Imagine that you’re a CEO of a firm with 20,000 employees. Is there an experience outside your job that could lead you to pay an extra $9 million in salaries to your staff?
If you’re a man, that experience is having your first daughter. This was a finding from a groundbreaking study that I read last year: when male CEOs father their first child, they pay their employees less when it’s a son but more if it’s a daughter.
In my recent New York Times piece, “Why Men Need Women,” Adam Grant suggested that female family members might make men more generous. For example, studies show that American legislators vote more liberally when they have daughters, and so do British male voters. And European people who favor giving to strangers have, on average, 40% more sisters than those who don’t.
As an organizational psychologist, I’m typically not a fan of research on gender differences.
On the vast majority of psychological attributes, men and women are remarkably similar—and I’m interested in what we can all do to make work life better, regardless of whether we’re from Mars or Venus.
But in this case, the results were so fascinating that I couldn’t resist exploring further. My aim was to stick close to the data—after all, that’s my core competence as a social scientist—and stimulate dialogue about how and why women make men better.
In light of the controversy that followed, I wanted to weigh in on some of the more common questions and critiques:
1. What drives the daughter effect? We don’t really know, but I speculated that caring for a daughter makes men feel more empathy and concern for others, which extends to how they treat their employees. Several readers suggested a less charitable explanation: perhaps this pattern reflects the tendency for male CEOs to secure more resources for their sons—either to provide for them or save up an inheritance. A wrinkle in the research casts doubt on this idea: after fathering daughters, male CEOs pay female employees more generously than male employees. If this were about providing for male offspring, the gender of their employees shouldn’t matter.
In my life, becoming a dad to two girls led me to think more deeply and feel more strongly about the kind of world I wanted for my children. I became more disturbed by violence on TV, and I ended up rescuing a mouse from a trap and setting it free, which had never crossed my mind before. I suspect that if our girls had been boys, I would have given less consideration to these issues—and I’d be a less responsible citizen and humane person as a result.
2. Is this view bad for women? Some female readers stated that the arguments, “though well-intentioned, are harmful to women.” In other words, sexist. After reading research on sexism for more than a decade, it turns out that there are two kinds: hostile and benevolent sexism. As psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske explain, hostile sexism occurs when people express views that are blatantly demeaning or degrading to women. Benevolent sexism involves attitudes about women that sound friendly, but relegate women to inferior positions. Examples of benevolent sexist stances include the beliefs that women are beautiful, fragile creatures who need to be protected by men, and that they are best suited to roles as wives and mothers. In other words, benevolent sexism tends to involve views about women having inferior competence or capabilities in traditionally-male positions. As experts Glick and Fiske write, benevolent sexism means “characterizing women as pure creatures who ought to be protected, supported, and adored and whose love is necessary to make a man complete. This idealization of women simultaneously implies that they are weak and best suited for conventional gender roles.”
It would be an expression of benevolent sexism to state that making men more generous was the only role for women. But I’m a passionate advocate for the competence and capabilities of women in leadership and professional positions. I simply didn’t emphasize this because it’s a case that has already been beautifully documented this year in bestsellers like Lean In and The Athena Doctrine. My argument is complementary: along with introducing better leadership, which we already know, women in top executive positions also drive higher profits by making the men better. It’s both/and, not either/or. On that note, my dream for my daughters is that they will help people in meaningful ways that demonstrate competence as well as warmth. I hope they will succeed in their own right and make the men around them better.
3. Is it offensive to men? One reader took this issue a bit further, writing that “this piece manages to reduce women to man-modifiers AND strip men of their agency, all in one go!” I should have stated that we have a choice in the matter. When male CEOs father daughters, they choose to pay their employees more. When Bill Gates thought about the case made by his mother and his wife, he actively decided to become a philanthropist. Female family members often provide the spark for giving, but a spark alone cannot light a fire; it requires an environment with oxygen (or, in this case, oxytocin), and men need to make deliberate choices to become flammable material.
4. Correlation is not causation… but in this case, it probably is. Quite a few readers mentioned this fundamental truth of statistics that just because two things go together, one doesn’t necessarily cause the other. If you think carefully about it, though, causation seems to be the most powerful explanation. If it’s not true that female family members cause men to become more giving, there are only two other ways that the correlation can exist.
One possibility is that generosity causes men to have more sisters and daughters. This is impossible for siblings: sisters and brothers are born long before boys grow up and make choices about acting selfishly versus generously. It’s also implausible for children: giving would need to somehow increase the number or vitality of men’s X-chromosome sperm (or hinder Y-sperm). The other possibility is that a common factor causes men to give and to have sisters and daughters. Again, this is highly unlikely: there would need to be a gene that (a) leads parents to have at least one son and one daughter, (b) makes those parents more likely to have additional daughters than sons, and (c) makes those sons more likely to have daughters. In short, growing up with sisters and fathering a daughter probably does make men more generous. Of course, we need a lot more research to figure out what’s driving this effect.
5. Do generous men and women fare differently at work? There is evidence that when men give, people reward them more for it—it tends to be more surprising and less taken for granted. This leads some readers to conclude that generosity is simply a better deal for men than women. Yet again, it might be more complicated. Research suggests that men who are “too nice” suffer more than women when it comes to paychecks. Men who become doormats earn 14% less annual income than their peers, whereas women who are too nice only earn about 5.5% less. For men, giving may be an amplifier of outcomes—more rewarding on the upside but more punitive on the downside. I might argue that giving benefits successful men more than women, but costs unsuccessful men more than women. Although men who give productively might be revered, those who become pushovers are seen as wimps.
Overall, it’s worth pointing out that women and men sometimes simply find different paths to success. One excellent study found that female veterinarians were more likely to empathize with their customers, and charged them lower prices as a result. It seems that this would sacrifice profits—but not so fast. The female veterinarians attracted greater customer loyalty, which made up for the income that they gave up with lower prices. In short, the women did well financially, and they did it in a way that showed concern for customers. That, by my count, is an ideal balance of achievement and caring.
For more on giving and generosity (and less on gender), Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow Adam here by clicking the "Follow" button above and on Twitter @AdamMGrant
Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of GIVE AND TAKE
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