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SANDY BANKS

Showing the Sometimes Dull Reality of Working

May 02, 2000|SANDY BANKS

It wasn't until I saw the line of kids parading through the office last week--playing games on our computers, constructing hats out of newspapers, jamming copy machines with photos of 'N Sync--that I realized I'd missed an opportunity to broaden my daughters' career horizons . . . again.

In case you missed it, last Thursday was Take Our Daughters to Work Day, the seventh annual celebration of a day intended to inspire young girls--and, now, boys--by acquainting them with the opportunity and excitement of their parents' careers.

At the risk of compromising my feminist credentials, I've always opted to send my girls to school, to skip this grown-up version of show-and-tell.

I'm not sure my daughters would like hanging around all day while I work anymore than I'd like sitting through their science class.

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Take Our Daughters to Work Day was created in 1993 by Marie C. Wilson, a mother of five, whose job as president of the national Ms. Foundation for Women is, no doubt, a lot more exciting than mine.

It grew out of concern with reams of psychological research that indicates that the self-esteem of girls starts sliding as they approach adolescence, when they begin focusing more on their appearance than their abilities. As teenagers, their world view shrinks, their aspirations sink.

The antidote? A campaign to broaden their career ambitions. A national day to make girls "visible, valued and heard," as Ms. Foundation literature proclaimed.

The idea drew its inspiration from a 1977 book called "The Managerial Woman," which studied the lives of successful corporate women in the prefeminist era and found they all enjoyed the same childhood advantage: Their businessmen fathers had frequently taken the girls with them to work, initiating them into the mores of the business world.

From the start, the idea drew support from some of the nation's largest corporations, which developed ambitious, daylong activity schedules to educate and entertain their young visitors. It grew quickly--from 1 million girls in its infancy to more than 15 million American girls and boys today, and millions more in other countries, from Chile to Singapore, Israel to Germany.

But the campaign has also kindled controversy.

Men's organizations and some parents criticized it for excluding boys, while conservative women's groups claimed it promoted a "feminist bias against the home and family" with its focus on careers for women.

Skeptics considered the day mere window-dressing--an opportunity for posturing by big firms and government agencies that want to appear politically correct but lack a serious commitment to advancing the concerns of women in the workplace.

And some attacked the campaign as elitist, aimed at the daughters of white-collar professionals, while ignoring women who work in low-paying, dreary or dangerous jobs.

"It is not geared to the real jobs of most people," a mother of a boy and a girl complained to The Times a few years ago, "but is designed to let adorable little upper-middle-class girls go to fun publishing jobs in Manhattan or sit behind Daddy's desk in a pine-paneled office or wear a shiny, stainless steel stethoscope while Mommy does rounds at the hospital."

Still, the day grew so popular in some neighborhoods that public school officials began to complain about its financial hit--each child allowed to skip school to accompany Mom or Dad to work cost them a day's allotment of state funds.

And private schools began discovering that some girls skipping school to "go to work" were nowhere near an office that day, but home or at the mall, playing hooky with Mom. It had evolved from privilege to entitlement: "C'mon, Mom, nobody's gonna be at school tomorrow."

They may lack self-esteem, these teenage girls, but that doesn't mean they are short on brainpower.

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Which is not to say I haven't taken my daughters to work with me. All three of them have spent more time in my office than they care to recall: hours sprawled on the floor coloring, loading up on junk food from the cafeteria, racing each other up and down the stairs, copying their handprints on the Xerox machine.

But it has been for my career survival--not for their career enlightenment. The baby-sitter didn't show, a play-date was canceled, a "minimum day" for "teacher in-service" training never made it from the school's calendar to mine.

On those days at work, there were no diversions, no planned activities or fancy lunches. My girls accompanied me because they had no choice. And they ended the day with no illusions. "Work is kind of like school," my middle one says. "Except more boring."

Maybe it would be different if I worked at the zoo, which hosted its employees' children last week and let them feed animal babies and scoop camel poop. Or at Disneyland. Or Baskin-Robbins.

To my girls, a career is a given, not an option . . . and as careers go, Mom's seems pretty dull. Given a choice between school and a day at my office, I suspect they'd opt to be on campus, where at least there is recess, a playground, and friends.

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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