Fatherhood is no guarantee of being a better boss

Mon, Dec 10, 2012, 00:00

BUSINESS LIFE:Now that the Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant, all sorts of people have been presuming to predict how parenthood will be for the royal couple. David Cameron has assured the nation that they will make wonderful parents. Noel Gallagher, grumpy pop star and father of three, has warned the future king that he should get back into the army at once as it will be a lot more peaceful than being at home with a baby.

My bet is rather different. I suspect that Prince William will respond to fatherhood by feathering his nest at the taxpayers’ expense. Unlike the predictions made by Messrs Cameron and Gallagher – based on politeness and prejudice – mine is backed by solid research.

In the current issue of Administrative Science Quarterly is a study showing that male bosses greet the birth of a child in a pretty elemental way: they give themselves a pay rise. And not only do they celebrate by paying themselves more, they pay everyone else less.

The study (which I first read about in the Economist) was carried out on a large sample of Danish chief executives and found that following the birth of a child the boss’s pay went up by an average of 4.9 per cent. Meanwhile, their underlings were paid about 1 per cent less than had the chief executives remained childless.

According to the researchers, this reflects the way men are driven to husband resources once they become fathers. But as these men were chief executives and already had more than enough resources to husband, I think it shows something darker – that having a child makes you selfish. Or rather that it radically changes priorities: family rises up the list, everything else, including work, drops down.

The study is refreshing as few academics seem willing to investigate the possibility that parents aren’t necessarily an asset at work. Instead everyone is expected to swallow an untested hypothesis that says parents are better bosses because they are more approachable, more empathetic and better mentors.

Such a view does not tally with my own experience; neither does it sound plausible from first principles. For the experience of parenthood to make you more nurturing at work, the following two conditions would both have to apply. First, your parenting style would have to be nurturing to start with as opposed to, say, command and control, which is my default style at home. Second, you would have to fail to make any distinction between how you treat babies whom you are genetically predisposed to adore and how you treat random adults whom you may not even like.

As well as making managers more grasping, I can think of three other effects parenthood may have, none of them especially good. Again, there seem to be no studies to test any of them, which is a pity, especially if you consider the drearily obscure things that management academics spend their lives researching.

First, being a parent probably makes people more risk-averse, more inclined to take the steady career path rather than the more interesting one. Second, it may also make us marginally less creative – the pram in the hall being the enemy of good art, and all that.

Since Cyril Connolly raised the matter in the 1930s, I haven’t seen anyone put it to rest.

Third, it makes you conflicted. You are endlessly divided over how to allocate time – and anxiety. This last effect could make you a better boss as work is also about conflict and managing time, and therefore parents have a head start.

Or it could mean that you simply give your family priority and never have quite enough left over to do the job properly. I’ve seen both effects in operation; which is more common I would dearly like to know.

Either way, for the royal couple it doesn’t matter much. For them there is no conflict. If you are a hereditary monarch, having babies is the most important part of the job. Traditionally, monarchs have hoped for boys. Yet I have scientific reasons for hoping the child Kate is carrying is not a boy. The Danish study shows that bosses behave better when they have girls. They take a much lower rise for themselves (3 per cent as opposed to 6 per cent) and are inclined to be generous, especially to their female underlings.

I have noticed this effect too, and it doesn’t stop when the children grow up. Indeed, I’ve known male managers who have never been keen on promoting women suddenly become bigger feminists than Simone de Beauvoir the minute their daughters join the workforce. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012)

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