Here’s what dads can do at home to help their daughters grow into successful leaders

Raising girl power
Raising girl power
Image: Darren Staples/Reuters
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My dad loves to argue—and growing up, he’d do it with me any chance he got. As a kid, he offered me a pound in exchange for a five-minute fight (a reference to a Monty Python skit at an “argument clinic”). We debated about everything, from politics to my piano performances.

As an adult, I can’t say I’m the best at confrontation. But the tradition (still ongoing) did teach me to have confidence in the value of my opinion and how to articulate my beliefs in a debate. That came in handy when I began my career in journalism–and it’s just one example of the ways in which fathers can prepare their daughters to succeed in the modern workplace.

As society’s ideas about gender roles evolve, “fathers seem to be having considerably more impact on their daughters than ever before” with regard to their careers, writes Linda Nielsen, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University and the author of two books on father-daughter relationships. Nielsen cites research suggesting daughters’ academic and career achievements were closely related to the quality of their childhood relationships with their fathers.

“This may help explain why first-born daughters and daughters who have no brothers are over-represented among the world’s political leaders,” Nielsen writes. Hillary Clinton and Catherine the Great were both first-born daughters, while Margaret Thatcher was practically her father’s surrogate son.

The same pattern emerges in a recent story in The Atlantic that details the upbringings of three powerful female leaders from Uganda, India and Tunisia. The three interviewees describe a “father figure who taught and empowered the women in the family to learn, ask questions, and form their own opinions as a key factor in their own growth,” Sharmilla Ganesan writes. “This, coupled with mothers or other older women who broke convention by displaying leadership within the family, was a common source of early lessons on leadership.”

Beyond paying their daughters per argument, there are a number of things fathers can do to help young girls develop leadership skills and fight back against sexism in their professional lives.

One basic but important start is to display egalitarian behaviors at home. Parents who share household duties like cooking and doing laundry demonstrate to their children that roles don’t have to be determined by gender, and research has shown this equal division of labor can have a direct impact on girls’ ambitions. In the study (pdf), involving interviews with more than 300 children in Canada, researchers found that in households where the mother and father shared duties, girls tended to have bigger career aspirations than in homes where mom’s did more of the work.

Fathers who have faith in their daughters’ ability to confront obstacles—and who verbalize that confidence—may also prepare young girls to defend themselves when confronted with sexist views. Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, has always had her father’s absolute backing. He did, after all, name his first-born daughter after a 19th-century Pashtun warrior heroine.

Fathers can express their confidence in their daughters in a number of ways. They should encourage them to be bold, assertive, and take calculated risks. They can introduce them to the joys of travel, urge them to try new activities like camping or running a 5K, and spend time alone with their daughters pursuing those pastimes. Teaching girls how to deal with failure and risk means they’re more likely to tackle problems with a spirit of creativity and innovation later on, as Girls Who Code founder and CEO Reshma Saujani explained in a recent TED talk. “When we teach girls to be brave and we have a supportive network cheering them on, they will build incredible things,” Saujani said.

Fathers in male-dominated fields like science, engineering or technology can also provide their daughters with critical exposure to these fields and the skills they will need later on, according to research by Dr. Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It’s crucial for fathers to talk to their daughters about their work and engage with them in related activities, whether that means experimenting with baking soda volcanoes at home or playing coding games together.

I have a vivid memory of my own father, an accountant, trying to explain how mortgages and interest rates worked when I was young. He regularly tackled math homework with his three daughters as well as his son, and taught us how to read spreadsheets and balance checkbooks.

“It just seemed to me that there was something of value in passing that sort of knowledge on to you,” my dad says. “You were going to come into contact with them in your own personal life and you’d come into contact with them in business.”

I can’t say I always enjoyed these lessons—I wasn’t really mathematically inclined. But they did give me an understanding of the value of money and the importance of financial independence.

Fathers can also help prepare their daughters to stand up against harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace by discussing sexism at an early age. Talking through how to deal with a teacher who calls on boys more than girls, for example, lets girls know that their voices deserve to be heard. “The influence of both parents, if the child has two parents, is equally important but it may be important in different ways,” says Dr. Dasgupta. “Each parent brings in different strengths, and may give different advice or emphasize different aspects to their child to promote her future success.”

Lastly, the simple importance of fostering an open dialogue between fathers and daughters can’t be underestimated. This kind of connection can be critical later in life, when a daughter is in need of advice or support. I’ve called my dad every time I’ve needed advice about changing jobs, even if I think I’ve made up my mind already. Having him there to listen to me talk through the pros and cons of a big career move has helped me approach decisions with confidence.

“There will always be love, because you’re my flesh and blood and I brought you up and all the rest of it,” my father says of his parenting philosophy. “But there’s got to be also be a bit of friendship. You’ve got to be able to talk with each other, make jokes about each other and maybe even argue with each other. That’s what really good friends can do.”