According to tradition, Leap Year Day presents an unusual opportunity for women to break a social rule and propose marriage to men.  In today’s world, women have taken over in many realms previously dominated by men – education, the work force, even management.  But female proposals remain scarce.  Women have resisted this role because, like it or not, we all recognize the innate differences between the genders.  On the other hand, women play an important role in directing dating relationships, even without proposal parity.

Years ago, actress and sex symbol Mae West said, “Opportunity knocks for every man, but you have to give a woman a ring.”  These days, professional opportunities come knocking for both men and women.  In fact, men currently face higher rates of unemployment than women, and women hold a majority of managerial positions.  Furthermore, women are earning the majority of bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates, indicating that they will soon be taking over new areas such as professorships or research jobs.

But you still have to give a woman a ring.  That is, if she’s going to marry at all.  The advancement of women has sadly produced a byproduct of deterioration for the institution of marriage.  More than 50 percent of babies born to women under 30 are now born to single moms.  Divorce rates have plateaued, but mainly because fewer couples seek a marriage license in the first place.

In spite of the bleak statistics, most women still desire to marry, and they want a romantic proposal too.  This isn’t just out of a love for tradition.  This tells us something about the natural differences between women and men. 

Psychological research can help us understand.  A recent study shows that men are more comfortable with black-or-white thinking, that is, categorical judgments, while women more often prefer to think in shades of grey.  So men may be more apt to want to categorize a developing relationship as one that is headed for marriage or one that is not.

Social science also tells us that women are more relational than men, meaning they weight relationships into their personal satisfaction more than men do.  This means women place a lot of value on their own desirability.  They want to know they are wanted.  On the other hand, men are often characterized as commitment-phobic.  It follows that a voluntary, public expression of a man’s desire for life-long commitment (along with an expensive piece of jewelry) is a meaningful social signal to his future spouse that he’s willing to invest in her.

Another study shows that young women strongly link their self-esteem to whether their family was “normal” or not.  It follows that these women, in early adulthood, would prefer a “normal” family formation, one that involves a male proposal.

Even if women aren’t formally bowing one knee and offering a diamond, women still play an important role in advancing a dating relationship to an engagement.  Women – more often than men – initiate conversations about the future, and men often won’t propose without discussing the prospect of marriage and feeling confident that their partner will say yes.  So while the statistics may show that women are still waiting for men to “pop the question,” we are freer than ever to initiate, advance, influence, or terminate relationships.  This serves to underscore a point we often make at IWF: statistical parity is not always the best indicator of women’s influence. 

It’s fun to think about the Leap Day tradition of reversed gender roles, but in truth, most women still prefer to be asked – not because they are helplessly waiting to be chosen, but because they want to be pursued.  These gender roles aren’t forced upon us by society, but most of us embrace them because we know it has less to do with power and more to do with preferences.