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What a Grassroots Initiative Can Achieve: Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Revisited

A bookmark used to promote Take Our Daughters to Work Day telegraphs the problem in a few words. Just ten years later, antifeminists were arguing that schools were unfair to boys because they expected them to sit still and do work. And, allegedly, such disciplined behavior was easier for girls, therefore the expectation was discriminatory for boys.  So, if you buy that story, it actually turned out to be easier for girls to become great women because they had the discipline it took to be—a good girl? Or maybe just a good student.

I recently wrote a little historical piece about the origins of Take Our Daughters to Work Day for Advertising & Society Review.  I had just finished the essay and sent it off for posting when I took the train to Washington for the Women’s March. You will recall that there was a lot of rubbish going around the press about how marching wasn’t going to be enough to create “real change,” implying that the women traveling to DC were naive fools engaged in a frivolous demonstration.

I have a lot of faith in the power of popular uprising anyway.  But that afternoon, as I rode the train to what would turn out to be the largest demonstration in American history, I was feeling freshly inspired by the research I had just done on Take Our Daughters to Work Day. I knew how much could be achieved, even if not in the way expected by pundits.

Take Our Daughters to Work Day was the brain child of Nell Merlino, a good friend who blogs for Double X Economy and is a committed PowerShifter.  Now I know what your reaction is going to be:  “Really?  I didn’t know someone actually invented that!”   Take Our Daughters to Work Day was such a big part of American life that it is hard to imagine it was one person’s idea. Like inventing Post-Its or inventing the Internet, it just seems too big to have come from one person.  But it did.

Back in 1992, Nell was brought in for a briefing by the Ms. Foundation.  They showed her research by Carol Gilligan and the American Association of University Women that suggested young girls lost confidence during puberty–and never recovered.  This loss of confidence was undermining their ambitions, quashing their dreams.  The Ms. Foundation was keen to come up with something that would counter this trend and they asked Nell to try to think of an idea.  But they had no budget.

Nell had a reputation for starting up grassroots initiatives, so this “ask” was in her line of work.  But, as a feminist, she was particularly motivated on this topic.  Nell thought about the problem as she went about her life, creating and discarding concepts in her mind.  Then, one night, she went to her own father’s retirement party.  And, as so often happens when great ideas emerge, the setting inspired a breakthrough.  Nell was reflecting about the huge impact her father’s career had had on her own ambitions.  Then, Eureka!  She thought, “We need to bring daughters into the workplace so that they can see for themselves what the possibilities are.”  And that was that.

The article in Advertising & Society Review details all the press support, the employer interest, the government facilitation—everything that Nell and the Ms. Foundation brought to bear on Take Our Daughters to Work Day.  It was done on a shoestring—basically, with no money at all.  But the problem rang true to many parents and teachers–and the solution seemed right.  So, there was a groundswell behind the very first Take Our Daughters to Work Day.  Nell and Ms. had anticipated that the event would be only in New York and perhaps somewhat modest to start.  But the concept exploded, spreading around the country as soon as the idea hit the press.  Letters came flooding in from cities around America asking how communities and employers should start up their own Take Our Daughters to Work Day. The very first year more than a million people participated. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The columns represent female-to-male ratios, so the black line at 100 is where equality with men is reached. You can see that, at this moment, women outnumber men among students enrolled at the tertiary level by a large margin. You can also see that the whole US population has equal numbers of men and women who have had higher education. This is only true because women have so greatly exceeded men among college students for the past 25 years. Previous generations have been enrolled in slightly less than equal numbers. Even so, it has been a long time since there was any serious educational deficit among American women compared to their male counterparts. Yet overall the women in the population participate less in the labor force and are much less present in the ranks of leadership. Notice, however, that women vastly outnumber men in the jobs that require the highest skills levels (professional and technical employment). And then look at the measure for equal pay. This is the measure where the WEF goes to major employers and just asks them, straight out, how much they generally pay women doing the same or similar work to men. The answer, as you can see, is that they pay women about 65% of what they pay men for, essentially, the same jobs. We have a long way to go, folks.

What I did not realize until writing this little historical piece was the long term impact that Take Our Daughters to Work Day had achieved.  Beginning in the mid-1990s, the number of girls going to college in America began to rise very steeply.  The increase occurred across all classes and races.  The rise continued, accelerating over the next ten years.  By the mid 2000s, the private universities were instituting quota systems to ensure there would be at least a 50/50 gender split in each incoming class—because if they did not do that, the girls would so out-qualify the boys that the gender makeup of the school would skew heavily toward females.  And, of course, conservative commentators like Christina Hoff Sommers began to shriek about a conspiracy against boys.  (People began making absurd claims on behalf of boys, saying that the schools were “failing boys” by expecting them to sit still in class and do their homework.  Seriously.)  But boys were still going to college in the same numbers—they were just losing ground as a percentage because of the seriously “Wow” upsurge in girls going to university.

Public universities were not allowed, by law, to favor boys by lowering the bar.  (The private universities should not have done it, either, as they had certainly never felt the need to level the playing field when boys were advantaged.)  The public universities in the US constitute a much larger percentage of the student population than do the private schools.  So, as a consequence of this trend and the law requiring the public universities to be fair, the gender composition of the college student population began to change.

Much has been written about the impact of the Second Wave of the 1970s on American life.  I feel that too little attention has been given to the daughters of that generation and their own impact on American education and work.  These young women, by pursuing their dreams through college, have changed the gender landscape in America in a dramatic way.  And the change has held:  today, there are nearly 40% more females than males enrolled in tertiary education in the United States.

Can we attribute this change to Take Our Daughters to Work Day?  Not entirely.  But I believe the contribution was substantial.

The White House jumped on the bandwagon for this event fairly early on. In this program, you can read the names of many who were, or later became, “great women.”

Let me explain.  There were reforms that came in under the Education Amendments Act of 1972 (a clause in legislation better known as “Title IX”) that gave girls access to courses and activities (like advanced math and sports) that they had not had previously.  The gap in math skills closed during the 1990s.  The participation in activities also began to close. Importantly, girls had always been better high school students than boys, but they were disadvantaged both by a lack of ambition and by the deficit in math and activities.

But historians can now explain the motive for what happened next:  it was the perception that there were interesting new job opportunities now available for women that actually made females start going to college more often.  This explanation is also consistent with what we see around the world today in girls’ education:  families are much more likely to allow their daughters to be educated if they know there will be jobs for them.

My argument, therefore, is that by allowing whole communities—not just the girls, but the families, the teachers, the employers—to see what a future might be like for an ambitious woman, Take Our Daughters to Work Day helped pull through the investment in high school opportunities for girls into increased female college enrollment.  And, of course, these young women also were more likely to go on to work than their mothers had been.

Still, there is a gap and it is an important one.  Despite their higher education levels, this generation was not paid equally nor advanced at the rate that their qualifications demanded.  So, it seems to me that a major plank in the new post-Trump movement’s platform should be about making long-term opportunities—that is, advancement throughout careers—a reality for women.

The inspiration of Take Our Daughters to Work Day is not only to show us that using a grassroots movement to effect “real change” is a realistic possibility, but also that “real change” does not always come about through the general strikes and legislative initiatives that pundits presume will do the job. There are many ways to create real change and the challenge to the women of America during these next four years—when both the President and the Republicans in Congress will have a misogynist agenda—is to find or invent those unexpected routes to change.


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