Why girls need professional aspirations

Growing up in Trenton, New Jersey, in the 1960s, Nell Merlino often accompanied her dad, Joe Merlino, a lawyer and powerful figure in state politics, to the office.

“I remember as a girl being fascinated with the equipment: the typewriters, the phones,” she told me recently.

“But I also remember the deep conversations that my father had with people at work. I learned quite a lot about wielding power [from those visits] … There were a number of female state senators, and my father made me aware of them and introduced me to them.

“Whether he was conscious of it or not, he knew that it was important that I saw people who looked like me doing interesting things. I remember thinking, ‘That could be me some day.’ ”

Years later, when Ms Magazine in the US asked Merlino to create a public relations campaign to address the severe self-confidence gap between boys and girls, she came up with Take Our Daughters to Work Day. The goal was to expose girls to different career paths and instil in them professional aspirations. The programme – which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2012 – is now known as Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work. It has grown substantially: more than 35m US youths and adults participate in the scheme each year.

While the programme has been successful, Merlino says she still worries about the self-esteem of girls as they leave adolescence. There is a wide body of research that shows that girls approach adulthood with a poor self-image, low expectations from life and much less confidence in themselves than boys.

“My concern always is about girls getting dragged back into cuteness as opposed to substance,” she says. “There’s an ongoing emphasis on what you look like versus who you are and what you’re capable of.

“It’s very hard for girls to make sense of it unless they have parents who help them understand and interpret that it’s good to look nice and have nice things, but [your abilities and your confidence in those abilities] is where the value is.”

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.