Today marks the nationwide Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. When I was a kid, the event held a strange fascination for me — because I never got to go. My mother, a psychotherapist, would have broken every HIPPA rule had she let me sit in on her patient sessions, while my father, a contractor, found it impractical, if not downright dangerous, to have a little kid around power tools and demolitions.
When I finally did attend, it was thanks to an invitation from my seventh-grade bestie to tag along to her mother’s law firm. There, I learned that not all attorneys spent their days giving impassioned "Law and Order"-style monologues (some, instead, did something called “estates”). That, of course, made me even less interested in becoming a lawyer than I’d been when my teachers and parents first suggested it (I was a good writer and a little argumentative). The corporate digs were snazzy, though, so the day did make me think about what it would be like to work in an office when I grew up.
There’s a lot of debate over the extent to which the event, originally called Take Your Daughter to Work Day, actually benefits young girls, especially since it’s strayed a bit from its original, staunchly feminist agenda with the inclusion of boys in 2003. But I’m feeling curious about any initiative with the potential to empower women in the workplace. And I know I’m not alone.
Here’s a brief history:
An Instant Success
The event was founded in 1993 by Gloria Steinem and the Ms. Foundation, the women’s rights non-profit she had co-founded two decades earlier. It was the brainchild of the group’s then-president Marie Wilson who, after reading research by feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan on girls’ loss of self-esteem during adolescence, aimed to restore their confidence and expand their career aspirations by encouraging them to shadow their parents and other adults in a variety of professional roles.
Success was immediate. Only a year later, thousands of girls from across the country took part, as did government officials. Donna Shalala, then the Secretary of Health and Human Services, gave tours of the capitol, while Brereton Jones, Governor of Kentucky, invited girls to chat politics over breakfast. By the fourth year, five million girls in 14 countries took part. "The effects were explosive," Wilson told Marketplace in 2013, noting the event’s potential not only to inspire young girls but also to shake up hiring dynamics: "...The visibility of girls in the workplace showed up the invisibility of adult women."
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Countless women have personally told Wilson how going to work with a parent or other adult influenced their professional pursuits. Others have noted that the day gave them a loftier view of what they could one day accomplish. When Kim Hourihan, a Senior Managing Director in the male-dominated field of real estate finance, saw her mother, a healthcare executive, in action, it eventually led her to pursue a Harvard MBA. “It was good to see my mom in the boardroom with all those guys, to see that there can be a woman in there and she can do just fine,” she told Women’s eNews in 2007. And as Keli Goff, a writer and political analyst who went to work with her accountant-mother in the program’s early years, recently told the New Yorker, “Seeing my mom work in a professional environment and respected by others sent a powerful message regarding what was possible for me to achieve.”
Boys Join In
The news surrounding the event wasn’t always so positive. Some were infuriated that their sons had been excluded, but that didn’t stop the program from soldiering on. What did prove more consequential was the failure to secure corporate and governmental sponsorship for an event that, for better or worse, didn’t speak to half the child population. So, in 2003 the Ms. Foundation rebranded the program as Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day to focus less on feminism and more on inclusion, particularly of the socioeconomic stripe: “When we say ‘Our Daughters And Sons’ we mean more than our own children,” the organization’s website now reads, emphasizing the importance of reaching beyond the family circle to include girls and boys of all races and means, including those living in housing authorities and shelters.
This change prompted substantial growth: The following year, the White House participated for the first time. By 2014, more that 3.5 million offices, including giants like Goldman Sachs and AOL, took part.
Some critics are uncomfortable with the shift, arguing that with so many workplace issues still looming large for women (lack of maternity leave, income disparity, and more), the original all-female focus remains crucial. But to my mind, exposing boys, as well as girls, to professional female role models underscores the value of support for women in the workplace.
The organization behind the event draws this connection in its updated mission statement: “Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work encourages girls and boys across the country to dream without gender limitations and to think imaginatively about their family, work and community lives. Children learn that a family-friendly work environment is an employer and family issue and not just a woman’s issue.” And by involving both genders, the organization argues, boys, as well as girls, are keyed into the importance of balancing work and family life, a feat which is growing increasingly hard to achieve, especially for women.
Anecdotally, many of the boys were intrigued by what they had previously thought of as “girl jobs.” As the president of the Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Foundation Carolyn McKecuen told Parade, “I bet they never told their parents, but there were actually kids that wanted to be a nurse, or something that was not considered a manly job.”
Plus, a 2015 Harvard study of children of working mothers suggests that encouraging both sons and daughters to tag along to the office with mom can aid women down the line, both at work and in the home. Sons of working mothers spent 25 more minutes on housework and seven and half more hours on childcare each week, theoretically enabling their female partners to devote more energy to their careers.
I am and have always been fiercely proud of my working mother and her commitment to the crucial, but still undervalued field of mental health. And I’m glad that I have her example to show me that balancing work and family is possible.
So, if you have a daughter, consider bringing her to work with you — or having her attend with someone else you admire. Sure, it won’t close the pay gap, but at the very least it could influence her decision to go to college or professional school and broaden her thinking about career opportunities (as it has for most young women surveyed in celebration of the event’s tenth anniversary). And, go ahead, bring your son, too.