on television then and now.

Don’t get me wrong. When I grew up in the 1970s, getting a college degree was never in question. Neither was finding a career. But I expected to also find love and get married, and I yearned deeply to have children. In fact, there was nothing I wanted more. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique encouraged women to see having a career as additional to being anything she set her mind to, not an alternative.

Yet the feminist narrative still urges us to believe that the childless daughters of hundreds of generations of mothers don’t want to be mothers because they have jobs. The record increase in late-age first-births proves that most women do; they hope love will arrive in time or choose single motherhood when it doesn’t.

In the meantime, these women are not crying into their keyboards, or sitting idly, swiping left and right, wiping away tears. While there are moments of deep grief after a break-up or another birthday without a birth — I was there myself in my late thirties and forties — these women invest their wealth in the happiness they can control, not lament what they cannot.

These lessons begin in college. Young women witness firsthand the gender divide on campus, where on average 60 percent of undergraduates are women and 40 percent men. It’s the very scarcity of men on campus that is precisely why young women aim their career aspirations even higher, working even harder, besting the rate of men with degrees in just about every discipline but computer science, engineering and math.

A 2012 University of Minnesota study asked: “Does a scarcity of men lead women to choose briefcase over baby?” The researchers found that when women have few mating prospects on campus, they are more motivated to pursue ambitious, high-paying careers, knowing it may take more time to find a partner. In other words, women are not pursuing a career instead of pursuing love; they focus on creating wealth because men are scarce.

It doesn’t get easier. When there is a surplus of women to choose from, men no longer feel as much need to impress them and become less ambitious themselves. In other words, women’s higher-paying careers make it even more challenging for them to find a suitable mate.

“Most women are unwilling to settle for men who are less educated, less intelligent and less professionally successful than they are,” writes David Buss, psychology professor at UT Austin, in his 2016 essay, “The Mating Crisis Among Educated Women.” And the longer it takes for a woman to find a suitable mate, the less desirable she is to men who, as Buss says, “prioritize, for better or worse, other evolved criteria such as youth and appearance.”

Can women escape this paradox and find love? Richard V. Reeves, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters and What to Do About It, believes so. Women are not seeking “breadwinners” in male partners, he says. But they want men with a sense of purpose and direction. It’s not a man’s academic achievement or income a woman finds attractive; it’s that he can demonstrate that he has his shit together.

And where are these men of great potential? Reeves’s book is in part about the men who are being demonized simply for being men. If women want to see the tide begin to turn, Reeves’s advice to women is to stop the “toxic masculinity” talk and pathologizing men and celebrate what they appreciate about the other sex. Men don’t need to be “empowered” to become the men women want. They just need the opportunity to act like men seeking love. They need to feel welcome taking a risk and asking a woman out.

Despite having their first children later than ever, most women don’t ultimately choose their careers over love, marriage and motherhood. They prioritize careers when love takes time. When we see others for who they really are, what they really want — to be loved — both women and men will find the happiness they yearn for.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2022 World edition.