Calling out men for invoking their status as dads of daughters to get “a sexism free pass” is entirely appropriate. Representative Ocasio-Cortez did this brilliantly on the House floor when challenging Representative Yoho’s offensive use of his daughters to excuse his sexist tirade against Ocasio-Cortez on the Capitol steps.
The same well-founded backlash was levied against President Trump for invoking Ivanka to mask his anti-women agenda. It was levied against actor Matt Damon for invoking his daughters to condemn Harvey Weinstein after allegedly helping quash a story about Weinstein’s sexual misconduct. And it was levied against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh for invoking his daughters as a shield against sexual assault allegations.
Using daughters as props and excuses is itself an act of sexism. It’s insulting to women. And it’s insulting to genuine male allies who take real action to support gender equality.
But let’s not forget that many of our genuine male allies were motivated to became advocates for gender equality because of their relationships with their daughters. These dads are our partners, and their work should not be discounted because of the offensive acts of a few fathers like Yoho.
Of course, having a daughter is neither necessary nor sufficient for becoming a male ally for gender equality. What’s necessary is awareness about sexism and a commitment to working for change. Men can gain these attributes in many ways—including learning from their daughters. That doesn’t make dads of daughters who are true male allies any less dedicated to the gender equality fight.
Yet these dads of daughters are sometimes criticized for not achieving empathy earlier or not becoming an advocate simply because it’s the right thing to do. Rather than critiquing these men for the source of their enlightenment, however, we should focus instead on partnering with them to accelerate progress.
Dads of daughters can be excellent first-line male recruits to the gender equality battle. When men have a daughter, they tend to become less supportive of traditional gender roles and more supportive of equal pay policies and sexual harassment enforcement. These tendencies have real-world benefits. Companies run by CEOs who are dads of daughters have smaller gender pay gaps than companies run by other men. Venture capital firms with senior partners who are dads of daughters are more likely to hire women partners than other VC firms. And executives who are dads of daughters are more likely to be outspoken women’s advocates than other male business leaders.
One reason that dads of daughters can be powerful gender equality advocates is because of a phenomenon known as “standing to speak.” Men often hesitate to become vocal supporters of women because they don’t feel it’s their place speak or they’re concerned about negative reactions. These concerns are well-founded. When people advocate for a position that appears at odds with their own self-interest—like men advocating for women—others often react with surprise, anger, and resentment. These reactions are reduced, however, if the speaker identifies a vested interest in the outcome.
This means that male advocates for gender equality can validate their advocacy by authentically invoking their father-daughter relationship. Being the dad of a daughter grants men “standing” to be effective gender equality advocates by allowing others not to discount their message because of the messenger. Since men tend to listen to other men, this makes dads of daughters particularly effective at engaging other male allies in gender equality conversations.
This means that not all invocations of a man’s “dad of a daughter” status are created equal. When a man invokes his daughters to excuse misconduct or mask inactivity on gender equality, we should call that out as a sexist act. But when a man acts to combat sexism and expand opportunities for girls and women, that effort should not be discounted because he was motivated by being the dad of a daughter.
[First published in the San Francisco Chronicle]