Big Ideas For Little Girls

Accompanying Mom to the office is no big deal for 14-year-old Erika Self. She has been roaming the halls of Warner-Lambert Co.'s Morris Plains (N.J.) offices since she was just a toddler. But when she returns on Apr. 28 with her mother, Evelyn Self, Warner-Lambert's director of community affairs, Erika will have plenty of company.

The reason? Take Our Daughters To Work, an event sponsored by the Ms. Foundation for Women. Originally intended to be a pilot project in New York City, the program has surprised its organizers by winning enthusiastic support across the country. Erika will be among an estimated 500,000 girls aged 9 to 15 who will trail mothers and fathers into corporate offices and government agencies in search of a glimpse of the work world. Plenty of big companies plan to welcome the girls with open arms, including NYNEX, Johnson & Johnson, Nike, Du Pont, and Ford.

OIL CHANGES. Many employers are going further than simply putting out a welcome mat. After attending workshops, the 90 girls expected to visit Liz Claiborne Inc. will join teams to develop a fashion collection. At People magazine, the 60 girls who are scheduled to visit will work on Macintosh computers to design a People cover. They'll also participate in a photo contest and write stories about their day. The winning story and picture will be part of a miniature People magazine that will be sent to all participants.

But the program has caught on beyond New York publishers and fashion houses--both of which are big employers of women. At the Ford Motor Co. design center in Dearborn, Mich., 143 girls are expected to design cars on computers and help fashion clay models of the prototypes. Amex Resources Inc., an oil and gas company in Denver, will have its visitors talk to employees working in areas that interest them, such as computers or exploration. Valvoline Inc. in Lexington, Ky., is even planning to bring girls inside its oil-change centers to inflate tires and enter customer data on computers.

But what about the boys, who aren't invited to participate? Isn't this just sexism in reverse? Yes, say some who want a chance to spend a day at the office, too. "I think we are at a disadvantage, because it's good for us to see how a business is run, too," says Jordan Weitz, 13, a seventh-grader in Chappaqua, N. Y. Adds Mary Ann Von Glinow, a business professor at the University of Southern California: "We ought to have a bring-our-kids day, as opposed to just little girls. It can disenfranchise parents from their sons."

To try to address such concerns, the Ms. Foundation has designed a curriculum to encourage boys to question gender attitudes and stereotypes in classrooms. And Nell Merlino, a consultant to the Ms. Foundation, defends the emphasis on girls by citing academic research showing that girls lose self-esteem and confidence as they become young women. She says the program is designed to give girls more attention and provide them with role career models. "When you have boys and girls in the same room, people tend to pay attention to the boys," Merlino says.

BLOCKED VIEW. Organizers say the program's success is mainly the result of grassroots interest from female employees, who have asked employers to support the idea. As a junior high school student, recalls Romaine Crawford-Mulley, director of the Corning Glass Center in upstate New York, "I had no idea of the number of opportunities out there. Our hope is that by showing so many different career paths that women at Corning have taken, some of the girls will think more broadly." Says Cynthia L. Johnson, senior specialist at Du Pont: "The level of enthusiasm among our employees has been overwhelming."

Given the positive response, the day's organizers would like to try it again next year. "We plan to do this until we don't have to anymore," says Merlino. And the kids? Erika Self, for one, isn't even sure if she is cut out for business. "I don't know if I would want to have my mom's job," she says. Maybe after trailing her mother around for the day, she'll be able to decide one way or the other.

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