Father knows best?

Two new studies look at the way dads influence their daughters' professional lives.

Published February 25, 2009 6:07PM (EST)

Two new studies have confirmed something that has always seemed fairly obvious to me: Fathers are having more influence than ever over their daughter's professional lives. The New York Times reports on a University of Maryland study of career choices among women born between 1909 and 1977. Researchers found that 18 percent of women born in the final decade of the study pursued the same career their father, compared with 6 percent of those born in the first decade. After figuring in the societal changes that have also influenced women's career choices over the years, the study concluded that fathers' increased influence on their daughters accounted for about 20 percent of the increase. While researchers haven't formally explored the reasons behind their findings, one hypothesis is that because dads are spending more time with their daughters, they're also passing on valuable, career-related skills.

Meanwhile, Peggy Drexel, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell, blogs about her own study at Huffington Post. In a post called "Daughters, Dads and Domination," she frames the findings of her research on the relationships between high-achieving daughters and their fathers in a more negative light. The daughters, Drexel writes, "find themselves walking the often thread-thin divide between contribution and control. Some maintain their equilibrium, others don't." She goes on to cite the example of Margo, a Chicago litigator who wanted to be a teacher, like her mom, but allowed her father to push her toward law. Now, she's earning a lot of money on the partner track at a major firm but feels unfufilled. Another woman, Jessica, says her father is "her most loyal supporter and her most relentless critic." They speak on a near-daily basis, and he critiques everything from her work ethic to her weight.

Drexel concludes her post with this thought:

Women who find themselves on the wrong side of the divide between unconditional support and uncompromising control must stake a claim to their territory -- and defend it. They must be focused on their goals, but clear about whose goals they really are. They must be unafraid of conflict. They must accept advice, but reject direct orders. They must live their own lives on their own terms. In other words, they must be exactly the women their fathers raised them to be.

While I agree with Drexel's point, and I don't envy Margo or (especially) Jessica's predicament, I do think the two studies have more in common than meets they eye. Both point to fathers' growing interest in their daughters -- not as dates to a purity ball, but as future professionals whose career goals should be taken seriously. Sure, this also means more pressure and criticism for daughters from the kinds of fathers who have always pressured and criticized their sons. But it also means more support and guidance for daughters from the kinds of fathers who have always supported and guided their sons.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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