My father recently celebrated his 80th birthday, and we honored him with a collection of videotaped messages from his friends and family members. For my contribution, I shared a list of my favorite childhood memories with my dad.
I remembered how we used to build model planes together in our basement. I reminded him how he never let me win at board games. I reminisced about the time he took me to the lumber yard to buy 2 by 4’s to build a balance beam for me to practice gymnastics in our backyard.
My dad encouraged me…
At the top of my list was the summer after high school when my dad and I drove to and from work together every day. My dad worked at a big tech company that had a few internships set aside for employees’ collegebound kids. My dad encouraged me to apply. I was one of the only girls who got accepted into what was an overwhelmingly male work environment. But I didn’t take much notice as my dad proudly walked me into the office every morning.
At the time, I never thought of any of these moments as acts of gender equity allyship on my dad’s behalf. They were just how my dad and I spent time together. Looking back, I realize that they were much more.
Does your childhood highlight reel have a gender equity ally in it?
My childhood highlight reel is filled with subtle but important ways that my dad made me feel like I belong as a female in male-dominated spaces. Ways that he made me feel that it was ok for a girl to be ambitious, athletic, and fiercely competitive. Ways that he made me believe that my path, my roles, and my worth were not dictated by my gender.
As a law professor who researches male allyship for women’s equality, I now have evidence that my experience was not unique: dads of daughters can indeed be extremely effective advocates for gender equity both inside and outside of their homes.
The father-daughter relationship can build empathy
This is in part because the father-daughter relationship is one proven way to change men’s perspectives and build empathy, particularly when dads learn from their own daughters’ experiences of sex discrimination, gender bias, and work/family conflict.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that having a daughter is either necessary or sufficient for becoming an effective male ally. All men have a stake in advancing gender equity, and many men are powerful advocates without having daughters. But dads of daughters are often uniquely motivated to recognize the need for advancing gender equity, and they are well-positioned to pick up the baton and start running.
For all the dedicated dads of daughters who want to make the world better for our next generation of girls, here are three ways to get started.
1. Disrupt Traditional Gender Role Stereotypes
Researchers have found that when men have a daughter—particularly a firstborn daughter—they tend to become less supportive of traditional gender roles. Let that instinct fuel your parenting!
When spending time with your daughters, try building something, fixing something, or selling something. Compete fiercely at board games, video games, or any other challenges you can invent. Watch women’s sports events. Do science experiments at the kitchen table. Debate with your daughters over current events. Design paper airplanes, visit a tech museum, or teach your daughters how to code.
How do these activities help?
These activities will empower your daughters to imagine themselves as future engineers, entrepreneurs, athletes, CEOs, lawyers, politicians, pilots, and scientists—while also creating some pretty enjoyable weekends.
On the flip side, when you spend time with your sons, try caring for something together: a plant, a garden, a pet, or a younger sibling. This will let your sons know that men nurture too.
2. Pick Children’s Books that Break the Bias Cycle
For many parents, reading with our kids is one of the most joyful (and least exhausting) parts of our day. Reading books lets us launch conversations, share new ideas, and fuel our kids’ imagination. But children’s books are even more powerful than we might realize.
Children’s books can disrupt the formation of harmful gender role stereotypes, which can help free our kids to forge their own paths, be more accepting of others, and create a more equitable world. Why are children’s books so powerful? It’s because they reach children at the same time that their brains are being encoded with pervasive messaging about gender roles.
You can fight back against this messaging about what’s “appropriate” or “expected” for males and females by picking children’s books that break out of conventional gender role boxes. Choose books that highlight women in professional roles; books that showcase men as caregivers; books that inspire girls to pursue STEM careers; and books that teach boys that empathy and compassion are their true superpowers. You just might find these books to be liberating for yourself as well.
3. Invoke your “Dad of a Daughter” Status to Advance Gender Equity at Work
When men have a daughter, there is a natural tendency to become more supportive of anti-discrimination laws, equal pay policies, and sexual harassment enforcement. Even more exciting is that these tendencies have real-world benefits.
Companies run by CEOs who are dads of daughters tend to have smaller gender pay gaps than companies run by other men. Venture capital firms with senior partners who are dads of daughters are more likely to hire women into their partnership ranks than other VC firms. Executives who are dads of daughters are more likely to be outspoken women’s advocates than other male business leaders.
But men sometimes hesitate to speak up about gender inequality at work because they don’t feel that it’s their place, or they’re concerned about negative reactions. Unfortunately, these concerns are well founded.
When people advocate for a position that appears to be at odds with their own self-interest—like men advocating for women—others often react with surprise, anger, and resentment. These reactions diminish, however, if the speaker identifies a vested interest in the outcome.
For men, this means that invoking your status as the “father of a daughter” can validate your participation in conversations about gender equality and women’s advancement. In other words, being the dad of a daughter can grant men “standing” to advocate for gender equity in ways that allow others to listen and engage with an open mind.
Men often listen to other men…
This is important because men tend to listen to other men. This makes dads of daughters particularly effective at engaging other potential male allies in discussions about gender equity at work.
A great way to get a male colleague’s attention is to ask him whether his workplace is somewhere that he’d be comfortable having his daughter work. Ask him whether it’s a place he thinks his daughter could become a leader. If the answer to these questions are “no,” that opens the door for more concrete conversations about making workplace changes.
Dads of daughters can continue supporting at their own workplaces
Dads of daughters can also be gender equity allies by supporting workplace flexibility, advocating for (and using) paid family leave, calling out gender bias when you see it, mentoring women colleagues, and supporting pay transparency to close the gender pay gap. These forms of gender allyship can help us make good on our promise to our girls that they really can grow up to be anything they want to be.
Michelle Travis is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law and a Director of the nonprofit Fathering Together. She is the author of Dads for Daughters, a guide to male allyship for gender equity, and an award-winning children’s picture book, My Mom Has Two Jobs, which celebrates working moms.