- Breaking the Pattern: The Origins and Intentions of Take Our Daughters to Work Day
The annual “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day” encourages parents and employers to invite children into their workplace during a special set-aside school day. Today, nearly 40 million people, children and adults, worldwide, take part in this effort to expose the young to the possibilities of careers in adulthood. The field event has a broad range of aims, according to the Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Foundation, including showing a balanced work and family life, providing an opportunity to envision the future, and contributing to a more equitable world by “bringing boys and girls together.”1
Born in the United States as “Take Our Daughters to Work Day,” this highly popular field trip was initially intended to break the patterns of enculturating girls that led to a lopsided gender mix in the workplace. From the first day, however, detractors objected to the “exclusion” of boys. Eventually, the founders of the event capitulated, renaming the day “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work.” The change, however, produced further controversy, not least because of the elimination of the feminist objective. In this article, I will revisit the origins of the event, as well as the basis for its initial popularity, moving on to discuss the decision to change the focus of the event and the response to that action. However, I will then offer an analysis of the shifting landscape for women and girls, both in education and the workplace, in the ten years between the first “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” and the new re-named event, raising questions about the discomforts that may have underpinned the decision.
This article is based on an interview with the woman who created Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Nell Merlino, historical records of the public response, sociological analysis of the educational circumstances of American girls between 1990 and 2020, and my own expertise in the history of American women in the workplace.
Nell Merlino is an activist and entrepreneur who lives in New York and engages with a variety of civic and political initiatives, with particular emphasis on women’s economic issues. Nell began her career as a union activist demanding living wages for working women; over the years, her focus has expanded to include women in politics and entrepreneurship. She has been involved with a number of important efforts behind women’s economic empowerment, including Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence and Make Mine A Million $ Business.
When the Ms. Foundation called her during the winter of 1992, Merlino had just staged a very successful HIV awareness campaign in New York City and thus had caught the attention of many in the not-for-profit sector. The Ms. Foundation gave Nell research to read that showed the sharp drop in self-esteem that then accompanied American girls’ entry into puberty. The research was mostly based on the work done by Carol Gilligan, Harvard’s first gender studies professor, who had gained a substantial amount of public notice during the 1980s.2
The Ms. Foundation told Nell they wanted to have a New York City-based campaign. It was to be a low-budget/high-impact effort like the one she had just successfully launched on HIV but aimed instead at girls beginning adolescence. Nell began to mull over the research and to imagine campaigns that might help. During the time she was thinking through the remit, she attended a retirement party for her father. “As I sat there in that room, listening to people celebrate my father’s career, I began to think about the impact he had on me, on my life choices, including my achievements and career. He always encouraged me to think about my future, to have goals of my own.” Merlino began thinking through how this parental influence might be translated into action to support girls’ views of their own potential.
From this musing, Merlino came up with the idea of Take Our Daughters to Work Day. “It wasn’t simply the idea that girls should see the workplace. I...