The one thing all dads can do to boost their daughter's ambition

4 Minute Read | Author: Christopher Scanlon

"Mummy, what can we do? We'll have to call Daddy!", my five-year-old daughter Violet panicked when my wife Kasey accidentally dropped a glass that shattered on the kitchen tiles.

As far as Violet was concerned, there was no option but to cordon off the kitchen until I came home to clean up the mess.

While slightly disconcerted by the fact that Violet evidently thinks my wife to be incapable of dealing with broken glass, we were also chuffed. Bucking a large dose of cultural programming, my daughter had come to assume that when it comes to housework, Daddy is the go-to guy.

I put this down to the special relationship I have with my Dyson vacuum cleaner. Where other men buy power tools, I have a Dyson. While my wife regularly does loads of washing (because when it comes to separating colours and whites, I am the original Christian ‘50 Shades Of’ Grey), Violet mostly sees me driving the vacuum cleaner and washing dishes.

It turns out that doing the housework has more far-reaching effects than simply disrupting generations of gender stereotypes around housework. Recent research suggests that it may also positively affect girls’ career aspirations.

A study published in Psychological Science found that daughters who see their fathers doing housework have more ambitious career goals.

The team of researchers from the University of British Columbia quizzed 172 boys and 154 girls between the ages of 7–13 about their beliefs regarding gender and their future career aspirations. The researchers also asked the parents about their beliefs about gender and how many hours of housework they did.

They found that parents who espouse gender equality raise girls who have more ambitious plans about what they want to do when they grow up. Girls whose mothers do less domestic work and who don’t identify with traditional stereotypes are more likely to envision themselves working outside of the home.

But an even stronger influence on girls' future career aspirations was what their fathers do. The researchers found that girls whose fathers did not consider housework to be women’s work, and demonstrated this by sharing the load, were more likely to have more ambitious career aspirations.

In short, it's not enough for fathers to talk to the talk of gender equality. If you want to raise an ambitious daughter, you also need to pick up the vacuum cleaner and pack the dishwasher.

In some ways, these findings shouldn’t be surprising. No doubt a large part of the reason why fathers doing domestic work makes a difference is because it allows mothers to do more outside of the home.

It was staggering just how much the domestic work increased when we had kids. And unlike life before kids, it simply has to be done. Bottles need to be sterilised, vegies need to be pureed and vomit needs to be mopped off the floor. It is no longer possible to just shut the door on it and go out to dinner.

If fathers don’t step up and share the responsibility for domestic work, it inevitably falls to mothers. And if she’s doing all the domestic work and childcare, then there’s not much time left in the day for her to be doing anything else.

Daughters, therefore, see their most influential role model doing little other than serving the needs of everyone else.

The research, however, did have a sting in the tail — one that might come back on the girls whose ambitions and careers aspirations have been raised by their fathers. The researchers found that a father's willingness to fold the washing and pick up wet towels doesn't rub off on their sons.

As the researchers put it, "There was little evidence that boys develop a personal interest in a more family-oriented future from their fathers' domestic beliefs and behaviours."

The researchers speculate that boy’s attitudes about their future careers are relatively more fixed than girls, because of the external social environment and gender roles for men being more rigid. It may also be the case that girls are more attuned to social cues and expectations.  

This is slightly alarming, since these are the same boys who may grow up to date ambitious girls. Perhaps an equally important finding of this research isn’t just lifting girls’ aspirations, but also the need for fathers to get boys to pull their weight around the home.


This article was originally published by Fairfax Media