What does Father’s Day have to do with science?

by Wendy Sadler

In the coming week we’re looking forward to celebrating two very important dates – Father’s Day (21st June) and National Women in Engineering Day (23rd June). Just two days apart, but other than that you may wonder why they would have any connection at all.

Why fathers and male role models matter to the STEM problem. Image CC BY-NC-SA

For years, the discussion of how to remove barriers from girls interested in engineering has been focused on providing more female role models. But I think we overlook the importance of male role models, and the impact they can have, at our peril.

Fathers and housework

An interesting research study has shown that the participation of a father in daily chores around the house has much more influence on their daughter’s career aspirations than their sons. It seems that by taking up non-traditional roles and challenging the stereotypical roles of parents a marked difference can be seen in the daughters of the household who more often reported opting for non-traditional careers. Careers of choice given by the girls in the study included engineering, palaeontology and astronaut! They found that although non-traditional ideas by both parents was likely to encourage girls to look for more ambitious careers in general outside the home, it was the proportion of chores that the father did in practice that predicted the unconventional careers choice more significantly than the parental attitude alone.

Behind every great woman…?

We often hear of successful women, who partly cite their success as down to having a supportive and flexible partner who take their share of the chores and the childcare. I know I do. Many have said they couldn’t have got where they are without it.

I think it is about actions speaking louder than words. These girls (and boys) just grow up seeing an equal division of labour and an illustration of non-stereotypical roles so it is accepted as the norm – even though society as a whole may not quite have caught up yet!


Professor Karen Holford, Cardiff University. Image CC BY-NC-ND

One of my inspirations is Professor Karen Holford – a motor-sports enthusiast, highly regarded professional engineer, and now pro-Vice Chancellor of the College of Physical Sciences of (our lovely host organisation) Cardiff University. I will always remember her telling me how her Dad encouraged her to get involved with cars, and that her husband was able to take the lion’s share of the childcare due to his flexible working pattern. I’m sure she would have been hugely successful anyway, but she can’t be the only successful woman who has openly acknowledged the part that the men in her life have played in that success.

Anyone who knows me will know that I like to rant on about the importance of toys and marketing in shaping these stereotypes that society insists on imposing. As the parent of a boy and a girl, and an avid supporter of the @lettoysbetoys campaign we hear plenty about the damage that can be done when construction sets and science toys are marketed only to boys (as my previous blog here discusses).

Zac microwave

Domestic play toys should be marketed as gender neutral. Image CC BY-NC-SA Becky Holmes

But equally we are doing serious damage to boys when we deprive them of the freedom to play with toys that encourage nurturing characteristics and an interest in housework! I know many boys who love to hoover and play with dolls houses and kitchens when they are little – but as soon as they start school this becomes uncommon and a cause for being teased.

Behaviour problems and mental health issues for boys and men are a growing concern, and I think we can’t rule out the fact that boys are just conditioned by society to ‘man up’ and not talk about problems, feelings or admit to any weakness. This is the flip-side to us telling girls that they should only be focused on being ‘the fairer sex’. If men feel single-handedly responsible for everything, and that it isn’t acceptable for them to ask for help, or admit they are struggling, they will eventually suffer.

Toys that help develop communication about feelings and nurturing should be considered gender-neutral if we are ever going to tackle problems of gender inequality.

I was sad to hear in a meeting this week that a man asking for time off work to look after his sick father was asked; ‘didn’t he have a wife who could do that?’ before being (eventually) given the time off.

Tackling this inequality in the way boys and men are stereotyped is every bit as important as tackling the Barbie stereotype for girls.

So as we celebrate the brilliant Dads in our lives, and the brilliant women in engineering, let’s consider how the two things may not be entirely unconnected.


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