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Telling Girls the Economic Facts of Life

May 02, 1985|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — One reason fiction exists is that fact is sometimes more than any sane person wants to face.

For example, this still-prevailing little girls' fiction: When I grow up, a rich man will fall in love with me and marry me and take care of me.

And these less gentle facts: Seventy-five percent of women who are now 16 will be in the work force by 1990, often while simultaneously raising the next generation of children. Of the 22 million girls in America today, 50% to 66%, as opposed to only 10% of the boys, are headed for the low-paying jobs traditionally held by females. As for the being-taken-care-of part, a girl is nine times as likely as a boy to end up a single parent and sole support of her children. In the last 20 years, a 1985 Ford Foundation study reports, the number of female-headed households doubled and will increase by 26% in the 1980s alone. Rich? One-third of America's female-headed families, including more than 7 million children, live in poverty.

One more painful fact for that vast majority of women who do and will work, this courtesy of the Rand Corp.'s 1984 report, "Women, Wages and Work in the 20th Century": For every $1 a man earns, a woman earns 63 cents.

Hence the theme, "The 37-Cent Solution: Equalizing Girls' Options for Economic Autonomy," of last weekend's 40th anniversary conference of the Girls Clubs of America.

As GCA national executive director Margaret Gates told the meeting of nearly 1,000 girls' advocates here, "While self-esteem is the essential ingredient for a meaningful life, countless hours of experience in working with girls have convinced us that lasting self-esteem is based on the capability to provide for oneself. Girls have been systematically deprived of preparation, information, training and education in this critical life skill. We believe it's time to focus national attention on strategies for preventing the increasing feminization of poverty instead of just regretting it."

No Simple Recipe

Clearly, however, the picture is clouded, and the recipe for economic autonomy is not quite so simple as whipping up a batch of grandma's oatmeal cookies. If grown-up women have had to claw their way up an economic ladder that seems ever steepening, ever lengthening, girls are no less immune to the personal and cultural barriers that obstruct a path to success and independence. A generation of women who still remember job interviews that asked embarrassing personal questions and employers who forbade the wearing of pants by women on the job are now mothers to girls who face their own educational and workplace obstacles. In a world where, in 1984, according to Gates, United Ways gave $2.38 to boys' programs for every $1 to girls, girls' economic options are obviously far from equalized.

As conference moderator/actress/feminist Barbara Feldon pointed out, the working women of the 21st Century will redefine today's notion of the superwoman. And, as she observed, "they are not going to come from families who reward their sons for being smart and their daughters for being pretty. Or from schools that consistently encourage boys to take science and math and girls to take English and art.

"And definitely not from a culture hypnotized by the destructive myths about women created and perpetuated by mass communications.

"Independent, capable women," Feldon went on, "are not going to suddenly appear in a country with no serious commitment to reducing the number of teen-age pregnancies or to increasing education and job training for girls."

Different Expectations

Parents, said Pamela Trotman Reid, associate professor of psychology, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, may react more positively toward expanded roles for women, but still retain higher expectations for boys. Studies show that parents continue to reward boys for risk-taking and assertiveness, while remaining comparatively overprotective with their daughters.

On the other hand, those studies may themselves be skewed, for as Nona Lyons of the Center for the Study of Gender Education and Human Development at Harvard University reported, "the lives of boys have been far more frequently, far more thoroughly studied" than the lives of girls. As a consequence, "there has been undue attention on qualities such as aggression and competitiveness" at the expense of qualities such as nurturing and caring.

"Not only are girls not studied," Lyons said, "but the ideas we look at are taken from the lives of boys."

To rectify this imbalance, Lyons and her associates are conducting their own assessment of girls, the first such continuing study to focus on girls. Already, one startling fact has emerged: "Frequently, in the literature," Lyons said, adolescence has been regarded as the peak point of autonomy and independence. But for adolescent girls, Lyons said, "we find that they value independence and dependence--meaning that they value their relationships with others as much as their own independence."

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