April 24, 2008 | Commentary on Family and Marriage, Education

Take your daughter to work, but talk about home

April 24 marks the 15th anniversary of Take Our Daughters to Work Day. The Ms. Foundation launched the program in 1993 to introduce young girls to the working world's possibilities for their future.

Women were already discovering educational and professional opportunities. By 1982 they had outstripped men in the number of bachelor's degrees earned annually; by 1986 the same was true for master's degrees. Today, women hold more than half of professionally related jobs, and 43 percent of management-related, business and finance jobs.

Meanwhile, on the personal side, women's marriage rate declined 25 percent between 1990 and 2005, while the number of unmarried cohabiting couples almost doubled. In 2004, 19 percent of women ages 40-44 had no children, almost twice the proportion of childless women of the same age in 1976.

Why the discrepancy between these trends in women's personal and professional lives? It's not that young women aren't interested in marriage and motherhood: Nine out of 10 high-school girls say these goals are important to their future happiness.

Have feminist rally cries drowned out the voices of girls themselves? Has all the focus on expanding young women's educational and professional horizons obscured their path to the married life they dream of?

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how to become a rocket scientist (or a doctor, lawyer or engineer). These are well-marked - and now well-worn - paths for women. More educational and vocational opportunities certainly offer many benefits to women. But when options increase, so does the complexity of navigating among them. Choosing well among competing good opportunities is one mark of a successful life - and a vital skill for young women, in particular, to learn.

So take your daughter to work. But take her out for ice cream afterward and talk about all the things she might like to be when she grows up. Veterinarian? Architect? Mom? Introduce her to the wide range of possibilities, but point out that some dreams come with conditions. It's not ideal to start trying to have children after 40, for example, and it's best for their welfare to bring them into the world within the security of marriage. Tell her that successful people must choose between good things at various seasons of life, and help her develop criteria for thinking about the options she'll have.

As you talk about her day at work, note that the qualities of leadership on the job resemble the qualities she'll need to manage a home someday. The traits that would make her professionally successful would also make her a good wife and mother. Personal humility, ambition for the team, sacrifice for a mission larger than self, listening: This is what corporate managers hear from bestselling leadership gurus such as Jim Collins and Marshall Goldsmith. They're telling executives, essentially, that they'll succeed with a little less "me-me-me" and a little more of mom's old-fashioned selflessness.

Girls need more encouragement to develop this character of self-sacrifice and less empty "go-girl" enthusiasm that breeds self-absorption. These competing instincts worked their way into a conversation of several young women I recently overheard at a coffee shop near Dartmouth College. A woman with a baby entered, and the four girls - presumably Dartmouth coeds - cooed loudly over the child. Afterward, the girls' conversation went something like this:

"I want a baby, I want a baby now!" said one girl.

A second was less sure: "Babysitting for two days was the best form of birth control."

"I know, you don't get more than three hours of sleep at a time when you have a baby," said a third. "When my brother was a baby, I'd hear him cry at night and my mom would have to get up to feed him and then she wouldn't be able to get back to sleep."

Her audience sighed: Can you believe women actually do that? One girl was bold enough to remind them of the answer to the unspoken question:

"You do it because motherhood is one of the most amazing gifts."

After a moment's pause, their conversation trailed off after some fact one of them had heard about life expectancies for children born today. Soon after, they left for class.

Today, one of the most important challenges for those interested in enhancing young women's opportunities is to help them reconcile their plans beyond graduation and the "amazing gift" of motherhood. So take your daughter to work. But also talk about home and what it might take to have one of her own someday.

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation and author of "Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century." Readers may write to the author in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: www.heritage.org.  Information about Heritage's funding may be found at http://www.heritage.org/about/reports.cfm.

McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

Related Issues: Family and Marriage, Education

First Appeared in the McClatchy-Tribune