Don't get me wrong, I love men. I even married one. And I love the boys in my life -- my four stepsons, my adorable nephews and godsons, and all those great guy friends who help make my life fun and funny.
But I do have to admit that I experienced a difficult moment in 2003, when after 10 years of success, the brainchild of the Ms. Foundation, Take Our Daughters to Work Day, was pressured into becoming Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. I was shocked. There was a vital reason this program was created specifically for girls. It was in response to a very disturbing Harvard study by Dr. Carol Gilligan -- and research conducted at the University of Minnesota -- showing that as girls approached adolescence, at around 11 years of age, they stopped raising their hands in class; they began losing their self-esteem, their confidence, and their interest in math, science and technology. As a result, the report said, as the girls' academic curiosity plummeted, so did their chance of being equipped for meaningful future employment.
After all the hard-won battles fought for women, how could we let this happen to girls?
Like a lot of women my age, it reminded me of the low expectations that were thrust on us when we were growing up. I'll never forget struggling with a math problem when I was in the 7th grade at Marymount, and complaining to the math nun about it.
"Don't worry, dear," she said to me. "You won't need it."
Talk about low expectations.
Poring over the research, the Ms. Foundation, under the tenacious leadership of Marie Wilson, began strategizing what to do about this report. Marie brought in consultant Nell Merlino, who told us about a top newsman who would take his young daughter with him to important events, and how proud and worthwhile she felt at being included. This story really clicked with us -- from it we envisioned a program that would encourage caring adults to mentor and safely escort adolescent girls through this perilous passage. It would be called Take Our Daughters to Work Day; and we pointedly used the words "Our Daughters" -- not "Your Daughters" -- so the day would embrace all of the girls in our lives, whether they were nieces or granddaughters or even neighbors.
Most important, mothers and fathers knew that something was going on with their daughters that wasn't quite right. And now this program would give them something to do about it. There's nothing like the truth to set a movement on fire. Those parents helped to bring their businesses and corporations on board. Then Gloria Steinem (who along with Letty Pogrebin, Pat Carbine and myself were the founders of the Ms. Foundation) told a reporter at Parade about the campaign, and the magazine ran a small piece about it. That's when the calls began flooding in.
I'll always remember that first Take Our Daughters to Work Day. Girls were everywhere! In firehouses, on ferry boats, at desks in magazine editorial offices, backstage at theaters. It was thrilling.
And the stories coming out of the day were indelible. Like the story about 10-year-old Shelby from Lubbock, Texas, who accompanied her dad to his job as a car salesman at a Cadillac dealership:
I remember him letting me 'help' move the cars around the showroom floor. But my most enduring memory was the moment I realized that the women who worked there only sat at their desks and typed, and didn't get to drive cars around inside the building. This experience foreshadowed my career, because it reminded me to always ask: "What about the women?"
As an awareness campaign, it was a resounding success. As a cultural movement, it was historic. I remember a letter someone wrote to the New York Times, heralding the day "not [as] an exercise in pretending that women don't need men; it is an acknowledgment that womanhood begins in girlhood." I loved that.
But almost immediately, we began hearing faint murmurs: "What about the boys?" It was a reasonable question for those who hadn't read the research, but even so, it troubled us. Of course we cared about boys. Our "Free to Be... You and Me" projects were all about encouraging the hopes and dreams of both girls and boys. But our argument was solid: Back then, boys always joined their dads at the office, or even accompanied them on golf outings with their business partners. The idea of bringing girls into the work world was something groundbreaking and lifesaving.
We stuck to our guns for a decade, but by 2003, the pressure had gotten too great. And so we expanded the program to bring boys into the fold. Leave it to Gloria to sum up our feelings at the time with her characteristic wit: "It was the first thing girls had that boys wanted. So you know it's good when the boys want in."
So the boys are in. But in many respects, the girls are still out. While women obtain the majority of college degrees, they represent only 15 percent of senior management in all industries. And what about the lack of confidence among girls in math and science reported in 1993? Today, only 22 percent of computer-science graduates are women. According to a 2008 National Science Foundation study, that percentage has been decreasing steadily.
So the question now is not about the boys. The question remains: How do we insure the future for girls? That's what makes this day important.
Eighteen years after its founding, I'm still proud of our revolutionary program, which just last year engaged 36 millions kids -- girls and boys. Most important, it has truly raised the consciousness of the business world that it must open its arms -- and its doors -- to girls in the workplace.
And, yes, I've come around to thinking that it's good that boys are getting used to sharing floor space with the girls. Because, if things go right, someday they'll be working for them.
To support the annual Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, log on at www.DaughtersAndSonsToWork.org and find out how you can bring the program to your community and help with fundraising efforts.
Follow Marlo Thomas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarloThomas