Irrational Animals: a neuroscience take on the news

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Why "family men" make terrible bosses

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

Samantha and David Cameron with their daughter Nancy
Do we like David Cameron more because he has children? Photograph: Getty Images

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.