Of Dads and Daughters: Celebrating the Role of Fathers in the Career Choices of Their Girls

Elizabeth Elango and her father

by Elizabeth Elango | June 29, 2021

A few years ago, I came across a campaign that Devex, media platform for the global development community, was doing called “Power with Purpose”. In one episode, renowned economist, and now World Trade organization Secretary General, Ngozi Okonko-Iweala was interviewed. She is a woman I admire greatly, and her infectious, ebullient personality jumped right at me from the computer screen.  When asked who inspired her most in her career she quickly named her father, speaking about the high expectations he had for all his children, especially his daughters. 

This aspect of her story resonated strongly with me as it reminded me of my relationship with my own father, whose influence was formative and foundational to many of my life choices. How our careers start and evolve is often a combination of planning, serendipity, opportunity and happenstance. But if we dig deeper into the factors that influence our choices, we often find that our parents play a strong role. For girls, the influence of fathers may be disproportionately stronger. I studied International Relations in school because I was intrigued by my father’s fascination with history, and I think subconsciously I was hoping through my academics I would understand and connect with him better.

My dad, now retired, was a history professor. He taught at Kennesaw State University, where I did my undergraduate studies. He taught world history and political science, including many of the courses that I had to take. I was never able to take his classes (a little thing called conflict of interest) but many of my peers did, and they spoke about him and his classes with an amazement that bordered on worship. This, of course, intensified my curiosity about my Dad’s work and my eagerness to make him proud with my accomplishments and choices. In the time since college, my dad has continued to be one of my greatest champions, providing encouragement and listening to my professional frustrations while offering wise counsel. The time I decided to leave my job last year with an unknown professional future, he did not hesitate in his support of me: “You make good choices,” he said. “If you want to take a break and figure out the next thing, do. You will land in the right place.” He was right, of course.

Sometime ago I listened to a speech by then International Monetary Fund President, Christine Legarde, in which she said fathers are the gatekeepers of their daughter’s career choices. This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t other influences on the choices of young girls; rather, it is to highlight the special role that fathers play in those choices. I heard this important message  echoed in the recent interview I had with Ms. Evelyne Ombeni, a lawyer at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, who grew up in and survived wartime Congo. “Your education is the best thing I can give you,” her father told her before he died. “Your education is my legacy to you.”

Indeed, fathers are the gatekeepers of their daughters’ career choices. It makes all the difference to me that my dad believes in me. This was a critical factor in my success. So this Father’s Day, it is my dad to whom I will make the first call. I will call him to thank him for working tirelessly to put five children through college on a university professor’s salary. I will call him because he will want to ask about my work, discuss my plans, explore my future with me, hear about his grandchildren. This Father’s Day, I salute Dr. Lovett Elango and the other dads who work actively to ensure that their daughters (and sons) succeed in this world.