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Jena McGregor

Jena McGregor

Staff writer Jena McGregor teases out the leadership issues in the day’s news.

Tom Fox

Tom Fox

Guest contributor Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, writes weekly about issues in the federal workplace.

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham is the editor of On Leadership and writes features for the section.

Selena Rezvani

Selena Rezvani is author of the new book PUSHBACK: How Smart Women Ask—And Stand Up—For What They Want and co-president of Women’s Roadmap. Follow her on Twitter at @SelenaRezvani.
» All Posts by Selena Rezvani

The daughter effect

I was delivering a talk on leadership to a room of 150 professional women when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the raised hand of the sole man in the room.  The audience was asking about navigating the workplace as a woman, finding a mentor, taking risks. Then this lone male―Dave, I’d later learn―offered up a different kind of question: “What would you say to the father of a 13-year-old girl?” 

I was without a quick answer.

Dave and I later went on to become friends, discussing his daughter Holly’s path and his experience raising a girl.  We talked about the template with which dads grow up, which links strength and courage to stoicism, and how this can create a fissure when daughters exhibit emotionality.  We debated the question that we thought could change leaders of corporate America: “Would you want your own daughter to work here?”

It turns out Columbia University’s business school recently released an intriguing study that begins to answer that question.  Based on a 12-year assemblage of workforce data, the study found that when a male CEO had a daughter, the wages paid to his female employees rose relative to males’ wages—helping the long-documented pay gap to lessen.  Closer examination of data showed that the “effect was stronger for the first daughter, and stronger still if the first daughter was also the first child.” Having a daughter, it seems, births a change in perception and, even more important, has the power to compel new action. 

So when a father parents a girl, his female employees can profit. Yet as the study’s authors inquire, if fathers’ attitudes toward pay equity are affected by having daughters, what else is?  His own kids must be the biggest beneficiaries of his new point of view.  A dad, among other critical influencers in his daughter’s life, holds the power to balance the negative murmur that she and her male counterparts will hear about women and girls.  For instance, research finds that in video games (which 97 percent of American youth play), females are often over-sexualized and cast in a tired plot where they wait to be rescued by male superheroes.  Women in these games are rarely able to disentangle themselves from sticky situations.  What’s more, other research finds that the most popular Halloween costumes for girls are still those that depict princesses or beauty queens, and that many stories still underscore that a “good girl” is rather meek.  Too many narratives tell girls that they have minimal real power or initiative—and that physical appearance links directly to self worth.

 “Fathers treat their daughters like porcelain figurines,” Dave said to me one day. He’d realized this on the eve of a business trip to China.  “Holly was nine and she came into my room, watching me pack.  She had lots of questions about the trip so I took out a map and showed her the route of the plane and the places I’d stop.  She sat quietly listening and suddenly looked up at me and said, ‘Dad, can you take me with you?’  I was proud, scared, sad and happy all at once.  While my son was growing up, I’d frequently traveled to Asia and he’d barely ever asked me about the details.”  Dave had observed that many dads unknowingly insulate their daughters from character building scenarios or experiences—ones they might actively seek out for their sons.

Fathers, however, can fortify daughters with a sense of self agency.  A dad can look at his daughter’s emotionality not as an Achilles heel, but as a form of intelligence.  He can encourage assertive behavior, teaching her to take a stand even if it’s an unpopular point of view.  He can discuss politics and news with her, asking for her interpretation and engaging her in debate.  He can tell her that he expects a lot from her because she’s capable, and help her to trust her instincts.  He can give her a hammer and nails and let her build something.  He can help her learn about gutsy women who have come before her.  Dads can light a fire in their daughters that helps them “go get it,” rather than asking for permission for it. 

Selena Rezvani  | Mar 18, 2011 11:20 AM

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