New York — Two decades after the women's movement declared him obsolete, Prince Charming lives. For millions of American girls, the Cinderella fantasy remains a powerful influence as they think about their future lives. Despite the fact that many of their own mothers work outside the home and support families alone, these young women cling to the notion that they need not prepare for a career because they will be provided for -- royally.
At a recent conference bringing together 300 delegates from across the country, the Girls Clubs of America took note of the revival of this dangerously dated myth, then tried to sound final curfew on it with disenchanting facts guaranteed to turn the coach into a very unromantic pumpkin.
For every latter-day Cinderella saved from a life of toil by a handsome prince -- or at least a husband with an MBA -- a hundred others will need to earn part or all of their family's income. Projections show that girls today will work for an average of 30 years. By the end of the century, 80 percent of women will be employed outside the home while raising children, with two-thirds clustered in low-paying, traditionally female jobs.
These sobering figures and their implications for the next generation of women dominated speeches and discussions at the Grand Hyatt Hotel here, as participants underscored a need to help girls develop realistic goals, along with the skills to achieve economic autonomy.
``Today's girls are receiving mixed messages about the life they can expect as women,'' says Margaret Gates, executive director of Girls Clubs. ``They expect to hold jobs, but they also expect to be able to choose if they want to work while raising children. They expect new opportunities for women in the workplace to provide good jobs, [but] at the same time they stay away from math, science, and computer courses because they're for boys, not girls. Girls receive the message that they'll need to work but no information on the balancing act they'll be forced to perform.''
Some of the earliest and most subtle signals come from parents, according to conference participants. ``Girls and boys are still rewarded for very different behavior,'' says Pamela Trotman Reid, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. ``Girls are praised for pleasing others, looking neat, and conforming to the rules -- hardly the qualities associated with leadership. Boys continue to be patted on the back for acquiring skills, taking risks, and being competitive.''
Schools add to the confusion. ``The average math and science classroom continues to convey a subtle message that girls are less able than boys,'' says Edith B. Phelps, director of school and community projects at Harvard University's graduate school of education. ``By discouraging girls from achievement, particularly in math and sciences, schools heavily restrict a girl's career choices for the future.''
Dr. Phelps also cites a recent study by American University showing that teachers often behave differently toward boys and girls in class. When boys call out answers, for example, teachers accept them. When girls do the same, they are told, ``Raise your hand.''
Even funding for community programs reflects a gender bias. Foundations and other private sources currently spend three times as much on boys' programs as on girls'. Boys also receive public sector funding at a 2-to-1 ratio over girls. Last year the United Way, for example, gave $2.38 to boys' programs for every $1 to girls', according to a Girls Clubs report.
Perhaps the most powerful influences of all come from media images. Although television programs this season feature more female characters than ever, women still have a much narrower range of options than men, according to Diana Meehan, author of ``Ladies of the Evening: Women Characters of Prime Time Television.'' Many roles, she finds, remain strongly stereotypical. Men are presented as ambitious, smart, and powerful, while women are portrayed as dependent, sensitive, romantic, and attractive.
For the minority child, good models remain even harder to find. ``Hispanic females are virtually absent from TV, although they represent 10 million Americans,'' Ms. Meehan observes. Black girls are also underrepresented, even in all-black shows, and tend to be less active than their male counterparts when they do appear.
Similarly, magazines for teen-age girls, with their emphasis on beauty, bodies, and boys, reinforce the message that girls are valued more for their appearance than for their ideas.
``A girl's image of herself is defined almost entirely by what boys think of her,'' says Elizabeth Winship, author of the syndicated teen-age advice column ``Ask Beth.'' ``Girls who don't have a sense of their value as a person are sitting ducks for the kinds of lines boys hand out. Boys are still saying, `You will if you love me. . . .' Heavy conformity is a real barrier to autonomy. We need to value individuality, although it doesn't get talked about very much.''
Giving girls a heightened sense of their own worth and their choices for the future becomes doubly important in preventing adolescent pregnancy, which is by far the greatest threat to a girl's success and independence. Young women who give birth in high school are half as likely to graduate and one-tenth as likely to go on to college.
Yet conference participants agree that girls and women can't accomplish all of these needed changes alone. ``We must begin to shift the emphasis of teen-age pregnancy to teen-age boys,'' says Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. magazine. ``And when young girls say, `How can I combine work and family?' how come male counterparts aren't saying the same thing?''
As a first step in countering stereotypes and encouraging girls' achievement, Girls Clubs of America has released an action agenda offering ideas for effecting changes in the family, schools, community, and workplace.
At home, the group suggests, parents need to encourage and praise risk-taking in girls and care-taking in boys. Families should also talk to sons as well as daughters about balancing work and home.
In school, teachers and administrators need to encourage girls to take more math, science, and computers. And the computer industry must begin to target their products toward girls.
``Dependence, indecision, and inadequacy are not female characteristics,'' says Phyllis Ross Schless, president of Girls Clubs, leaving a girl to conclude for herself: If the glass slipper fits, put it on. But if you don't want to chance the job-market equivalent of sweeping and dusting for a wicked stepmother all your life, get an education, Cinderella. Get training. Get skills. Living happily ever after these days is likely to depend a lot more on merit ratings than on the right foot size.