Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Michelle Travis, law professor and Dean’s Circle Scholar at the University of San Francisco School of Law has published a new book, Dads for Daughters: How Fathers Can Give their Daughters a Better, Brighter, Fairer Future. Even though I am not a dad, I found the stories fascinating and inspiring. Travis blends meticulous research with endearing and thought-provoking stories of fathers who help expand opportunities for women. It is an easy, uplifting read that I highly recommend.

I had the opportunity to interview Professor Travis about the book and her insights on supporting women at work:

Q: In the book you discuss the work your husband, Richard Dickson, has done at Fenwick & West as the firm’s chairman. How else did he play a role in the book?

A: He was a big part of the inspiration for me to do this project. I saw the empathy that he had for our daughters’ success. That gave me my first inkling that there was something uniquely powerful about the relationship between dads and daughters as a way to advance opportunities for women.

Q: How did you decide to focus on stories?

A: Stories help men see things that are doable. As humans we relate to very personal stories and how people grow. We can look at the data and think that this is such a daunting challenge. But the stories show that we all have some realm of influence and a contribution to make. I wanted the book to be more of an invitation to a partnership – not an advice book. Hearing the stories of men being supportive was the best and the most rewarding part of the book.

Q: What can daughters do to help their fathers support women?

A: One very powerful way is for daughters to share their experiences with their fathers, such as discussing experiences at work and sharing work-family conflicts. This helps men build empathy, enabling men to look more adeptly at the issues and solutions. Empathy is a skill like any other leadership skill, but we have not always thought of it that way. Daughters can also encourage their fathers to have conversations with other men. Questions like, “If our daughters worked here, could they thrive here?” can foster understanding.

Q: What is one of the most important ways that men can help women advance?

A: Providing mentorship and sponsorship, including giving concrete guidance is key. Studies show that women tend to get less skill-specific feedback than men. Mentors who are men may be a little less honest with women than they are with men. It’s important for men to be aware of the content of their feedback. And training on how to give valuable feedback can benefit everyone.

Q: How do we address the issue of some men being reluctant to mentor women in light of #MeToo?

A: Women need to approach the relationship in a welcoming, non-threatening way. They can remind men of the benefits of mentoring women: Men gain different perspectives and expand their own networks. And prospective mentors and mentees should have the explicit conversation. Bring the Lean.Org study to the table: “Is this a concern you have?” These conversations are difficult, but they are easier if approached in a curious, non-blaming way. And firms should also incentivize mentoring. Too much of the onus of trying to advance women is put on women.

Q: Are you hopeful about the future?

A: I am. The strategies have changed over the years. And I am sometimes frustrated at lack of progress at formal legislative levels, particularly at the national level. As lawyers, we think about the law as a really powerful tool. And while it is humbling to see the limits of the legal tools, it provides motivation to look for other approaches. Engaging people in a direct and personal way is one of those tools.


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