Dads For Daughters: Parenting Toward Gender Equality During a Pandemic

Today’s dads are raising confident, empowered daughters who believe they can achieve anything. In a recent survey, dads rated strength and independence among the top characteristics they want to instill in their daughters. But the world our daughters are entering is still profoundly unequal, with girls’ opportunities often limited by deeply-ingrained gender stereotypes. The good news is that engaged fathering holds enormous power for changing this reality. At the same that time that COVID-19 has brought tremendous challenges, it has also created unique opportunities for dads to parent toward gender equality in deeply influential ways.

When men have a daughter—particularly a firstborn daughter—they tend to become less supportive of traditional gender roles and more supportive of anti-discrimination laws, equal pay policies, and sexual harassment enforcement. These tendencies are having real-world benefits. Researchers have found, for example, that companies run by CEOs who are dads of daughters tend to have smaller gender pay gaps than companies run by other men, and executives who are dads of daughters are more likely to be outspoken women’s advocates than other male business leaders.

Here’s some even more exciting news: dads don’t have to be CEOs or executives to advance gender equality. Small daily actions can have very big benefits for our girls. That’s because gender equality starts at home, where dads have incredible opportunities to make a difference. During the pandemic—with schools and daycares shuttered, summer camps cancelled, and playdates indefinitely on hold—many dads have taken on greater childcare responsibilities and are spending more time with their kids than ever. This is a wonderful chance to think about how engaged fathering can also support gender equality and open doors for our daughters’ future. Here are some ways to get started.

Three Ways to Parent Toward Gender Equality

Children start internalizing gender stereotypes at a very early age. Societal messages, images, and modeling teach children gendered lessons about appropriate roles, behaviors, interests, activities, and careers on a daily basis. There are three ways that engaged dads can disrupt these pervasive messages and empower girls to pursue their own paths and dreams.

1. Model Shared Caregiving

One way that dedicated dads can advance gender equality is by modeling shared caregiving. If you have a spouse or partner, sheltering-at-home is a great time to talk openly with one another about more evenly distributing the daily work of parenthood. As co-equal partners, it’s also important for dads to model caring, not just caregiving. It’s ok to show empathy, compassion, emotion, fear, sadness, and vulnerability—traits that will also model healthy masculinity for our sons.

2. Be a Dadfluencer

A second way for dads to parent towards gender equality is to become “Dadfluencers” by publicly sharing their daddy love. Journalist Emily Dreyfuss coined this phrase to describe fathers who proudly share the joys and successes—as well as the struggles and mistakes—of being engaged parents. On Instagram, there are 3.7 million photos and videos tagged #dadlife that share images of men doing everyday parenting. By connecting with other men about fatherhood in positive ways, Dadfluencers are normalizing men’s caregiving role, which is a powerful form of gender equality work. “The more people see fathers actively fathering,” says Emily, “the more it becomes a normal part of society.”

3. Choose Activities that Challenge Gender Stereotypes

Another way for dads to actively disrupt gender role expectations is to engage daughters in activities that may spark interest in future careers that remain male-dominated. To fill the extra hours created by COVID-19, consider spending time with your daughter building something, selling something, doing a science experiment, playing or watching sports, competing fiercely at a video game, or debating a tough issue. These are not only enjoyable ways to spend time with your daughter, but they can also enable her to more easily see herself as a future engineer, entrepreneur, scientist, athlete, or politician.

Three Parenting Resources Created by Dads for Other Dads

Luckily, dads who want to use parenting time to disrupt gender role stereotypes have many fantastic resources at their disposal. Here are three top choices—all of which were created by dads who were seeking to empower their own daughters and open doors for our next generation of girls.

1. The STEAMTeam 5 Book Series

When Greg Helmstetter became aware of the societal messages undercutting young girls’ confidence in STEM, he searched for books, toys, and media to engage his own daughter, Kamea, in STEM-related activities. When he came up largely empty-handed, he decided to tackle the problem himself. He discovered that he could fuel Kamea’s interest in STEM skills by building them into their Barbie doll playtime. Instead of just changing outfits, Kamea was soon using her dolls’ “STEM superpowers” to solve challenges that Greg created, like rescuing animals, inventing new products, or launching an electric car company.

As word of Greg’s girl-powered doll-time spread through the playground network, parents began asking Greg where they could get copies of his adventure stories. Greg recognized a need for more girl-centered STEM media, so he turned his Barbie-time adventures into a book series titled, The STEAMTeam 5. These books follow a team of 5 diverse girls who work together to use their skills in science, technology, engineering, art, and math to help their neighbors, solve mysteries, and save the day. This book series is a wonderful way to empower girls to make a personal connection with STEM skills in a relatable way. “STEAMTeam 5 is much more than just a book,” Greg explains, “it’s a movement designed to get girls interested in STEM/STEAM from a very early age, and to keep them interested.”

2. Ella The Engineer Comics

Anthony Onesto is both a dedicated dad and a tech enthusiast. He became concerned when he saw a drop-off in the interest that his two young daughters, Ella and Nicolette, were showing for technology both at home and in school. This prompted him to look around his own tech company, where he was startled to realize that only 10 of 800 computer coders were women. “That was my ‘what now’ moment,” says Anthony. “How do we get more girls to get excited about coding?”

Anthony realized that building a stronger pipeline of women into tech careers required more engaging role models to get girls excited about technology. That inspired Anthony to create the Ella the Engineer comic book series—the first comic to feature a female tech superhero as the lead character. Ella the Engineer uses coding, hacking, and programming skills to solve relatable problems. She is helped along the way by her trusty computer Mack, her loyal tablet Tabby, and her smart-aleck iphone Smarty. Together they make an irresistible team that will encourage more girls to pursue their interest in technology.

3. The Startup Squad

When Brian Weisfeld’s oldest daughter was eight, she proudly donned her Girl Scout vest and marched down their driveway to sell her first batch of Girl Scout cookies. Brian saw a strong-willed girl who was full of enthusiasm—but who didn’t know the first thing about selling her products. He looked for children’s books and resources that teach girls entrepreneurial skills, but he found very little. This got him thinking about his own business career, and he realized that the dearth of women entrepreneurs was the result of powerful pressures that steered girls in other directions from an early age.

That’s when Brian created The Startup Squad, an initiative dedicated to inspiring girls to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. He launched his project with The Startup Squad book series, which profiles girls who tackle a variety of business challenges, like running a lemonade stand. Brian’s website also profiles real-life “girlpreneurs,” who have started businesses selling everything from candles to dog treats. The website also offers activity kits and business tip sheets on marketing, selling, and merchandising—perfect for a pandemic summer with lots of extra free time. Brian’s goal is to empower girls to believe in their abilities and chase their dreams with tenacity. “Because not every girl wants to be a princess,” Brian explains. “Some want to run the castle. Design the moat. Or break the glass slipper and open a company with better footwear.”

[First published on The Men’s List and on The Child Therapy List]