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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.