Wednesday 20 March 2019

Born winners: the women who grew up in first place

First-born women are hard-wired to be ambitious. From their earliest moments, they are used to getting things their own way.

Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah Winfrey.
Stardom: Beyonce was always very focused.
Facebook boos Sheryl Sandberg
JK Rowling
Mary McAleese.

Chrissie Russell

'It's not a surprise. From an early age our first step, our first word and first time we roll over is met by rapture from our newbie parents'

Ican still remember the sobbing, the wringing of hands, the absolute pit of despair I fell into the day I failed my driving test. It wasn't so much that I had any great affection for driving or craved the freedom of the open road, it was more that for the first time I felt like a failure, my ambitions had been thwarted.

It was a typical first-born, female response.

According to new research, we first born females are hard-wired to aim for achievement. A study at the University of Essex last week revealed that if you are the eldest child and female you are statistically more likely to be the most ambitious and well qualified of all your family.

It is not the first time that first-borns have been revealed as driven. Last year a study by economists Joseph Hotz and Juan Pantano found that eldest siblings tend to perform better in school, have higher IQs and be viewed as the more accomplished by their parents.

In his book, The First Born Advantage, Dr Kevin Leman writes that "first-borns are the natural movers and shakers of the world. They're the leaders. They can accomplish just about anything."

To a certain extent, it makes sense that first-borns would be ambitious. From an early age our first step, our first word, the first time we roll over is met with rapture from our newbie parents – is it any wonder we become addicted to approval?

My own task-orientated fixation started with a chart that my parents compiled to keep me in my own bed at night. For every sleep, I would receive a gold star which ultimately transmuted into a toy computer. Hooked on the reward principle, good grades followed, then qualifications in musical instruments, a 2:1 degree, a Masters, and qualifications in journalism and teaching.

I elbowed my way into a saturated job market in journalism (something I'd been intent on from childhood) and I have no doubt that entering a career which leaves me open to feedback is yet another hark back to that quest for approval. I'm always looking for the toy computer.

Previous studies into the minds of first-borns have thrown up several hypotheses for what makes them succeed. After all, most world leaders, entrepreneurs and astronauts are eldest children.

According to Hotz and Panto it's because parents are more strict and put more time into their eldest child.

Feifei Bu, who led the most recent study at the University of Essex, agrees that parental investment is the most logical explanation.

But what seems less clear is why first-born girls would be more ambitious than first born boys. The study found that females were 13pc more ambitious than those who were eldest and male, with girls 4pc more likely to have further education qualifications.

First-born Laura Carter set up the First Born Girls Social Club ( in 2005. It now has 102 members across the United States who meet up twice a year to "discover, share and celebrate the unique contribution first born girls make to the world".

"I've found our members tend to be entrepreneurs, business owners and executives as well as community leaders," she says. "Those members who are stay-at-home moms are also more likely to be leaders in school events, like parent-teacher associations."

But even Laura is unclear why first born girls might strive for more than their male counterparts.

"I believe first borns are raised to believe they can do anything," she says. "But I think that leads to more confidence, I'm not sure 'ambitious' is the right word."

Counselling psychologist and psychotherapist Sally O'Reilly ( believes it may have something to do with cultural cues picked up early on.

She explains: "It can happen that girls are expected to work harder because there is an assumption on their part and on the part of their parents (based on the reality of what is happening in the 'modern' workplace) that they will have to work harder and achieve more than their male counterparts to achieve the same recognition and/or salary.

"It is very clear, very early on to children that in a lot of workplaces men are more present.

"They are valued more, they are listened to more attentively and are taken more seriously.

"A first-born girl may be better equipped to deal with this, she may be more confident in her abilities having received undiluted attention for a time."

However, she adds: "There are a lot of factors at play and these are merely trends observed in a study, not certainties."

But there is an unfortunate quirk revealed by the study.

While the statistics might allow for us female first-borns to be more ambitious and qualified, there's no guarantee we'll be better paid than our male siblings.

The first-borns who know about ambition

* Oprah Winfrey's troubled childhood saw her striving for attention, but it's what made her career. She says: "I require a lot of attention. And now I get the attention of 20 million people ... I wanted it; I got it."

* Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg's leadership ambition started young. She writes in her bestselling book Lean In: "Apparently, when I was in elementary school, I taught my younger siblings to follow me around, listen to my monologues and scream the word 'Right' when I concluded."

* Beyoncé was always completely focused on stardom. She told GQ magazine: "I worked so hard during my childhood to meet this goal ... I've sacrificed a lot of things and I've worked harder than probably anyone I know, at least in the music industry."

* At age six, JK Rowling was already intent on a book deal. After her mother praised her for writing a story about a rabbit with measles Rowling reportedly replied "well, get it published, then".

* Mary McAleese eldest of nine, was the first in her family to go to university and one of just a handful of women to study law.

Her mother supported her legal ambitions, even when a family priest told her that she had no chance of succeeding because of her gender. "'You', she said to me, 'ignore the oul eejit'," recalls McAleese. "I have taken that advice ever since."

Irish Independent

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