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Seen and Heard : 'Daughters at Work' Day Draws Praise and Some Criticism


In case life in the '90s doesn't already foster enough soul-searching, along comes a new dilemma: Should you bring your daughter to work?

Many working parents across the country will signal their decisions today with the arrival of the first "Take Our Daughters to Work Day" sponsored by the Ms. Foundation for Women.

At first blush, the notion of bringing children between the ages of 9 and 15 to the office or factory might come across as unassailable as parenthood.

In fact, many employers have embraced the sponsors' goal of making the day "a way of making girls visible, valued and heard." It also is intended to boost career aspirations and counteract the decline in self-esteem among adolescent girls, a trend identified in recent psychological research.

Yet the special day has encountered satire in the Doonesbury comic strip and barbs from a Wall Street Journal guest columnist who suggested that some girls might benefit more from doing household chores. Watching a parent slaving in front of a computer all day, one argument goes, could be a real bore.

Also, in a number of industrial workplaces, the children's safety is an issue. And while "daughters' day" is endorsed by many educators, others wonder why it has to take place on a school day.

Some of the criticism is resented by Nell Merlino, the consultant to the Ms. Foundation for Women in charge of "Take Our Daughters."

People who ridicule the program "are very cynical and don't understand how children make decisions or think about their futures," she said. "It goes to the argument that they (children) should be seen and not heard."

The day is particularly important in cases where parents, because of employer resistance or difficult working conditions, ordinarily "don't have the luxury" of bringing their children to work, Merlino said.

"There is an enormous amount of power in the symbolism of something like this," added Abby Leibman, executive director of the California Women's Law Center in Los Angeles.

"The notion that your daughters have as much place in the workplace as your sons . . . is a message that's not often communicated," Leibman said. "That message is out there now."

Educators offered mixed reactions. "Why a Wednesday in the last week of April? Why not a day in the second week of July?" asked Albert D. Marley, superintendent of the Las Virgenes Unified School District, which operates on a traditional school calendar.

"We probably already have too few days now where teachers and students are together," Marley added. In his district, taking the day off for the program will not be an excused absence unless prior approval was granted.

But in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the idea was more warmly received.

"In this latchkey society that many parents and children have to live with, any opportunity for a parent and child to bond is extremely valuable," said Ruben Zacarias, a district deputy superintendent.

"If need be, makeup work can be done" by students who miss a day of school, Zacarias said.

Patrick Donohue, an employee benefits consultant in Princeton, N.J., plans to bring his 10-year-old daughter, Caroline, to work today. "Young girls probably don't have the kind of role models that young boys do, and they probably have fewer opportunities to see the connection between their educations, the choices they make in lifestyles and their career opportunities," he explained.

Donohue considers himself fortunate to work in a pleasant environment. He said if he worked in "a horrible, political, back-stabbing" environment, "I wouldn't go out of my way to make that part of the message of what work is" to his daughter.

Yet for many workers who toil in sweatshops, coming to work with Mom or Dad already is a common--and sometimes unpleasant--experience.

"Anything that will help women eventually gain freer access to the job market is a positive thing. But in our industry, most of the women would never want to bring their daughters to the workplace if they had a choice," said Steve Nutter, western regional director of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in Los Angeles.

Nutter said many garment workers take their children to work because they lack any other child care.

"Most garment factories are not safe workplaces," he added. They're hot, they're dirty . . . and there's formaldehyde in the air. It's not a place you or I would want to take our children to work."

Having a special day for taking daughters to work "is great for fashion designers, but for production workers, it's not something they want for their children," Nutter said.

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