Daddy's Sexism May Influence Daughter's Ambitions

Dad plays with daughter on beach.
A father and daughter play on the beach. (Image credit: Tatyana Vychegzhanina, Shutterstock)

NEW ORLEANS — Dads who have egalitarian ideas about gender — and who walk the talk by doing household chores themselves — have daughters with higher workplace ambitions than less egalitarian fathers do, new research finds.

The research is correlational, so it doesn't prove that fathers' attitudes are the cause their young daughters' work aspirations. But the research may suggest that girls look to their fathers for examples of what is expected of women. Dads' attitudes also predict what kind of play their daughters enjoy.

"Dads who are more balanced have girls who are just as likely to play with Transformers as Barbie dolls," study researcher Toni Schmader, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia said here Friday (Jan. 18) at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Male and female role models

Schmader and her colleagues were interested in how gender stereotypes develop at a young age. To find out, they gave questionnaires to 196 elementary-school-age boys, 167 elementary-school-age girls and at least one parent of each asking about gender stereotypes, gendered behavior and, for parents, division of household labor.

They found that women, even those who work outside the home, shouldered more of the housework burden than men. This pattern has been seen in numerous sociology and psychology studies and is so prevalent that is has a name: "the second shift," meaning that women essentially put in a full day at work and then another on top of it at home.

The researchers also found that women influence their kids about gender stereotypes. A mom's attitude about the proper roles of men and women is almost always echoed by their kids.

But in the realm of actual behavior, dads are key. The fewer gender stereotypes dad holds, the more likely his daughter is to say she wants to work outside the home as an adult. The daughters of egalitarian men are also more likely to have broader, less gendered interests — they're less hemmed in by stereotypes that say girls should only play house or dress in pink. They're equally likely to play with "boy" toys versus "girl" toys, Schmader said. [Busted! 6 Gender Myths in the Bedroom & Beyond]

Dads' behavior mattered too. The more equally dad and mom divided household work, the less stereotypically girly their daughter's behavior.

Parents and stereotypes

The researchers aren't sure why boys didn't respond in the same way as girls to their fathers' attitudes. It's possible that boys just don't see enough variation in stereotypically masculine behavior, or that their own behavior doesn't waver from stereotypes enough to register statistically, Schmader said.

Nor is it entirely clear why dads seem to hold so much sway over their daughters' gendered behaviors and aspirations while moms aren't as influential. The reason could be that dads still are seen as having a higher status in the household, so girls weigh their opinions more heavily, Schmader told LiveScience. It's also possible that girls see dad as a sort of role model for the type of partner they may end up with one day.

"Not role models for who they can be, but role models for who they could be with," she said. Thus, girls may learn what's expected of a woman in a relationship from their father.

Schmader warned that more work is needed to prove that the fathers' attitudes cause their daughter's actions. It's possible, she said, that having a girl who defies gender stereotypes alters dad's perceptions of proper gender roles rather than the other way around.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.