El-Erian: A lesson on gender bias from my daughter

August 8, 2013, 4:35 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Ever since Mohamed El-Erian, the CEO and co-CIO of bond giant PIMCO, told me that he read sections of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to his 10-year-old daughter, I pegged him as an evolved guy. El-Erian wrote a terrific piece for Fortune.com about why executives should read Sandberg’s best-seller. Since then, he has peppered my in-box with comments about women in the workplace. And last week, he sent me this story. It’s a confession about mishandling gender bias in his own family and learning from a mistake that any smart father or mother could make.

I never – ever – thought that I would be one of those parents who slips up when it comes to protecting our young daughter from gender biases and stereotypes that emerge early in a child’s development.

Well, I was wrong.

And while the blunder is (hopefully) small, it serves as an important reminder of how hard it still is to ensure equal opportunities.

I find my misstep to be particularly disturbing because of the many chances I’ve had to enhance my awareness of gender bias traps. I’ve taken part in the Inclusion and Diversity Program at work. I’ve attended enough school events to recognize obstacles that discourage girls from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. I served on the board of the International Center for Research on Women. I’ve read (and written about) Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. And, because most people still fall hostage to the harmful and outmoded habit of associating “male” with science and “female” with arts and humanities, my wife and I have worked hard to expose our daughter to impressive women scientists.

Mohamed El-Erian

With all that, you would think that I would be up to the challenge of supporting our daughter’s interests and protecting her from falling into a gender trap.

I am not telling you this because I enjoy embarrassing myself. Rather it is because this serves as yet another example of the challenges that we all face in overcoming harmful legacy gender issues.

This is the second summer that our 10-year old daughter has attended a three-week camp centered on an academic discipline. The first time around, she chose to focus on science and loved it. During the subsequent school year, she continued to enjoy and excel at mathematics. So I was a little surprised when she informed me that, this time around at camp she had decided to focus on “ancient civilization.”

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with the topic. I view it as both interesting and mind-expanding. Moreover, I was so touched when she told me one reason for choosing “ancient civilization: “I want to know more about where you came from,” she said to me. I had spent part of my youth in Egypt.

Yet her reasoning did not sound totally convincing. And so, as she was getting ready for camp, I kept on pushing. And I uncovered another – less reassuring – reason for her selection.

It turns out that she was the only girl in her previous science class. “I don’t want to again be the only girl,” she told me. So she opted for a subject that would have greater gender balance in the classroom.

On the spot, I responded in an impatient fashion: “I wish you had told me this before,” I said to her in a rather stern tone, reminding her about all the women scientists we had exposed her to. I even asked my wife if we could change our daughter’s choice back to a STEM subject. Too late, my wife told me.

I realize now that I should have asked my daughter much earlier about her upcoming choice of topic at camp. As a result, rather than help my daughter “lean in” and pursue a topic she loved, I allowed outdated societal modes to distract her. I failed to counter, much less acknowledge, a stereotype that clouded the lens through which my daughter viewed science. And I feel doubly bad given the solid research that speaks to the role that fathers can have in influencing their daughters’ approach to STEM.

I can make lots of excuses for my slip. I was traveling when she first made the choice; ancient civilization is a good topic; subject diversification is wise; she is only 10; there is always next year; we are human and easily fall victim to unconscious biases, etc.

Yet none of these excuses speak to an inconvenient truth: Despite my awareness and engagement, I stumbled when it came to preempting a bias that risks derailing girls from STEM fields at an early age.

There is a silver lining here. The slip-up has more than taught me an embarrassing lesson: It has afforded our family a great opportunity to think, collectively and deeply, about a really important issue. As a result, we will be having even more discussions about unconscious biases and damaging stereotypes.

Who knows, by making and learning from this mistake, maybe a potentially a bigger one with longer-lasting ramifications will be avoided down the road. And by the way, it looks like things are working out. My daughter told me that she found ancient civilization “a little boring” and she wishes she had taken a STEM course. Next summer, that’s her plan.