Firstborn Girls Lead the Way

Every wonder whether your birth order has some impact on your achievements and what you have been able to accomplish, career- and life-wise? Well, wonder no more, young one. Science has the answer:

What do Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde, Oprah Winfrey, Sheryl Sandberg, JK Rowling and Beyoncé have in common? Other than riding high in Forbes list of the world’s most powerful women, they are also all firstborn children in their families. Turn to British science and one finds Dame Jane Goodall, Dr Susan Greenfield and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, also firstborn children.

Now such anecdotal evidence of firstborn high achievement has been borne out by research. A groundbreaking study, by Feifei Bu at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, appears to show 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.

The effect is even stronger for girls than for boys. First-born boys are also more achieving, but proportionately less so: “Next in line for success come firstborn boys – all 12 men to have walked on the moon were either eldest or only children.” The article doesn’t speculate why the effect is stronger for girls. Perhaps they are more conditioned to be pleasers and make their parents happy by exceeding expectations? Regardless, here are the numbers:

Even taking into account parents’ education and professional status, the study found firstborn children were 7% more likely to aspire to stay on in education than younger siblings. Firstborn girls were 13% more ambitious than firstborn boys. The probability of attending further education for firstborns is 16% higher than their younger siblings. Girls are 4% more likely to have further education qualifications.

The study seems to be measuring ambition in very traditional ways, like pursuing higher levels of education. Hermione Granger would be a textbook, if fictional, example of this kind of thinking. (According to the logic of this study, Hermione > Harry > Ron, and … yeah, that’s about right.) In any event, oldests and onlies tend to be leaders in their chosen fields, whatever those fields may be:

More than half of all Nobel prizewinners and US presidents have been firstborns, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. Of the 12 men who have landed on the moon, all were either eldest siblings or only sons. According to one study, firstborn children are more likely to become rock stars. Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were all firstborns and Van Morrison, Elton John and Eric Clapton are only children.*

Other notable only children / firstborn girls who are Hermione-ish in their chosen fields include Natalie Portman, Chelsea Clinton, Hilary Rodham Clinton, Ayn Rand, Paris Hilton, Nora Ephron, and, of course, our very own Meaghan O’Connell.

But children from further down the pecking order, do not despair! Your fate is not written in stone. Entrepreneurs Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are middle children. Charles Darwin was 5th of six. JFK was 2nd of nine and Mark Twain 6th of seven. Turning to fictional icons again, Elizabeth Bennett was 2nd of 5, and Jo March was 2nd of 4. And Mike Dang? Neither an oldest nor an only. So take heart! On the internet, no one knows that you’re a Jan.**


*There’s also something to be said for privilege here, probably. After all, more than half of all Nobel prizewinners and US presidents and all those guys who walked on the moon were also white, male, straight, gender-normative, and from relatively comfortable homes, but no one talks about that. It’s obviously not sufficient, since lots of other people also meet those criteria, but it certainly helps. Especially in the case of the onlies: if your parents can focus all their resources on you, you are going to get certain advantages. (Looking at you, Draco.)

**I’m a Jan. My high-achieving female friends? All Marcias.



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