Commentary: Having daughters is a game-changer for men’s attitudes toward women

FILE - In this May 27, 2015, file photo, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry is joined by his daughter Riley at a news conference after Game 5 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals against the Houston Rockets in Oakland, Calif. Curry has been named The Associated Press 2015 Male Athlete of the Year. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

Last August, professional basketball star Stephen Curry wrote that raising daughters has shifted how he sees gender inequality, that these issues had become “more personal” and “real” for him, and he now found such discrimination unacceptable.

A couple of months later I read a scholarly article, “The First Daughter Effect: The Impact of Fathering Daughters on Men’s Preferences for Gender Equality Policies,” that seems to explain Curry’s shift.

While most of my research has focused on fathers’ impact on daughters, this study looks at how fathering daughters influences men — particularly how it may change their perspectives of gender-equality policies.

Researchers looked at three scenarios: First, do men who father daughters in general (regardless of birth order) express more support for sex equity policies? Second, if daughters make up more of the total number of children in a family (proportion), will the father express greater support? And, third, do men who have a daughter as the first-born child support sex equity policies more than those who have first-born sons? What do you think?

The research clearly showed that having a daughter first is a game-changer for men.

Dads like Curry, whose firstborn is a girl, end up with more progressive views on gendered policy issues. Becoming a parent is life changing, and when a daughter is part of that transformation, it can cause fathers to shift their perspective and imagine the world through her eyes. So, becoming a dad + having a daughter (first seems to be the most profound) = greater identification with women’s issues.

The researchers also found that mothers consistently expressed more support for gender equality policies than did fathers, most likely because as women they have experienced the inequities first hand. However, we really don’t know how this plays out in Utah as, according to one study, Utah has the highest “internalized” sexist attitudes among its women.

To me this is incredibly important, as we think about helping more men become allies and advocates for women in all settings. Could those who have daughters as the oldest child be more open to learning, understanding and implementing gender equality policies? And, what can we do to help fathers of daughters (or sons) more generally to become male allies and advocates?

As we know, the way we are raised forms the foundation of our values, beliefs and unconscious biases. And, the influence of parents on their daughters shapes the ways girls and women see themselves as influencers and leaders. Yet, according to this research, daughters also play a role in influencing their parents.

It seems to me that if men become more supportive of political and governmental policies related to gender equity after having a first-born daughter, they may also be more prone to support and initiate favorable workplace policies and initiatives. This is critical for a state that has such strong beliefs in family. Gender equality policies are good for women, men and families. They are good for everyone.

Susan R. Madsen | Utah Valley University

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Orin R. Woodbury professor of leadership & ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University. She is also the founder and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.