The Sons Move In on Daughters-to-Work Day

April 26, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- Where was I when ''Take Our Daughters To Work'' Day got turned into ''What About the Boys?'' Day. How did an event created to give girls a turn in the spotlight end up with so much attention on boys? And why does this sound familiar?

In 1992, an enterprising group of women came up with an idea to counteract the incredible shrinking aspirations of adolescent girls. They'd read the dismal news that somewhere after fourth grade, girls' horizons collapsed along with their self-esteem. Their confident voices were replaced by awkward silences or ''I don't knows.''

The women at the Ms. Foundation hoped that even a one-day workplace special would give girls a positive look at the future. ''We said, girls are important,'' recalls the president, Marie Wilson. ''They ought to be visible, valuable and heard.''

The idea of taking daughters to work took off. For one day in 1993 and another in 1994, the conversation and attention in thousands of workplaces focused on girls.

But almost from the beginning, there was a choir of boys and others chanting ''It isn't fair.'' Now, on the eve of the third annual ''Take Our Daughters To Work'' Day tomorrow, Ms. Wilson says the calls she has had from the media have become variations on the theme of ''What About the Boys?''

This could be easily dismissed as an example of the media's perennial search for a new angle. But this year many companies are feeling pressured to change the emphasis and the name to ''Take A Child To Work'' Day.

The controversy has become an ironic reflection of the very problem that the daughters'-day founders set out to counter. It's a reflection of the research about what goes on in the classroom itself: The boys' hands shoot up first, demanding and getting the lion's share of the teacher's attention.

The same thing is happening everywhere. Every time Black History Month rolls around someone is sure to say, ''What about White History Month?'' Every affirmative action -- I use the words literally -- designed to make up for past discrimination is reviled as present discrimination. Talk about unfairness to men and you'll get a sympathetic nod. Talk about unfairness to women and you will -- take my word for it -- get accused of male-bashing.

There is more attention to instances and anecdotes of preferential treatment than to the patterns of prejudicial treatment. In this case, we are urged to worry about being fair to boys' aspirations. Meanwhile a full 95 percent of the senior managers in the country are men.

I wonder if the current attention focused on every male protest is an automatic response to power. Last fall, when the GOP victory was attributed to angry white men, a panoply of Democrats, including women, sounded like battered wives asking themselves, ''What did I do to make him mad?''

Is that what's going on here? A nervous response to angry males, junior division?

I know that every boy does not become a CEO. As Marie Wilson says, ''Who in their right mind would say that boys don't need exposure to work?'' Work and family are so segregated now that few children actually know what their parents do all day. There are sons, especially in poverty, with as great a need for mentoring, for seeing and being seen in the workplace, as daughters.

But this event was never intended to be a Career Day. It was meant specifically to focus on girls between 9 and 15, to offer an alternative message to the one that most still get from society at this critical time in life. Indeed, when a number of companies invited boys last year, some reported that the boys took over and the girls were pushed again to the periphery of this work playground.

So, what about the boys? Those who want a sons' day at work can surely find a men's organization to do what the Ms. Foundation did. There are 364 other days in the year.

But if we are talking about a day in which both boys as well as girls will get to hear messages that society rarely offers, here is what Justice Ruth Ginsburg once said: ''If I had an affirmative-action program to design, it would be to give men every incentive to be concerned about the rearing of children.'' What about a day devoted to fathering, to caretaking? If that doesn't seem as glamorous as work, as prestigious as a job, well, that's the problem, isn't it?

Last year, more than 30 million adults and girls became a part of ''Take Our Daughters To Work'' Day. This year we can expect more. It isn't broke. It doesn't need fixing. In fact, it's part of the fixing.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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