What is it about?

We investigate the link between birth order and career outcomes. Specifically, we show that Chief Executive Officer (CEO) are more likely to be the first-born, i.e., oldest, child of their families relative to what one would expect if birth order did not matter for career outcomes. Both male and female CEOs are more likely to be first-born. However, the first-born advantage seems to largely reflect the absence of an older brother, but not of an older sister.

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Why is it important?

Birth order used to play an important role for leadership succession in many cultures, often favoring the first born child or son (primogeniture). This social norm might continue to affect parental attention and investment with respect to earlier and later born children in the same family. At the same time, older and younger siblings in the same family likely play different roles. That is, birth order, as well as family composition, might therefore be important mechanisms through which differences early in life have long reaching consequences.


Consistent with the traditional importance of the first-born child, the proportion of first-borns CEOs is particularly pronounced among family firms, but is elevated among non-family firms as well, in line with higher parental investments in first-borns possibly leading to better cognitive skills. In a world with limited resources, the advantages of being first-born imply disadvantages of being later-born. Specifically, we observe the CEOs are less likely to be second-borns than what one would expect if birth order did not matter. Finally, consistent with a parental or societal gender-bias, the effect of birth order interacts with gender such that CEOs are more likely first-male-born than one would expect, but not more likely first-female-born. Said differently, having an older brother seems to lower the chances of becoming a CEO, while having an older sister does not seem do so. Overall, this study highlight the persistent effects of the early environment on life outcomes as much as the lasting effects of social norms, both with respect to birth order as well as gender. It is most astonishing what can be uncovered and learnt from a relatively small data set.

Stephan Siegel
University of Washington

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This page is a summary of: Are chief executive officers more likely to be first-borns?, PLoS ONE, June 2020, PLOS, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0234987.
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