04/28/2011 12:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2011

What About the Boys

It was April 1993 on the very first Take Our Daughters to Work Day, of which I am a founding mother. I sat in front of the television after a long and satisfying day, watching media reports that documented a massive entrance by girls into the American workplace. What we at the Ms. Foundation for Women had thought would be a regional event had gone viral, to use today's parlance. TODTW had suddenly become a national holiday celebrating all that girls could be.

Girls were at NASA, at fire stations, at Fortune 500 corporations, in operating theaters at hospitals. Their every move was chronicled by major networks, to our absolute amazement. Yet as we all know, nothing is ever perfect. The imperfection of this day, as millions of girls went on a spree of occupational discovery, was the following chorus: "What about the boys?"

What about the boys, indeed.

And so it has been for almost two decades. And in spite of research that showed 40 percent of those who took girls to work were fathers, The Ms. Foundation has found itself threatened with law suits from disgruntled males, the recipient of shameful letters from boys and (most often) from parents. Men's groups held protests in front of our building, terrifying our employees to the point where they implored us to build a barricade between the elevator bank and our office, into which they directly opened. Naturally, we took these threats seriously, but it didn't stop us from doing what needed to be done to prepare girls for a modern world. Many of us were also the mothers of sons, and in those early years (and believe we, we looked!), there were a precious few organizations whose mission was to help boys change their lives in ways that complemented the lives of girls. We wanted change for our sons, but we certainly didn't see a program for girls as one that diminished boys. Nonetheless, that opinion seemed to resonate.

After the first TODTW, we gathered friendly groups of men to help us sort out the question of boys in regard to this day for girls. We asked, "What do you want us to do for your sons?" The answer: Take our sons to work as well. We told them we did not have the resources to do a program for all children, and besides, that was not the intent of TODTW. Why didn't they take on a separate boys' day as a mission of their own? But they kept insisting that it be us (they didn't see the irony of insisting that a women's organization "serve" their sons). Yet we compromised by suggesting that perhaps boys could be taken to work places where women traditionally dominated, like nursing homes and day care centers. We thought it would be good for boys to understand this traditional "work of women."

"That would punish our sons," they replied, not at all aware of how disgracefully dismissive they were being on this caring sector of the economy, where women struggled for good pay and working conditions. So for years, with a few exceptions, the work with boys is incomplete.

Yet the controversy continued throughout the decades, growing so loud that the few companies who had supported the original intent of the program finally bowed to their employees, male and female, who felt their sons were being unfairly excluded. Ortho, the last funder standing, finally called me and said they couldn't support us unless we added boys. The rest is history.

For any of you who still participate in the program, you have probably seen that the addition of boys has changed the day for girls, and not necessarily for the better. Girls will tell you, under pressure, that they welcome boys into the program, but in fact, it has made the day less meaningful for them. (As Eleanor Holmes Norton once said amid the din, "Having a Take Our Boys to Work Day is like having White History Month.") Girls act differently in the company of boys; they are less likely to speak up and the energy in the room tends to flow naturally away from them toward boys. Frankly, it is a shame that this program has become what it has because its original mission -- to let girls see all that they can be -- is greatly diluted.

As the day rolls around this year, I am again disappointed that the men at Ground Zero of the program did not understand the need to take their sons to some different work -- work that in a post-industrial environment is growing at a faster pace than any other. As Hannah Rosen documents in her unfortunately titled article in Atlantic Magazine, The End of Men (she didn't pick the title, by the way), the trends in education, the shifts in industry where jobs are growing, and the unfamiliarity of men with having to reinvent their lives and retool their education and egos is wreaking havoc on their lives. Looking at our most recent recession, she writes: "...three quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men. The worst hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance."

She continues:

"Men dominated just two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else -- nursing, child care, food preparation." And in the same article, as Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress says, "Many of the new jobs...replace the things that women used to do in the home for free." None is especially high paying, says Rosen, "But, the steady accumulation of these jobs adds up to an economy that, for the working class, has income more amenable women than to men."

(And I would add that if history serves, as more men enter these fields salaries will rise.)

Inevitably, change must come, not the least of which because it will be forced upon us. For instance, women continue to trail men in leadership positions across sectors, including college presidencies, yet women are now the majority of graduates. How long, then, until they rise to the top at universities?

Companies are beginning to understand that their consumers are largely women, and they are now seeking ways to bring more of us into top management and onto their boards. Corporations are also now training their employees in gender intelligence, a way to understand what everyone brings to the table in a way that enhances all. Even Davos, that prestigious business conference in Europe whose guest list looks more like the Augusta golf club membership roster than the world it purports to represent, added incentives this time around for companies to bring top women.

So as we take both our sons and daughters to work this week, let's make sure we get the most out of it. Tell our boys the importance of a solid education, and also the importance of an open mind when it comes to the types of jobs they will eventually do. And let's make sure our girls understand the importance of their voices in leadership across whatever sector they choose. None of this is to the exclusion of the other; it is simply the way the world can and should operate.

But most of all, tell them all to pursue jobs with purpose and passion, and to be a leading voice in bringing all of our resources to the table, male and female. That is how a society moves forward, and that is the true message of what I will always call Take Our Daughters to Work Day.