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Taking Our Kids to Work Can Carry a Balanced Message

March 8, 1995

HANDED A divisive issue, most employers can be counted on to do the prudent thing:

Drop back and punt.

As the third annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day rolls around April 27, employers are preparing to host an expected five million to seven million kids ages nine through 15, twice as many as last year, says the Ms. Foundation for Women, the event’s organizer. And while companies are making more elaborate plans than ever to inform and inspire the kids, they also are going to new lengths to sidestep the day’s most polarizing question:

What about the boys?

Amid complaints about reverse sexism, many employers are bending over backward to be inclusive. Of the 20 companies I contacted, nearly half, including Apple Computer, BankAmerica and Colgate-Palmolive, are renaming the day ``Take a Child to Work″ or something similar. Bristol-Myers Squibb is covering all the bases with ``Take Your Daughter, Son or Special Child to Work Day.″ And Chrysler, which refused to participate at all last year, is readying a ``Chrysler Careers″ program that will be ``available to both young men and women,″ a spokeswoman says.

``We’ve got all this stuff about `pluralism, pluralism, pluralism’ here, and singling out one group is hard,″ says a manager at another company. The issue cuts especially deep for mothers of young sons who want them to see women in the workplace.

Marie C. Wilson, Ms. Foundation president, says girls need extra adult attention and the encouragement of a workplace visit to raise their career aspirations. Past ``Daughters″ days have proven a potent tonic indeed. When some 300 girls gathered in a Brooklyn Union Gas auditorium two years ago to question employees, one girl raised her hand and asked about the panelists’ childhood dreams. Is this really what you wanted to do when you grew up, she asked.

IT WASN’T, ADMITTED panelist Mary Moore, an employee-relations manager. ``I really wanted to be a singer,″ she said. Would she sing, another girl asked. So the power-suited Ms. Moore rose and belted out ``The Way We Were″ in a rich alto voice, prompting a thunderous standing ovation and much stamping of feet. ``It was definitely inspiring″ to the girls, says one witness. Ms. Moore hasn’t quit her day job, but she says she has ``been hearing about it ever since.″

There is evidence that adding boys to that mix changes the chemistry. When boys and girls at BP Oil’s Houston offices last year were ushered into a room equipped for a teleconference with kids at other BP Oil offices, ``the boys rushed in excitedly and took the front seats,″ grabbed the controls and did most of the talking while ``the girls shrank back,″ says Argerie Vasilakes, a BP Oil development adviser.

In contrast, at BP Oil’s Cleveland offices, where only girls were invited, most enthusiastically took part. Their behavior, Ms. Vasilakes notes, bears out the research that gave rise to ``Daughters″ day in the first place, showing that 30 percent more girls than boys experience a drop in self-esteem as adolescence starts and they begin deferring to boys.

Whatever companies decide, they are likely to get criticized. From BP Oil’s Houston offices last year, Ms. Vasilakes ``got an earful″ about the girls being overshadowed by the boys. From employees in Cleveland, she was criticized for excluding boys. (U S West, among others, is planning separate events for girls and boys.)

Mostly overlooked in the gender wars is the fact that the Ms. Foundation actually has a lot planned for the boys. Organizers are stressing the importance for both sexes of integrating work and family. Thousands of schools are expected to use ``Daughters″ day lesson plans encouraging boys to study a dimension of life they can easily miss: the importance of caregiving.

WHEN DIANE McCollick, a math teacher at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Levittown, Pa., used the lesson plans with 11- to 13-year-old boys last year, the result was a lively discussion about how men often are drawn into providing child care. ``When boys hear their peers talk about these situations, it’s like the crack when the door opens up. Little lights start coming through,″ Ms. McCollick says. (Materials are available by calling Take Our Daughters to Work’s toll-free number.)

Ms. Wilson says that while girls need career encouragement, ``boys have a whole other struggle, about bringing their whole selves into the workplace.″ Cultural signals, including a raft of new fathering organizations, books and research documenting men’s frustrations, suggest such assertions are on target.

If successful, the foundation’s efforts might lower for the next generation the workplace barriers facing so many fathers. Many men still lie to co-workers about family needs. Few even feel free to take paternity leave; a recent University of Wisconsin study shows that 63 percent of men expect bosses to react negatively if they ask. Such facts recently led Ken Canfield, president of the National Center for Fathering, Shawnee Mission, Kan., to observe, ``American fathers have been strapped down like Gulliver.″

But such subtleties are likely to be missed this ``Daughters″ day in the crossfire over workplace opportunities. Whether companies decide to fete boys, girls or both, warns a guidebook for employers by One Small Step, a San Francisco-area employer group, ``it is likely that people in your organization will have strong feelings about the issue. So whatever position you choose to take, be prepared to defend it.″

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