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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