Take Our Daughters to Work, Please

On April 22, adults everywhere are encouraged to pack up their teenage daughters and bring them to the workplace. You can bet some of them will go kicking and screaming.The goal of Take Our Daughters to Work Day is to "focus attention on the needs and concerns of girls and to help them stay focused on their future during adolescence," according to the Ms. Foundation, the creators of Take Our Daughters to Work Day. Themed "The Future Is Me" for 1999, close to 53 million parents plan to help celebrate girl power in the workplace. First held in 1993 in New York, the day is dedicated to exposing young women to the diversity of career options available to them. As they observe their parents in the office or the field, the message is clear: You can do this, or anything else you want, and don't let anyone tell you differently.In the late 70's, my mother used to sigh and tell me "You have no idea how lucky you are. When I was growing up, my only career choices were teacher, nurse or secretary." At nine years old, I didn't think any of those were too awful, and I still don't. But as I marched with my mother and her women comrades at ERA demonstrations, I began to understand that even if the law dictated that women were equal, I would have to work harder to receive equal pay and equal respect. Then I hit adolescence and dropped the picket signs for the curling iron and mascara wand. I took it for granted that the workplace would be an egalitarian system by the time I got there, since my mother's generation blasted through the glass ceiling. The Equal Rights Amendment never made it to the Bill of Rights, but times changed anyway. Well, sort of. Women hold executive positions in boardrooms across the country; they hold firehoses, fountain pens, even guns. But women still earn an average 66 cents to every dollar a man puts in his bank account. Nearly 75 percent of working women earn less than $20,000 a year compared to 7 percent of working men. It seems women still have to work harder and smarter for less pay, and our daughters still have a battle to fight.Their battle isn't only in the workplace. The best-selling "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" by Mary Pipher addresses the host of difficulties girls experience when they hit puberty, in the form of eating disorders (an estimated one in five teenage girls has symptoms of a serious disorder; one-half are dieting,) depression, drug and alcohol abuse and low-self-esteem. A recent study from New York City's The Commonwealth Fund shows that while boys' self-esteem actually rises with age, girls' self-worth plummets as they begin to show signs of adulthood. Madison Avenue would have us believe that "we've come a long way, baby," but the statistics tell a darker story. There's still action at the front lines. Organizations like the Ms. Foundation hope to counteract the downward spiral in girls' self-images by providing healthy models like WNBA star Jamila Wideman, a guard for the Los Angeles Sparks and the official spokesperson for Take Our Daughters To Work Day. "[It's] a great opportunity to reach out to a young woman and let her know you will support her dreams-- and help her make them come true," says Wideman. Other companies, like Girl Press out of Los Angeles, California, are instilling in young girls a sense of self-reliance and independence by providing material about strong women who realized their aspirations. Committed to producing "slightly dangerous books for girl mavericks," Girl Press released "Cool Women: The Thinking Girl's Guide to the Hippest Women in History" in March 1998, a compendium of history's hippest females. "Cool Women" includes short, sassy biographies of heroines from Amelia Earhardt to women Vikings, in a busy visual style that might blind anyone over 30. It sold out of its first run, and was nominated by the American Library Association as one of 1998's "Best Books for Young Adults."Girl Press followed up their debut "Zine Scene: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Zines," a how-to guide to publishing, and is poised for mainstream success with the upcoming "Girl Boss: Running the Show Like the Big Chicks," slated for release this month. Selected as the official book of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, "Girl Boss" bubbles with advice on how to turn a hobby into profit, inspirational stories about female entrepreneurs and basic negotiating skills. "Girl Boss" author Stacy Kravetz describes the book as a "wake-up call" to young women. "We're encouraging girls to take charge of their own destiny," explains the "Wall Street Journal" reporter. "Too many girls grow up hoping to find the right career--"Girl Boss" tells them how to create their own."Naturally, Girl Press was started by a woman with a dream. While Christmas shopping for books for her young nieces, former Wall Street analyst Pam Nelson was appalled that her only choices were between The Babysitters' Club and the Sweet Valley High series. Those books are fine, says Nelson, but she believes young women have grown beyond them. "They're a little bit smarter and more sophisticated and there was nothing in the bookstores for girls like that," she told a Los Angeles newspaper in 1998.Almost immediately after that holiday shopping experience, Nelson set up shop and plunked her life's savings into publishing. With a little help from writer friends Dawn Chapman, Mari Florence and Naomi Wax, as well as designer-wunderkind Amy Inouye, Nelson soon had a book that she felt matched the sophistication and ambition of today's young girls. She continues to donate $1 from the sale of each copy of "Cool Women" to Girls, Inc., a non-profit groups that provides educational programs "designed to help American girls confront societal messages about their value and potential." As adults, it's easy for us to look at young girls and see that they'll need help becoming the strong, brave women we envision taking charge of the future. We'd like to believe that giving them cool books to read, taking them to work once in a while and lecturing them about how much opportunity is out there will be enough. But is it, and can we truly understand what it means to be a teenage girl in 1999?It's tempting to classify girls under fourteen as children, but one look at the junior high parking lot reveals clusters of little women in platform shoes, makeup and C-cup bras. The average age of a woman's first menstrual cycle is five years earlier than it was a century ago. In between the giggling and groaning about algebra assignments are shockingly mature references to sex, drugs and politics. Adolescent girls are far from children, but they're not women yet either. An informal interview with seventh-graders Maya, Lily and Mayarose disclosed their feelings about the differences between boys and girls in today's world. "If I hung out with the exact same people and was raised the exact same way, I think it would change my opinion about myself if I was a guy," mused Maya, who thinks she might like to be a marine biologist when she gets older. "Yeah, I probably wouldn't be so into my appearance," agreed Lily, whose jaded response to the question "what do you want to be when you grow up?" was "Well, I'd like to direct movies, but I don't think I'm talented enough."Mayarose, a lithe brunette with aspirations for the stage and screen, said if she were a boy, she'd be an athlete rather than an actress. "I started caring about my appearance when I was in fourth grade. Before that, I didn't care what I wore. But then I started to get self-conscious."At 13, these young women have already realized that they're treated differently because of their two X chromosomes. As early as ten years old they became sensitive to the fact that they will be more successful in the world if they look good. Telling them otherwise is pointless, since we'd be lying. They're wise enough to know hypocrisy when they see it, even if they can't spell it. When asked what female role models they admire, Lily said disgustedly "I think they're all trying to be sex objects. Like Mariah Carey, she dresses in all these skimpy outfits, that's what she has to do to get attention. And the Spice GirlsÐthey're all Ôgirl power, girl power' and then they go and get pregnant. What's up with that?"Maya admires her mother, a contractor and electrician. "I think it's cool how some women can do jobs that you wouldn't really expect them to do.""I admire single mothers," said Mayarose. "They prove that a woman doesn't need a man in her life just because she's raising a child." The feminist doctrine that women don't need men to succeed runs deep through these girls' psyches. But it conflicts with their newly-awakened hormones, and they're beginning to struggle with liking boys and knowing it's not healthy to like them too much. They understand the world is a complicated place, and keeping their heads together will require an honesty that most adults don't have the courage to give. "I feel like we're too sophisticated," said Lily. "There was the whole Clinton thing, and Polly Klaas a few years ago. There's murder, and people are dying of cancer. Everybody's just trying to skip over it like nothing's wrong. If we just took a step back and lived life for what it's worth, if everybody had that kind of philosophy, life would be a lot more interesting."Pretty mature stuff coming from a 13 year-old mouth. Taking our daughters to work is only the beginning. Setting an example of equality at home as well as at work, providing honest answers to questions about societal issues and reinforcing self-esteem is a daily task for parents. The Ms. Foundation asks us to "imagine a day when teenage girls are as sure of themselves as when they were eight or nine, a day when girls realize they're not too smart, too tall, too fat, too shy, or too much. Imagine a day when girls think they're just right." Only then will the future be as bright as the young women heading towards it, all spunk and sass and platform shoes.For more information about Take Our Daughter to Work Day, contact the Ms. Foundation, 120 Wall Street, 33rd floor, New York, NY 10005, 1-800-676-7780, www.ms.foundation.org Jessica Leigh Lebos is a freelance writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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