As president of a women's college, I frequently travel across the country and speak with parents. Increasingly, I have been talking to fathers who want to know more about what they can do to influence their daughters' successful futures. At a recent conference, the father of a young girl approached me, saying he had heard that our college did a lot of work advocating for girls' and women's leadership and success. He wanted to know what he could do to help his own daughter.
Fathers occupy a unique and important role in building self-esteem and confidence in their daughters. They are the first male role models for our girls, and can play a powerful role in how their daughters develop and succeed in the world. Below is a list of tips that I have been compiling over the years. While these tips are geared towards dads for daughters, they are equally applicable to mothers and other influential caregivers, too.
Tip 1: Mistakes are good. For a variety of reasons, girls and women do not embrace risk as easily as men do. Women and girls often see failure as a permanent scar, rather than something that is an opportunity for growth. Some of my most valuable life lessons have come from trying something risky and new, and failing. Girls should not be afraid to make mistakes -- or fail; everyone does this and they will learn with each mistake how to grow and become better. When the opportunity arises, dads, you can talk to your daughter about what she learned from her mistakes and how she has grown from them. And you can share some of your own failings with her, too.
Tip 2: Build a sisterhood. You've heard of the Old Boys' Club, men networking on the golf course, etc. Well, welcome to the sisterhood! Women need mentors just as much as men and these relationships are best created when girls are young. For some girls, learning in a single-sex environment (whether that be a school or a girl-serving organization) is a great way to find mentors and build friendships without the stress of gender-based social complexity. Dads can encourage their daughters to build strong relationships with other girls and to do so in a way that is supportive, not competitive. For example, if you hear your daughter make a critical comment about another girl, challenge your daughter to consider what the other girl may be going through to behave that way. Encourage your daughter to respond to the other girl in a more supportive manner.
Tip 3: Take up space. This tip comes from our friend Rachel Simmons, best-selling author and co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute. For a variety of reasons, girls are afraid to physically take up space. (Ask your daughter to sit or stand like a girl, and then ask her to reenact how a boys sits or stands. You will find the differences -- and the space required -- remarkable!) If girls are not comfortable taking up physical space, this can eventually translate into discomfort with their own thoughts, ideas, and opinions -- some the important building blocks of leadership. In order to help girls develop their own voice, help them feel comfortable having a strong presence in any space. So dads, tell your girls to go ahead, and sprawl out on the couch during your movie marathons!
Tip 4: Science is for girls. According to the White House Council on Women and Girls, women who work in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) earn about a third more salary than women in non-STEM jobs. Right now, women make up only 25% of the STEM workforce, which is expected to grow by nearly 20% during the rest of the decade. While girls have strong career aspirations, they continue to make choices based on gendered messages and often ignore emerging (and highly paid) fields such as STEM. A recent study of more 1,600 middle school students by Simmons College and the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts found that 32% of girls (vs. 10% of boys) don't even consider STEM as an option. Dads, you can encourage your daughters to try out these STEM subjects at an early age. Why not take them to a science museum, or encourage them to read about architecture or math? Who knows, you may be helping to cultivate the next Marie Curie!
Tip 5: Boys can help too: So this is really a tip for dads to give to sons. We live in a culture where boys and men are encouraged to assert their authority. This oftentimes leads to aggressive behavior against girls or women. Dads can influence behavior by encouraging their sons (and sons' friends) to challenge these traits and treat girls and women with the respect they deserve. Doing so will create an environment in which both girls and boys can succeed and ultimately improve the world.