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Friday, April 23, 2004 01:15 pm

The lost promise of “take our daughters to work day”

My son grew up fatherless, but there were men in his life. One day, one took him shooting. When Ray brought him home, I asked how it went. "Great!" Jonah said. Then, with a thoughtful look on his face, he added, "You know, most people don't have enough insurance."

This was not a lead-in to some gory story about shooting trips gone awry. Ray was an insurance salesman. His work had value to him and he had no doubt that Jonah would be interested in it, too. And Jonah was. Men naturally share their work lives with boys.

Contrast this with a typical scene from a business meeting involving well-dressed professional women. In the midst of this meeting, one woman's phone rings. Efficiently, she snaps it open and presses it to her ear. Her face reddens as she sheepishly whispers into the mouthpiece, "It's on the bottom shelf, next to the mayonnaise."

We are a society in transition. Gender roles continue to evolve. But threads of the old culture remain. Mom is still Mom first and businesswoman second. Dad is a fireman first and Dad second.

Morphing "Take Our Daughters To Work Day" into "Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Day" completely defused its power. Real equality that could have served both genders well would have instituted a corresponding "Go One Day Without Talking About Your Work Day" for Dad. Or at the very least we could have had a "Go Ask Your Dad Where The Mustard Is Because Mommy's Working Day."

Instead, we have this affront to the Puritan work ethic called "Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Day" in which children are given a totally false impression of the working world.

Children arrive at the office to an array of doughnuts, pastries, and juice, and a smiling boss. They then divide the day between being told how cute they are, revisiting the snack table, having their pictures taken, and raiding the office supply cabinet to make nametags.

The inevitable consequence is that children end up with even less respect for their mothers' work. Men, though they have also brought children to work, have been raised to believe that they will lose their jobs and go to hell if they miss a deadline. They plug away at projects oblivious to the sugared-up child whining for change for the vending machine. Women, who were raised to believe that they will be set to drift on an ice floe, then die and go to hell if any child's cry goes unanswered, neglect their work to spend quality time with their children, making paper clip chains, tying shoelaces, and helping to color-coordinate the pushpins on the union bulletin board.

None of these children will ever again believe Mom is justified in coming home from work tired and grumpy. The child who has been taken to work on this day in which all reality is suspended can only assume that a bad day at work for Mom is one in which the jelly doughnuts run out and she has to settle for a cruller. It couldn't possibly mean that Mom has spent a day answering angry phone calls about some new legislation, pleading for funding for a vital project, firing a secretary who's bad at her job but has three kids to raise, trying to recover data from a system that somebody forgot to back up, or having her parking spot given to the boss's teenaged son.

"Take Our Daughters To Work Day," launched in 1993 by Ms. Foundation, was designed to encourage women to do something that men do without prodding: take themselves and their work seriously. And expect their families to do the same. After my son came home from that shooting trip with a head full of life insurance, I realized that he could define professions for all the men in his life. ("Rick builds houses." "Larry drives a truck.") He could not do the same with women. In our eagerness to assure children of their importance in our lives, women have denied them the knowledge that we are important elsewhere, too.

The initial promise of "Take Our Daughters To Work Day" has died a sugary death, transmuted into the fluff that children misbelieve their mothers' work lives to be. Any lessons about the dignity and the value of work have been completely neutralized by jelly doughnuts, with no hope for redemption.

Maybe we should just take our girls out shooting.

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