Girls Glimpse Their Future

Caitlin Johnson
April 23, 2000

At the Flathead Indian Reservation in Western Montana, Thursday, April 27, 2000 began with speakers, snacks and talks from successful women on the reservation. For the past 7 years, Velda Shelby, coordinator of special projects for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, has spent the fourth Thursday of April organizing activities for Take Our Daughters to Work Day.

"Each year, about 100 girls and their sponsors attend the morning session to learn about career opportunities and what it takes to succeed," she says. They talk about their struggles with prejudice and sexism, and what they've learned from their successes and failures. "It's a great way to start the day, and after we inspire the girls, they move on to their work sites."

Every community, and every business, celebrates national Take Our Daughters to Work Day differently. In Northern Virginia, for example, many girls accompany parents or mentors to jobs at the high-rise buildings lining the state's technology corridor, including PSINet, Oracle and America Online. In Oregon, some girls visit Pacific Gas & Electric. Across the country, girls join adults in state senate buildings, law firms, publishing houses, insurance agencies, mechanic's garages, police departments, factories, hospitals, artists' studios.

Begun in 1993 by the Ms. Foundation and the Harvard Project, Take our Daughters to Work Day helps introduce 9- to 15-year-old girls to the possibilities for their futures and lets them know they are valued by adults—and by the workforce.

Healthy Minds, Strong Hopes
Research shows that many girls struggle in early adolescence, often losing confidence and suffering from depression and body-image problems. Take our Daughters to Work Day gives adults a way to intervene and help girls stay focused on their abilities and options.

"Many parents watch girls they love go from being valedictorian and soccer star to worrying about the size of their thighs," says Ms. Foundation's Kelly Parisi. "So Take Our Daughters to Work Day is about more than career development. It's about reaching out to girls at a critical point in their development and connecting them with adults to help them stay strong, healthy and confident through adolescence."

The idea has certainly caught on. A recent poll by Roper Starch Worldwide finds that more than seventy-five percent of American adults—more than 153 million people—have heard of Take Our Daughters to Work Day. About three in ten U.S. companies participate in the Day. Last year, 19 million girls accompanied an adult to work.

Not all participants are parents. Community organizers and businesses work with public housing authorities, foster care groups, local shelters, Girls Scouts troupes, and organizations like the YWCA to match girls with adult sponsors.

Says Parisi: "Mentoring is an important part of this, thinking broadly about who 'our daughters' are. If you're a 9-year-old girl with two parents, you may go to Mom's or Dad's work. But if you're not interested in that, it's not that exciting. So you can reach out, meet mentors, explore exciting fields and learn what it takes to get what there."

Every Day Can Make a Difference
Susan Pell is the mentoring coordinator for the Baton Rouge Association for Women in Science (AWIS). In 1996, AWIS began holding brown-bag lunches for the dozen or so people who brought their daughters to work at the Louisiana State University research facilities. Sensing an opportunity to do more, Pell and her colleagues organized lab tours to guide girls around campus, meeting scientists and learning about the research being done around campus. This year, she says, nearly 300 girls are registered. The Baton Rouge AWIS chapter has secured grants for public school teachers to be able to take their girls to the university.

"Last year, one teacher told me that on the way to the tour, she asked her students how many thought they'd like to be scientists someday," says Pell. "Maybe three girls raised their hands. But after the day ended, nearly 80 percent said they saw something that was really interesting and that they'd want to look into. Kids, especially girls, often don't realize how broad science is—it's so much more than what you see in middle and high school."

The Roper Starch poll finds that 85 percent of adults believe girls have more career choices now than they did in 1990, thanks in part to programs like Take Our Daughters to Work Day.

Kelly Parisi at the Ms. Foundation recalls a recent e-mail from a girl who wanted to be a fashion designer. On last year's Take Our Daughters to Work Day, the teen was connected with a woman in the field and learned that design required engineering and geometry skills, in addition to art and creativity. "She was amazed," Parisi says, "and came back with renewed commitment to improving her math skills and doing what it takes to get where she wants to go."

Not a Zero-Sum Game
In some areas, Take Our Daughters to Work Day has come under fire for excluding boys. Some states, like Texas, have decided to move it to a non-school day in certain communities, others have made it a co-educational experience. The Ms. Foundation and other groups stress that the Day is intended, truly, for girls.

"Boys certainly need attention and support, but this may not be the best way," says Parisi. "Boys experience distress at different times in their lives and have a very different set of issues. Taking them to work doesn't address those issues. We know that this program works for girls, and reaches them at point where it can make a difference. We carve out just one day to give our undivided attention to girls."

And boys can sometimes alter the climate of the day. According to a letter to the Ms. Foundation from the University of California San Francisco, a workplace sponsor, "Our experience with [an] integrated approach was not always positive. ... According to program planners, [boys] were more aggressive than girls, asked more questions and demanded answers. Boys also tended to be the first to volunteer to "do" something. Program Planners noted that the girls were holding back and were not as 'engaged' or involved as the boys."

"Making it co-ed doesn't help girls and it doesn't help boys. It replicates some of the negative patterns and behaviors we often see in the classroom," says Parisi.

Advocates are careful to stress that it's not a "zero-sum game." It's not about boys versus girls. The Ms. Foundation worked with men's groups to develop curriculum for boys who remain in the classroom during the Take Our Daughters to Work Day. They also offer year-round lesson plans to connect classroom learning to the world of work and encourage both boys and girls to feel confident about their options and futures.

"The most important element of the Day is taking a pause to give girls the attention they need and show them they can go anywhere they want in the future and the skills that it takes to get there," says Parisi.

Each year, after the day has ended, Velda Shelby asks the girls on the Flathead Indian Reservation what they want to be when they grow up. "Some have responded that they want to be a chairwoman, governor or senator," she says. "I'm looking forward to hearing the response 'to be President someday.'"

Learn More

Concerned about boys? There are many boys' programs that do work. Check out the Ms. Foundation's list of suggestions.




Caitlin Johnson is staff writer at Connect for Kids.