What’s the sexiest profession? According to the dating app Tinder, which collected data on the jobs listed on user profiles with the highest ratio of right swipes to left swipes, it’s pilot for men and physical therapist for women. You might have read about this study in Jezebel. Or Time. Or Fortune, Mashable, U.S. News, the Billfold, CNN or the BBC. (I could go on, but you get the idea.)
Tinder is not the only source of recent data about the sexiness of various professions. In September, the Atlantic’s Liz Zhou pointed out that the list of words used disproportionately by men on OkCupid profiles includes several words related to professions, like “engineer,” “software,” “musician,” and “construction,” while the only profession on the list of words used disproportionately by women was “nurse.” (Women were more likely to use words like “girly” and “sassy.”) In June, the U.K. version of Match released its own list of hottest professions based on users’ stated preferences: Women were most interested in doctors, dentists, and veterinarians; men were most interested in teachers. That same month, a survey found that Brits were most attracted to soldiers, pilots, and nurses. Two months before that, data from the “date auction” website WhatsYourPrice—in which men make cash offers to women for a first date—revealed that CEOs, financial advisers, and software developers were the most likely to have their request for a date accepted (perhaps because their offers were disproportionately high).
Although the past 12 months have been a banner year for press releases about hot professions, the trend goes back farther than that. A July 2013 Match survey of 1,100 single Chicagoans revealed that women were looking for entrepreneurs and lawyers, while men preferred advertising executives and professors or teachers. (Both sexes wanted to date doctors.) In April 2013, infidelity site Victoria Milan commissioned a survey of 1,000 Australians and found that women thought soldiers were the sexiest professionals while men preferred women who worked in “sport/recreation.” In 2007, speed-dating site Fast Impressions polled 413 Australian users and found that though men found models sexiest and women found athletes sexiest, both genders thought doctors were the most dateable. And an even older poll from Salary.com identified the sexiest professions as firefighter, flight attendant, and CEO.
What should we make of this plethora of studies? As you might guess from their inconsistent results, these pseudoscientific reviews don’t give us much meaningful information. They tell us more about the users of dating websites and apps—who skew young and college educated—than about Americans (or Brits or Australians) in general. And since the companies behind these studies rarely provide granular data, they can make results sound stronger than they are. One of the few studies that did reveal numbers, that U.K. Match ranking, showed that the most attractive male profession (medical/dental/veterinary) was the choice of just 6 percent of female users.
There’s also the question of what “sexiest” really means when it comes to jobs. Some of the studies mentioned above, like Tinder’s, examine daters’ revealed preferences—their actual behavior during online dating encounters with real stakes. The polls, by contrast, examine respondents stated preferences—even though fantasizing about a firefighter doesn’t necessarily mean you’d date one. Neither type of study tells us much about whether a doctor, entrepreneur, or flight attendant still seems sexy after the first date. (Nor do they say much about what gay and bisexual people find sexy—they typically ask men about women and vice versa.)
In brief, studies purporting to identify the hottest professions are contradictory and meaningless. They’re a way for online dating services to get free advertising by pretending to do science. So why do we keep reading about them?
I have two theories. First, these studies reflect—and reinforce—stereotypes about men and women. According to these ingrained notions, women want high earners, stable providers, or courageous protectors, while men want nurturers or beauties. Whether you’re a staunch feminist or a men’s rights activist or somewhere in between, these results are guaranteed to pique your interest, and maybe your ire, by challenging or conforming to your preconceived notions.
But the results of these studies also reinforce an appealing myth about social mobility. These “hottest professions” run the gamut from working class to upper class, low-paying to lucrative, menial to scholarly. They create the impression that the dating pool is one big meritocratic fray in which CEOs, firefighters, nurses, and models have the best chances with everyone else. But that’s not how dating really works today.
“These days, an investment banker may marry another investment banker rather than a high school sweetheart, or a lawyer will marry another lawyer, or a prestigious client, rather than a secretary,” wrote Tyler Cowen in a recent piece for the New York Times’ Upshot site about “assortative mating,” or people’s tendency to marry others of their social class. Assortative mating is a symptom and also an engine of income inequality, in which the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.
It’s comforting to think that we live in a society where male lawyers marry female flight attendants and female entrepreneurs pair up with firefighters. Such a society would be one in which anyone’s career could unlock the door to a world of marital possibilities, regardless of socioeconomic background or educational level. But while mixed partnerships certainly happen sometimes, they’re not common—and we are more confined by the circumstances of our birth than we might wish. Remember that the next time a dating website releases a list of the “hottest professions”—and the next time, and the next time, and the time after that.
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