Playing the dating game

Playing the dating game Photo: istock photos

Naomi sat in the back row of Melbourne's Grattan Institute, about to watch her fiance give a lecture. She was joined by three unfamiliar women - all attractive, well groomed, in their mid-30s. From their whispered chat, she quickly realised they weren't there to hear about politics and economics but to meet her eligible man. Naomi explains: ''He's 36 years old and is definitely someone who falls into the alpha-male category: excellent job in finance, PhD, high income, six feet two, sporty and very handsome. And he's an utter sweetheart.''

Naomi is an attractive 28-year-old PhD student. She has been in a relationship with her fiance for six years. Her new companions were very friendly and chatted to her during the break. But then her partner, who had been socialising at the front of the room, made eye contact with Naomi and smiled.

The 30s are worrying years for high-achieving women who long for marriage and children - of course, not all do - as they face their rapidly closing reproductive window surrounded by men who see no rush to settle down 

''The women saw this and it was like the room had suddenly frozen over. There was silence and then one of them asked me if I knew him. I wasn't going to lie, so I told them he was my partner and how long we'd been together. It was amazing how they responded. They stopped smiling at me, shifted awkwardly in their seats and looked me up and down as if they were trying to figure out how a girl who still wears jeans and ballet flats could land a guy like that.'' The women left before her man gave his speech.

Naomi is stunned by the number of women in their 30s who throw themselves at her partner: the colleagues who sign emails with kisses; the female journalist who pointedly asked, post-interview, if he was married. Yet given the plight of thirtysomething women seeking partners, it's hardly surprising that her boyfriend is in their sights.

We hear endless complaints from women about the lack of good men.

Women astonished that men don't seem to be around when they decide it is time to settle down. Women telling men to ''man up'' and stop shying away from commitment.

But there is another conversation going on - a fascinating exchange about what is happening from the male point of view. Much of it thrives on the internet, in the so-called ''manosphere''. Here you will find men cheerfully, even triumphantly, blogging about their experience. They have cause for celebration, you see. They've discovered a profound change has taken place in the mating game and, to their surprise, they are the winners.

Dalrock (dalrock.wordpress.com) is typical: ''Today's unmarried twentysomething women have given men an ultimatum: I'll marry when I'm ready, take it or leave it. This is, of course, their right. But ultimatums are a risky thing, because there is always a possibility the other side will decide to leave it. In the next decade we will witness the end result of this game of marriage chicken.''

The endgame Dalrock warns about is already in play for hordes of unmarried professional women - the well-coiffed lawyers, bankers and other success stories. Many thought they could put off marriage and families until their 30s, having devoted their 20s to education, establishing careers and playing the field. But was their decade of dating a strategic mistake?

Jamie, a 30-year-old Sydney barrister, thinks so: ''Women labour under the impression they can have it all. They can have the career, this carefree lifestyle and then, at the snap of their fingers, because they are so fabulous, find a man. But if they wait until their 30s they're competing with women who are much younger and in various ways more attractive.''

The crisis for single women in this age group seeking a mate is very real. Almost one in three women aged 30 to 34 and a quarter of late-30s women do not have a partner, according to the 2006 census statistics. And this is a growing problem. The number of partnerless women in their 30s has almost doubled since 1986.

The challenge is greatest for high-achieving women in their 30s looking for equally successful men. Analysis of 2006 census figures by the Monash University sociologist, Genevieve Heard, reveals that almost one in four of degree-educated women in their 30s will miss out on a man of similar age and educational achievement. There were only 68,000 unattached graduate men in their 30s for 88,000 single graduate women in the same age group.

And the higher-education gap keeps widening. In the past year, the proportion of degree-educated women aged 25 to 34 rose from 37.7 per cent to 40.3 per cent, according to the Bureau of Statistics, while for males the figure remained below 30 per cent, having risen only 0.5 per cent in the past year.

Although there are similar numbers of single men and women in their 30s overall - about 370,000 of each across Australia - half these available men had only high school education, 57 per cent earned $42,000 or less and 95,000 of them were unemployed.

The high expectations of professional women are a big part of the story. Many high-achieving women simply are not interested in Mr Average, says Justin Parfitt, the owner of Australia's fastest growing speed-dating organisation, Fast Impressions. Parfitt adds: ''They've swallowed the L'Oreal line: 'Because you're worth it!' There's a real sense of entitlement.''

He finds many of his female members are determined to meet only men who are tall, attractive, wealthy and well educated. They want the alpha males. ''Most of the professional women rarely give out 'yes' votes to men who aren't similarly successful,'' reports Parfitt, who struggles to attract enough of these successful men to his speed-dating events. Sixty per cent of his members are female. Most are over 30.

During their 20s, women compete for the most highly desirable men, the Mr Bigs. Many will readily share a bed with the sporty, attractive, confident men, while ordinary men miss out. As Whiskey puts it at whiskeysplace.wordpress.com: ''Joe Average Beta Male is about as desirable to women as a cold bowl of oatmeal.''

Data from American colleges show 20 per cent of males - the most attractive ones - get 80 per cent of the sex, according to an analysis by Susan Walsh, a former management consultant who wrote about the issue on her dating website, hookingupsmart.com.

That leaves a lot of beta men spending their 20s out in the cold. Greg, a 38-year-old writer from Melbourne, started adult life shy and lonely. ''In my 20s, the women had the total upper hand. They could make or break you with one look in a club or bar. They had the choice of men, sex was on tap and guys like me went home alone, red-faced, defeated and embarrassed. The girls only wanted to go for the cool guys, good looks, outgoing personalities, money, sporty types, the kind of guys who owned the room, while us quiet ones got ignored.''

He barely had a date through much of his 20s and gave up on women. But then he spent time overseas, gained more confidence, learnt how to dress well and hit his early 30s. ''I suddenly started to get asked out by women, aged 19 through to 40. The floodgates burst open for me. I actually dated five women at once, amazing my flatmates by often bedding three to four of my casual dates each week. It is a great time as a male in your 30s, when you start getting more female attention and sex than you could ever have dreamt of in your 20s.''

That's when some men start behaving very badly - as the manosphere clearly shows. These internet sites are not for the faint-hearted. The voices are often crude and misogynist. But they tell it as they see it. There is Greenlander, an apparently successful engineer in his late 30s. In his early adult life, he was unable to ''get the time of day from women''. Now he's interested only in women under 27.

''The women I know in their early 30s are just delusional,'' he says. ''I sometimes seduce them and sleep with them just because I know how to play them so well. It's just too easy. They're tired of the cock carousel and they see a guy like me as the perfect beta to settle down with before their eggs dry out … when I get tired of them I just delete their numbers from my cell phone and stop taking their calls … It doesn't really hurt them that much: at this point they're used to pump & dump!''

It's easy to dismiss such bile but Greenlander's analysis is echoed by many Australian singles, both male and female.

''It's wall-to-wall arseholes out there,'' reports Penny, a 31-year-old lawyer. She is stunned by how hard it is to meet suitable men willing to commit. ''I'm horrified by the number of gorgeous, independent and successful women my age who can't meet a decent man.''

Penny acknowledges part of the problem is her own expectations - that her generation of women was brought up wanting too much. ''We were told we were special, we could do anything and the world was our oyster.'' And having spent her 20s dating alpha males, she expected them to be still around when she finally decided to get serious.

But these men go fast, many fishing outside their pond. The most attractive, successful men can take their pick from women their own age or from the Naomis, the younger women who are happy to settle early. Almost one in three degree-educated 35-year-old men marries or lives with women aged 30 or under, according to income, housing and marriage surveys by the Bureau of Statistics.

''I can't believe how many men my age are only interested in younger women,'' wails Gail, a 34-year-old advertising executive as she describes her first search through men's profiles on the RSVP internet dating site. She is shocked to find many mid-30s men have set up their profiles to refuse mail from women their own age.

Talking to many women like her, it's intriguing how many look back on past relationships where they let good men get away because they weren't ready. American journalist Kate Bolick wrote recently in The Atlantic about breaking off her three-year relationship with a man she described as ''intelligent, good-looking, loyal and kind''. She acknowledged ''there was no good reason to end things'', yet, at the time, she was convinced something was missing in the relationship. That was 11 years ago. She's is now 39 and facing grim choices.

''We arrived at the top of the staircase,'' Bolick wrote, ''finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up - and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don't want to go out with.''

So, many women are missing out on their fairytale ending - their assumption that when the time was right the dream man would be waiting. The 30s are worrying years for high-achieving women who long for marriage and children - of course, not all do - as they face their rapidly closing reproductive window surrounded by men who see no rush to settle down.

And, of course, many women eventually do find a mate, often ending up with divorced men. There are complications with that second-marriage market, in which men come complete with former wives and children. That was never part of the plan.

Many really struggle with the fact that they aren't in a position to be too choosy. American author Lori Gottlieb gives a painfully honest account of that process in her book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough.

''Maybe we need to get over ourselves,'' she writes. The 40-year-old single mother enlisted a team of advisers who helped her realise that while she was conducting her long search for the perfect man - Prince Charming or nobody - her market value had dropped through the floor.

''Our generation of women is constantly told to have high self-esteem, but it seems that the women themselves are at risk of ego-tripping themselves out of romantic connection,'' she writes. She acknowledges she made a mistake not looking for a spouse in her 20s, when she was at her most desirable. She advises thirtysomething women to look for Mr Good Enough before they have even less choice. ''They are with an '8' but they want a '10'. But then suddenly they're 40 and can only get a '5'!''

Women delaying their search for a serious relationship have set up a very different dating and marriage market. The Sydney barrister, Jamie, finds himself spoilt for choice. Like many of his friends he's finding women actively pursuing him, asking him out, cooking him elaborate meals, buying him presents. ''Oh, you're a barrister,'' they say.

While many of his mates are playing the field, determined to enjoy this unexpected attention, Jamie is ready to settle down. He's very wary of Sex and the City types, women who are convinced they are so special, but he's confident he will soon find someone with her feet on the ground.

''I'm lucky,'' he says, ''to be in a buyer's market.''