"I didn't really know how to respond," Anne recalled of her colleague's character assessment, but other women have a strategy in place. They instinctually "dumb it down" or pretend to be someone they're not. When she was 35 and single, Julia, a lawyer in New York City, would play a game when she went to bars: "I told some guys I was an attorney and they ran away from me, and then other guys that I was a secretary at a law firm and at least for the short term they seemed more interested," she said. "There's the idea that high-achieving men don't like the competition, that they find us a little bit frightening, and get enough of that in the office. They want someone who is going to be at home."
This stunt became popular enough to inspire a Sex and the City episode. Miranda, the high-powered lawyer, tells a man she meets at a speed-dating event that she's a flight attendant. He tells her he's a doctor. Both of them are lying -- she to diminish her status, and he to inflate it.
The stereotypes are powerful, and many high-achieving women have created similar strategies. When Zara, a 26-year-old business school student, was an undergraduate at an East Coast Ivy League school, she and her friends used to fabricate identities that they assumed would be more attractive to men. "Senior year I spent spring break in Jamaica. My friends and I pretended we were from Southern Mississippi State University -- which doesn't exist as far as I know -- and put on southern accents to top it all off. We met all sorts of guys. We thought they'd be intimidated if they found out where we really went to school. They'd think we were argumentative, pushy, feminazis. Really, we're traditional in a lot of ways and are afraid of being judged negatively like that."
Given this prevalent conventional wisdom, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the romantic lives of accomplished women make front-page headlines only to tout bad news. "Men Prefer to Wed Secretary" announced UPI newswires in late 2004. "Too Smart to Marry" read the headline in the Atlantic Monthly a few months later. Newspapers throughout England, France, and Australia jumped on the bad news bandwagon in 2005: "Here Dumbs the Bride," "Keep Young and Stupidful If You Want to Be Loved," and "Alpha Females Use Their Heads, but Lose Their Hearts."
Finally, these negative ideas hit a saturation point in 2005, when outspoken New York Times columnist and feminist Maureen Dowd embraced this well-worn myth. In a series of articles and columns in the Times, and then in a book, the Pulitzer prize-winning writer asked plaintively, "What's a Modern Girl to Do?"
Ironically, it's two successful women, a well-educated and influential economist in her 60s and a pioneering journalist in her 50s, both of whom accomplished so much ahead of their time, who have done the most to scare off younger ones from pursuing similar paths to success.
In 2002, Sylvia Ann Hewlett presented a study of high-achieving women who weren't marrying or having children at the same rates as other women. In her book Creating a Life, she stoked the flames of panic among successful women: "Nowadays, the rule of thumb seems to be that the more successful the woman, the less likely it is she will find a husband or bear a child." She argued that high-achieving women who were still single at age 30 had a less than 10 percent chance of ever marrying.