Alexis Ohanian is one very high-profile dad. In the nearly two years since he and his wife, tennis superstar Serena Williams, had their daughter, Olympia, the Reddit co-founder and venture capitalist has made fatherhood a key part of his public image.
Ohanian’s Instagram feed is replete with photos of him with his toddler. (Witness Olympia and her dad making friends with fish at the aquarium, or Ohanian tickling Olympia’s toes in a carseat.) At his early-stage VC fund, Initialized, the partners “are used to seeing Olympia jump on camera—along with her doll Qai Qai—or hearing her babbling on a call,” he writes for Glamour. And on Twitter and in media interviews, he relentlessly beats the drum about the importance of paid paternity leave, speaking from firsthand experience after taking 16 paid weeks away from Reddit after the birth of his child.
By Ohanian’s own admission, his public performance of parenthood is strategic. He talks so much about being a dad not just because he’s one of Olympia’s two biggest fans, but because he wants to help popularize the notion that men and women share equal responsibility for parenting. “Olympia’s great, I love her, I admit, she’s a great kid,” he tells Quartz. “But the real magic here is seeing a career dad talking about it. I know we’re in a phase where it’s still a little bit of an anomaly, and so the end goal is for this to just be normal.”
As the man who Forbes once declared “mayor of the internet,” it makes sense that Ohanian believes that talking about fatherhood on social media can play a crucial role in shifting gender norms. That said, he doesn’t think he deserves special props for, say, holding Olympia in a pool or otherwise spending time with his kid. “I know it’s a little eye-roll-y because why are we celebrating this thing? This is what we should expect dads to do,” he says. “But I do think it’s important to normalize it, because we’re still in the early adopter stage. We need to get to the point where everyone is like, This is just dads doing dad things.”
To that end, he’s trying to generate online discussion about fatherhood not only in his personal feeds, but also in the just-launched Facebook group Advocates for Paternity Leave. The closed Facebook community is a part of Ohanian’s partnership with the Unilever brand Dove Men+Care on the Pledge for Paternity Leave, an effort to encourage companies to instate paid paternal leave policies and to push for federal legislation mandating paid family leave for mothers and fathers alike.
Ohanian frequently discusses how his own experience staying home with Olympia helped him gain a concrete understanding of why paid leave for new dads is such a crucial issue for workplace gender equality. But getting companies to offer the policy—and getting dads to take it—depends on changing the ingrained idea that a man’s identity is synonymous with his career. “I’ve seen the tweets and comments about how being less successful (or doing what is traditionally considered ‘women’s work’ and caring for your kids) can be ’emasculating,'” he writes for Glamour.
Thankfully, Ohanian tells Quartz, there are a growing number of online spaces where dads are coming together to bond with one another over life as a caregiver. Among his favorites are the Reddit groups r/Daddit, where fathers share advice on things like story time and the best hiking baby carriers, and r/DadReflexes, with over 455,000 subscribers. It shares what he calls “slightly scary but amusing videos” of fathers swooping in to catch their kids just as they tumble off a playground roundabout or a changing table. The videos are psychologically reassuring viewing for parents because the end is always the same: “Dad saves the day,” Ohanian says. While most people are familiar with stories about moms lifting cars off their children or performing other extraordinary feats of selflessness, he says that the dad-reflex videos are bite-sized reminders of fathers’ own deep reserves of love and protectiveness.
“Every dad-reflex gif is a way to normalize dads having this similar kind of [capacity] and shining a light on these paternal behaviors,” Ohanian says.
This kind of wholesome content is a welcome respite from the displays of toxic masculinity that proliferate in online communities devoted to men’s rights, incels, pick-up artists, and the alt-right—including on Reddit, the very platform that Ohanian helped found. He says that while social media can be used for ill, it also can be harnessed to help men build more positive connections with one another, with the common experience of fatherhood as their foundation. Not only could this help shift social structures that place the burden of care-taking disproportionately on women, both at work and at home, but more dad talk online could also serve to counterbalance “hustle porn“—the preponderance of social-media posts from tech workers and entrepreneurs who glorify 80-hour work weeks, Instagramming photos of their deserted offices when they’re still working at midnight.
“Social media can be a big part of the solution,” Ohanian says. “It has an impact on how we think. If the FOMO posts and the hustle porn posts started [getting replaced by] the selfie of you kicking a ball around with you kid or running some errands, just doing dad stuff, then I think we get a little closer.”
This story is part of How We’ll Win 2019, a year-long exploration of gender equality in the workplace and beyond. Read more stories here.