You’ve seen this movie before: The powerful business executive falls for his beautiful but down-on-her-luck secretary. After an hour and a half of suspense, the two overcome their status differences; he finds his sensitive side, while she is saved from years of transcribing memos and fetching coffee.
Again and again, films exploit this conceit for romantic effect, sometimes replacing the executive with a high-powered lawyer or the secretary with a prostitute, but always keeping constant the imbalance of power between man and woman.
In the movies, men fall for subordinate women and now, a University researcher has shown that when it comes to attraction, life may imitate art.
“(The attraction of men to subordinate women) is often taken for granted, but now we have a study that offers empirical proof,” said Stephanie Brown, a researcher with the University’s Institute for Social Research.
Brown conducted an investigation into whether social subordination and dominance play important roles in sexual attraction. The study was recently published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
Before conducting the study, Brown hypothesized that men would be more attracted to subordinate women, a phenomenon that previous studies did not suggest, but one that was consistent with principals of evolutionary theory.
Brown and her colleagues administered surveys to 328 undergraduates to test their hypothesis. Depending on their gender, subjects were shown a photograph of either a man or woman and told that the person depicted was their supervisor, coworker or assistant. They were then asked to rate how much they would like to be involved in a long- and short-term relationship with the person.
After collecting and analyzing the data, Brown found that the numbers supported her hypothesis: Men who took the survey were more likely to be attracted to women in subordinate positions than to women of superior or equal rank, while women showed no preference. Furthermore, men particularly preferred subordinate women to dominant ones when considering a long-term relationship such as marriage.
Given this data, Brown used evolutionary theory and evidence from other species to arrive at a hypothesis as to why males show this preference.
One of the biggest risks a male of any species faces when forming long-term relationships is what evolutionary biologists call “paternal uncertainty,” the fact that a male may devote time and energy to the care and protection of an offspring that is not actually his because of infidelity on the part of the female.
But mating with a female who is in a subordinate position gives the male more control and could reduce the chances of infidelity, Brown said. The male could then be more certain that his mate’s offspring is actually his.
Brown believes this could explain why men’s preference for subordinate women is more pronounced when it comes to long-term relationships that may result in children.
The explanation of a phenomenon that many take for granted is perhaps the most important part of the study, she said.
“In many ways, the results aren’t surprising to people,” she added. “What is appreciated … is that it provides an explanation for why we might see this stereotype.”
Despite the evidence, Brown does not rule out nonevolutionary explanations, and speculates that all of those silver-screen romances between executives and their secretaries may actually be the cause rather than an effect of men’s attraction to subordinate women.
“It could be that we’re exposed to media that portrays men in more dominant relationships,” she said.