If you ask my almost-5-year-old twin girls what Daddy’s job is, they might say “fixer,” or “teacher.” Or they might just say that their dad takes care of them. On the two weekdays when they’re not in preschool, I sometimes have to tell them that I can’t braid Rainbow Dash’s mane or print out Hello Kitty coloring pages just right that second because I’m “working.” It’s too complicated to explain the connection between the phone conversations and clickety-clacking on the laptop and my part-time jobs as freelance writer, carpenter, and adjunct professor; so I just call it work. If you ask them what Mommy does though, they know the answer, immediately and unequivocally: She’s a doctor.
What my daughters see me doing most of the time—the part they can wrap their heads around—is child care and housework. According to research from the University of British Columbia, the effect of seeing me thus occupied should be empowering to them in terms of their career aspirations.
Doctoral candidate Alyssa Croft conducted the study, soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, in which she measured factors such as the degree to which fathers and mothers self-identify with work vs. home, their respective gender- and work-equality beliefs, and the extent of their children’s own gender stereotyping. Croft found a number of interesting relationships between parents’ and children’s attitudes; but the most striking data pointed to a strong correlation between the relative amount of domestic labor dads perform and the extent to which their daughters express interest in “gender-stereotypic” careers.
In the discussion section of her upcoming article, Croft writes:
In conclusion, the present findings suggest that even in our current, progressive society where explicit (verbal) messages of gender equality are encouraged, young girls’ developing beliefs about gender roles may very well be shaped by more subtle and indirect cues from their mothers and fathers’ behaviors. Although research often considers how women and girls are constrained by gender stereotypes about women and work, the present study reveals the importance of considering gender stereotypes regarding domestic tasks. If our assumed causal model is accurate, fathers likely play an important role in modeling a more egalitarian future for their daughters by their contributions at home. Our results suggest that when fathers espouse and enact a more equal distribution of domestic work, their daughters more easily envision balancing work with family and having a less gender-stereotypic career.
Croft’s study included 326 children, ages 7-10, and their parents. She collected data regarding both the parents and the children’s associations between gender and occupations, and, most importantly, as it turns out, the distribution of unpaid domestic labor in the families’ homes. While the parents’ explicit attitudes about gender equality—what they claimed to believe—had negligible effects on the children’s dreams of their futures, the actual divvying up of housework and child care was closely associated with the types of career goals the kids—especially the girls—expressed. To wit, the more unpaid domestic labor the dads did, the less likely their daughters were to express interest in female-dominated occupations like nursing, teaching, or stay-at-home parenting to the exclusion of traditionally male-dominated careers. As Croft says in this video, dads who “walked the walk” of gender equity at home were more predictive of daughters unconstrained by gender norms in their aspirations than dads who talked a good game but rarely did the dishes.
First of all, I should stipulate that I don’t feel there is any greater intrinsic value to male-dominated careers than to female-dominated ones. I don’t think I’m alone in my belief that a good nurse or middle-school teacher is worth a hundred hedge-fund managers. But I’m pleased to know that research suggests my family dynamic will encourage my daughters to consider any future as possible, rather than limiting themselves to “gender-stereotypic” ambitions. At the moment, one of my girls wants to be an “ice skating racer” (she has not yet been on skates) and the other wants to be a “ballerina teacher”; but at other times they have expressed interest in being doctors and astronauts (also, ballerina/astronauts and ballerina/doctors.) And one of them sometimes says she will be a fixer, like Dad, when she grows up. I think this is just to humor me, but I appreciate it.
In Croft’s video, she claims that the findings of her study are important because there is still a dearth of women in management and leadership positions, and that fathers may be able to have an effect on that imbalance by modeling egalitarian roles at home. If we want our daughters to have more ambition and agency in their professional and social lives, she suggests, we dads should make a point of visibly taking on low-status household tasks.
It may seem ironic that a guy who is not particularly interested in money, status, or leadership for himself should be concerned that his daughters are not discouraged from pursuing those things. But while I don’t think it’s crucial, or even desirable, for every person to aspire to leadership roles, I think we should never discourage girls who show any inclination do so. It is a common lament that women are denied access to the highest rungs of corporate and political power, and that’s a sentiment I share. Many of the most crippling problems we face today are due to entrenched economic and political power in the hands of people who hew to the same demographic profile. Diversity in the upper echelons can only help break up the logjams caused by this homogeneity.
So if my daughters want to be teachers or stay-at-home moms (or carpenters), I will be delighted that they followed in my meandering footsteps. But if they want to bring the values that we share as a family into their jobs as CEOs or military commanders, I will be equally proud.