Better-educated single women find it more difficult to meet partners than less educated single women, and are less happy as a result, a landmark study on gender and families finds.
The book, Changing Gender Roles and Attitudes to Family Formation in Ireland, is published on Wednesday. It finds that despite increased acceptability of being single, a stigma remains particularly for older women.
And yet it is harder for older, better-educated women to meet a male partner than it is for older, educated single men.
This, the research concludes, is leading to greater social isolation among these women, increasing childlessness and lower levels of wellbeing.
"In spite of the pressure on women to get married they do not have equal access to one of the main routes to meeting people in Ireland, " writes the author, Dr Margret Fine-Davis of the department of sociology at Trinity College Dublin. "The perception that a man can go into a pub by himself and be comfortable whereas a woman cannot . . . is one that exists despite women's increased equality in the work place.
“Clearly this constraint must in itself contribute to social isolation and the difficulty of single women – especially those in older age groups – to find partners.”
While women in their mid-to-late 30s perceive a dwindling pool of prospective partners, men at this age perceive an “endless supply” of possible partners as it is more usual for an older man to choose a younger partner than it is for an older woman to, the study says.
The importance of work and career influences women’s personal lives and choices in a way it does not influence men’s, according to Dr Fine-Davis. This may be because a woman knows a “change of relationship status” will mean she takes on two jobs – her own and that of housewife, “whereas this status change impinges less on men’s time”.
“Research has also shown that a change to motherhood status in fact results in a diminution of status in the workplace whereas a change to fatherhood does not.”
The author cites a recent study which found “mothers were rated as less competent and committed than non-mothers and were discriminated against in hiring and salary decisions whereas fathers experienced no similar discrimination and were in fact advantaged over childless men”.
Dr Fine-Davis says: “better-educated women, particularly those over 35, are finding it more difficult to find a partner” while women “in the lowest occupational status [said] it was easier to find a partner”. Many women are paying for their greater financial independence with being single, often against their wishes.
The study confirms previous findings that “single people have lesser wellbeing than married and cohabiting people” and were more socially isolated.
More than half (56 per cent) of single people described themselves as “currently not seeing anyone” and those that were seeing someone were happier.
“It is clear that being in a steady relationship leads to the highest levels of happiness.”
The study looks at other influences on people’s personal-life choices and outcomes, including priorities, values and attitudes to family formation, having children and childlessness.
While middle-class families have fewer children than they would like, working class families tend to have more than they wanted. The author suggests greater assistance with family planning may be necessary for this latter group as well as greater availability of affordable childcare, particularly for poorer single mothers.
“Women are caught between their biological clocks and their wish to continue actively in the labour market. It is apparent these factors are contributing to delays in couple formation, delays in marriage, postponement of first birth, an increase in the proportion of single people and an increase in childlessness.”
The costs are a decreasing population and diminishing social capacity to support an ageing population, and also a “greater proportion” of people with poorer psychological wellbeing.