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Nell Merlino

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What I Wish I Knew Then

Posted: 04/24/2012 1:10 pm

Back in 1992, I was approached by the Ms. Foundation for Women to help create a program to enhance girls' self-esteem. They'd seen a campaign I'd done a year earlier around the 10-year anniversary of the AIDS epidemic, where, among other things, we distributed 100,000 condoms on the streets of New York. They wondered: How do you put girls in an environment that would bolster their self-esteem?

They give me a carton of research to take home. I started to read and it was so depressing. There we were, 25 years into the women's movement, and girls were still suicidal and deflated.

I very much wanted girls to be seen in places other than where you'd expect them -- at school, at home, in the mall. At the time, people didn't associate girls with the workplace, but kids like to see where their parents go every day. My father was a lawyer and state legislator in New Jersey, and I loved going to the office with him. I witnessed him helping people and changing things through hard work and force of personality. Both of my parents -- my mother was a painter and worked at home -- were happiest when they were working.

I had this vision of the New York subway filled with girls at rush hour so adults would see the future workforce right next to them. I went back to the Foundation with a five-page proposal called "Take Your Daughter to Work." They liked it, but were afraid that girls would go into offices and see that all the women were clerical workers -- which, for the most part, they were. I said, "If that's true, they need to see that so they can make life decisions about what they can do in the future."

One day, we had a meeting with Gloria Steinem. She looked down at the proposal, took out her pen and changed the word "Your" to "Our" so it became "Take OUR Daughters to Work." That was it. Then she said, "I'm going to lunch with the publisher of Parade magazine, and if he asks me what's new, I'll tell him this." Within a month, he had run a quarter-page article about it. We received 10,000 letters from that one piece. A Roper poll from 1994 found that 71 million Americans had been involved in Take Our Daughters to Work Day: parents, teachers, employers and girls all recognized that this was a very important thing to do. Since that time, it's been reproduced in thirteen countries around the world and has become a yearly event.

And that's where my mistake comes in. I wish I'd realized just how big the project was going to be. More importantly, I wish I'd thought to charge the companies who participated in it. Think about it: If everyone had kicked in one dollar, by now there would be a billion dollar fund that could be used to fund girls' and women's workplace issues today. My entire career focus has been about women and work and creating economic independence for women. If we'd had a fund, we would have amassed a sizable amount of money to focus on this issue. We might not be in the financial straits we're in today.

But we didn't charge anyone. It didn't even occur to us. Next year is Take Our Daughters to Work Day's twentieth anniversary. I'm thinking about doing a "Part 2" based on what I've learned about what propels women forward and what holds them back (answer: Lack of confidence, not thinking big enough and an inability to talk comfortably about money). Those three things continue to plague women and hinder their ability to take hold in their economic potential. You see some of that in girls as young as nine years old, the age when self-esteem typically goes down. Yes, we're long overdue for a "Part 2." But this time I'm going to be smart.

Will you join me? I'll be celebrating Take Our Daughters to Work Day this year on the "Today" show this Thursday, April 26, between 10 and 11 a.m. EST.

Please also email me at Nmerlino@gmail.com -- I'd love to hear your thoughts!

 
 
 

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