Why "family men" make terrible bosses

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

If you’re trying to become the leader of a political party or a chief executive, it might be a good idea to have some kids – especially if you’re a man. For some reason, we like having family men at the top: perhaps because we think they’re more relatable; perhaps because we think they’re kinder or more empathetic.

Political leaders, in particular, often introduce policy measures that affect children with a brief mention of their own kids (just to show parents that they’re on the same page) – or simply mention them apropos of nothing.

“My children have onesies and I often say I’m very jealous,” Cameron announced last week, just to make sure, one last time, that we all know he’s a dad.

The implication is that because a leader has children, he’ll care more about children in general. Anecdotally, at least, this seems not to be true. Before having children, people tend to have a benign (if not particularly invested) attitude towards other people’s kids. Have children of your own and these other kids become tiny competitors: less good at gym than your child but somehow in the gym team; inexplicably cast as Mary in the nativity play; undeservedly in a higher maths class; irritatingly better at the clarinet.

Although your image becomes fuzzier and warmer, your behaviour seems to go in the opposite direction. I have seen the genuinely empathetic suddenly start filling up their friends’ Facebook newsfeeds with 12 daily pictures of their newborns (all, surely, the same picture). I have seen the genuinely interesting and funny suddenly unable to talk about anything but nappy rash.

The problem is that having children completely shifts your priorities. It makes you more grasping (on their behalf) – which makes the warm and fuzzy image rather odd.

A recent study by the Aalborg University economics professor Michael Dahl showed that the first thing male CEOs do when they have their first child is to give themselves a raise at the expense of everyone else in the company. The research was carried out on a large group of Danish chief executives and found that when they had a child, their pay went up by an average of 4.9 per cent. The rest of the company were paid about 0.2 per cent less.

If it’s a boy and a firstborn, male employees suffer particularly –wages going down by about 0.5 per cent. Interestingly, though, the effect is muted when the baby is a girl. Fathers of girls take a smaller pay rise (3 per cent) and give their female employees a tiny average raise.

According to the researchers, the odd gender differences here are probably a mixture of straightforward competitiveness (with the men) and a raised awareness of the pay gap (which, though small, still exists in Denmark) that could now affect their daughters. They speculated that the results would be more exaggerated in the US but privacy laws made it too hard to get the right information.

It’s an interesting study as it broaches the idea that caring about your children doesn’t necessarily translate into caring about anyone else. It might be time to give the childless a chance at promotion.

Do we like David Cameron more because he has children? Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear