Young women visit the World Bank in 1994.

(WOMENSENEWS)–As Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day marks its 15th anniversary on April 26 this year, 8 in 10 Americans are aware of the initiative and 35 million are expected to participate.

In 1993 the New York-based Ms. Foundation for Women launched the initiative as Take Our Daughters to Work Day–celebrated on the fourth Thursday in April–to raise public awareness about the role of women in the workplace and to expose girls to their working futures. The project was expanded to include boys in 2003.

This year will be the last that the Ms. Foundation oversees the public education campaign–now considered by its founder to be one of the nation’s most successful–as it prepares to hand over the reigns to its longtime project consultants.

The initiative–whose scope exceeded the organization’s initial expectations–had come to demand considerable resources, which the Ms. Foundation says will now be directed toward what it sees as its core mission: supporting grassroots public policy advocacy on issues where attention is most needed, such as health care, paid family leave and child care.

Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day has already achieved widespread support, and can live on without the foundation, said Sara Gould, president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation.

In 2008 the foundation will launch a large-scale public education and advocacy campaign which it hopes will have a similar impact.

After this year, Carolyn and George McKecuen, the long-time work-day program consultants who head Human Resources Development, a nonprofit firm in Elizabeth City, N.C., will officially assume the reigns. Carolyn McKecuen said the move will make the program more economical because overhead and salaries are lower there.

The program’s roughly $500,000 budget is used to develop curricula for participants and employers, compensate staff, conduct marketing and match children from subsidized housing and homeless shelters with employers, McKecuen said.

McKecuen said there will be “no drastic changes” to the program and the shift may make fundraising easier in the future.

“Some funders don’t fund the Ms. Foundation because of some of the other programs they do, right or wrong,” McKecuen said. The Ms. Foundation funds organizations, including Women’s eNews, in the fields of economic security; health and safety; and girls, young women and leadership.

Business, Youth Influence Each Other

Marie Wilson, who as head of the Ms. Foundation for Women in 1993 co-founded the program, said that it often affects companies as much as the youth who visit.

A visit to Ortho McNeil in 1995.

“One group of Haitian girls walked into a major newsroom and asked, ‘why are there only white men making news?'” Wilson said. “Let me tell you: that got everyone’s attention.”

Yet the lack of women in top positions in politics and corporate America means the program has not yet reached its goals, said Wilson, who went on to found the White House Project in 1998, a New York-based organization which encourages women’s political leadership.

“We have more places we need to take our daughters,” she said.

Kim Hourihan, 41, of New York, said accompanying her health care executive-mother to work in the first year of the program partly led her to pursue her master’s in business administration.

“It was good to see my mom in the boardroom with all those guys, to see that there can be a woman in there and she can do just fine,” Hourihan, who was 26 at the time, said.

Hourihan now heads asset management at Starwood Capital Group, and has mentored two other women on the job.

Bridging the Girl Gap

The project was fueled by studies indicating that girls lose their confidence during adolescence and a survey finding that programs for U.S. girls focused on preventing risky behavior but not on engaging girls in their communities.

After Parade magazine ran a story about the initiative–planned in the first year, 1993, to launch only in New York City–faxes began pouring in to the Ms. Foundation offices. The machine was so busy, the staff could not send outside faxes for days. They realized that Take Our Daughters to Work Day needed to go national.

While some young people just observe one adult at work, the program encourages companies to expose young visitors to various roles within their organizations. Many companies also offer lectures and group activities. Prepared materials help employers explain how their workplaces operate and encourage participants to consider themes such as how education is relevant to particular jobs.

The McKecuens officially came on board in the second year of the program, in part to relieve the overwhelmed fax machine.

“Those were the days before e-mail,” said McKecuen. “We had 12 telephone operators, and they were on the phone non-stop, taking orders (for branded merchandise) and helping companies figure out how to handle the day: the age groups, the programming they would institute.”

Early Controversies

In those early years, they fielded calls from more than participants.

“Men would leave awful messages saying we should be teaching the girls to stay home and clean and cook,” she said. “One threatened to blow us up several times. I had to hand over his number to the FBI.”

The program also courted controversy by focusing specifically on girls. The decision to add “And Sons” to the title of the initiative in 2003–a change so drastic that Gould said they “developed what we think of as a new program”–was intended to launch discussions on the ways in which women and men must work together to achieve a work-family balance.

McKecuen said boys who participate in the program report becoming cognizant for the first time of the presence and contributions of women in the workplace.

In the coming years, the McKecuens intend to tailor the program to the needs of certain young boys, such as those growing up in female-headed households or falling behind in education.

For girls, McKecuen said, “it’s still about knowing and finding out that they can become an engineer.”

McKecuen said the fact that threatening phone calls and controversy over the idea of taking girls to work have all but stopped is a testament to how far the program has come.

“For me personally, it is one jump in history,” McKecuen said. “If people were still feeling this way, I think we’d still be getting messages. It’s changed the minds of people.”

Kara Alaimo is a New York-based writer.

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