Fathers Can Be Gender Equity Advocates

Here's how to encourage daughters to pursue a STEM career

6 min read
A father and daughter smiling at each other with a circuit board on a table in front.

In my article "A Father's Perspective About Daughters and Engineering," published in 2016, I shared my frustration about the lack of role models and the cultural messages that had left my two brilliant daughters—and many of their female friends—with little interest in pursuing an engineering career.

After the article was published, I received an email from Michelle Travis, who was writing a book about dads and daughters. She wanted to know my thoughts about creating a stronger pipeline for girls to pursue a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) career and what could be done to change the narrative about engineering to highlight its public-service role.

Travis is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she co-directs its Work Law and Justice Program. She researches and writes about employment discrimination law, gender stereotypes, and work/family integration. She is also a founding member of the Work and Family Researchers Network and serves on the board of directors of the nonprofit Fathering Together.

Her latest book, Dads for Daughters, is a guide for engaging male allies in support of gender equity. (I was one of the fathers featured in the book.) She has written the award-winning My Mom Has Two Jobs, a children's picture book that celebrates working mothers.

Over the years, we have stayed in touch, followed each other's work, and looked for other ways to collaborate.

In the past few months, I became frustrated by the news of girls from certain countries either not being allowed to go to school or risking their safety even when they were officially allowed to attend. That is one reason I felt I needed to talk to Travis and learn from her about what else could be done to change the way fathers and men in general think about women's abilities and the successes women have had in almost every field including engineering.

Last month I asked her a few questions about her book and about what fathers can do to better support women. In the following interview, she gives a sneak peek of her book and lists several resources for engineering dads who want to encourage their daughters to pursue a STEM career.

QA: Why did you, a lawyer, decide to research and write about fathers and their daughters? Is it personal?

MT: My interest in engaging dads of daughters as gender equity advocates is both professional and personal. I've spent years as a lawyer and law professor using legal tools to advance women's equality in the workplace—seeking stronger employment-discrimination laws, equal-pay practices, and family-leave policies. Over time, I realized that the law has limits to what it can accomplish. I also realized that we've asked women to do too much of the heavy lifting to break down barriers and crack glass ceilings. Most importantly, I realized that progress requires commitment from male leaders who hold positions of power.

I started asking myself how women might engage more men in gender-equity efforts. At the same time, I noticed the powerful effect that my two daughters were having on my husband. He had always viewed women's equality as an important goal, but it wasn't until he started thinking about the world his daughters were entering that he fully internalized his personal responsibility and his own power to have an impact. Having daughters fueled his urgency to act. He wanted to become an outspoken advocate for girls and women, rather than just a bystander.

"Fathers who are engineers are uniquely positioned to become allies for expanding opportunities for girls and women."

Watching this transformation is what prompted my study of the father-daughter relationship. I discovered that my husband's experience was not unique. Researchers have found that having a daughter tends to increase a man's support for antidiscrimination laws, equal-pay policies, and reproductive rights, and it tends to decrease men's support of traditional gender roles. This has significant effects in the workplace. For example, dads of daughters are more likely than other male leaders to champion gender diversity. And CEOs who are dads of daughters tend to have smaller gender wage gaps in their company than in those run by men who aren't fathers.

Of course, many men without a daughter are women's allies, and not all dads with daughters are gender-equity advocates. We've even heard some men—including prominent politicians—invoke their "father of a daughter" status in disingenuous ways.

But most dads of daughters are genuinely interested in advancing equal opportunities for girls and women. This makes the father-daughter relationship an excellent entry place for inviting men into partnerships to build a more equitable world.

QA: Why should people read your book?

MT: Today's dads are raising confident, empowered daughters who believe they can achieve anything. But the world is still unequal, with workplaces run by men, a gender pay gap, and deeply ingrained gender stereotypes. My book celebrates the role that fathers can play in creating a better world for the next generation of girls.

Inspired by their daughters, fathers are well positioned to become powerful allies for girls and women. But in a post-#MeToo world, it can be difficult for men to step in and speak up. That's where Dads for Daughters can help. It arms fathers with the data they need to advocate for gender equity. It also offers concrete strategies for how they can make a difference in a variety of areas, from sports fields to science labs, and boardrooms to ballot boxes.

In addition to being a guidebook, it also shares stories of fathers who have already joined the fight. All the men highlighted credited their daughters for motivating them to focus more on gender equity. They include a CEO who invested in female entrepreneurs to run part of his company's supply chain and a lawyer who created part-time positions at his firm—which keeps women on a partnership track. There is also a head coach who hired the NBA's first female assistant coach. Another is a governor who broke from his party line to sign a bill expanding rights for sexual assault victims. There is an engineer who provided computer skills training to support girls who were victims of India's sex trafficking trade. In addition, there's a teacher, a U.S. Army colonel, a pipe fitter, a firefighter, and a construction contractor, who joined forces to battle for parity in girls' high school sports programs.

All those dads, and many others, were inspired to support gender equity because of their daughters. Their stories can motivate other dads to get involved. Dads who are committed to seeing their daughters achieve their dreams have an opportunity to improve the world that their daughters will enter, and Dads for Daughters will support them on this journey.

QA: What do you think fathers who are engineers can do differently from other dads, and why?

MT: Fathers who are engineers are uniquely positioned to become allies for expanding opportunities for girls and women. We all know that there's a huge gender imbalance in STEM fields. It results in an enormous loss of talent. Dads of daughters can take small but impactful steps in their homes, communities, and workplaces to welcome more girls and women into engineering careers.

At home, fathers can fill their home with books, toys, and activities that empower girls to imagine themselves as future engineers. There are some wonderful resources created by engineering dads for this very purpose. For example, finding a lack of engineering role models for his daughter, Greg Helmstetter created the STEAMTeam 5 book series, which shares the adventures of five girls who tackle challenges with their STEM skills. Anthony Onesto was inspired by his daughters to create the Ella the Engineer comic-book series, which features a superhero girl who uses her engineering know-how to solve problems and save the world.

Other great children's books include Andrea Beaty's Rosie Revere, Engineer, Tanya Lee Stone's Who Says Women Can't Be Computer Programmers? and Mike Adamick's Dad's Book of Awesome Science Experiments. Dads of daughters can also follow Ken Denmead's GeekDad blog, check out the Go Science Girls website, and buy one of Debbie Sterling's GoldieBlox engineering kits for their daughter's next birthday.

Dads who are engineers can have an even broader impact in their community by volunteering with a girl tech organization such as EngineerGirl, TechGirlz, Girls Who Code, Girl Develop It, or CoolTechGirls. These organizations are always looking for engineers to share their expertise and passion for STEM careers with talented young girls.

Engineer dads can also become gender-equity leaders at their workplace. Hiring, mentoring, and sponsoring women is a critical step in expanding women's representation in the engineering field. Dads can further support women by joining programs such as Million Women Mentors or partnering with IEEE Women in Engineering or the Society of Women Engineers. The empathy that dads gain from their daughters can also enable them to create a safer workplace culture by combating hostile work environments and speaking out against gender bias.

QA: From a grown daughter's perspective, what makes fathers different from husbands or friends?

MT: In a recent survey, dads rated strength and independence among the top qualities they hoped to instill in their daughters—which is different from the characteristics that men value most in their wives. From a daughter's perspective, this can make fathers particularly effective allies on their behalf.

When dads are engaged in their daughters' lives, the relationship has a singularly profound impact. Involved dads raise women who are more confident, have higher self-esteem, and have better mental health. Girls with supportive dads have stronger cognitive abilities and are more likely to stay in school and achieve greater financial success. Involved dads also help daughters enter healthier adult relationships with other men.

For fathers, the daughter relationship is a powerful way to build men's empathy skills and increase men's awareness of sex discrimination and gender inequality. For example, men often gain a better understanding of work/family integration challenges while watching their adult daughters juggle career and motherhood demands.

Researchers have found that dads of daughters often have more credibility with other men when supporting gender equity. When people advocate for a position that appears to be at odds with their own self-interest, others often react with surprise, anger, and resentment. These reactions go away if the speaker identifies a vested interest in the outcome. This means that invoking one's status as the father of a daughter can grant men "standing" to advocate for gender equity in ways that get others to listen. Because men tend to pay attention to dads of daughters who talk about the importance of women's rights, that makes fathers particularly strong recruiters of other male allies as well.
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