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Opinion

After 20 years of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, time for a rethink

Twenty years ago, the Ms. Foundation started Take Our Daughters to Work Day to demystify the workplace for girls. That mission is accomplished. What girls need now is encouragement to become leaders. It's time to take them to the C-suite, where the corporate chiefs work.

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Girls also need to understand what leadership is like on a day-to-day basis. The more they understand the specific requirements and rewards of leadership, the better choices they can make about their own careers. How do executives motivate teams, solve complex financial problems, and develop new products? Making the responsibilities, roles, and payoffs of leadership clear from the time girls are in grade-school would help make leadership more tangible.

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It would also help resolve another issue the Girl Scouts identified: More than a third of girls said they wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to lead, and nearly 40 percent didn’t think they were cut out for leadership. Hearing directly from both male and female leaders about what they actually do could help close that gap.

Finally, these efforts need to reach beyond a single day in April. Companies and schools need proactive efforts to move women into leadership roles. That’s what Princeton University did when it found that the number of female students winning top academic honors and holding visible leadership roles had declined over the last decade.

President Shirley Tilghman convened a steering committee to investigate and recommend solutions. One immediate result was that the faculty started proactively encouraging female students to apply for academic prizes. In 2011, 3 out of 4 Princeton Rhodes Scholars were women. Ambition did not just appear out of nowhere for these women –  encouragement from influential people clearly mattered.

In corporate environments, that kind of support appears as sponsorship. In contrast to mentors, sponsors spend their political capital on behalf of their protégés. They provide opportunities instead of merely advice. A professor who pushes a student to apply for the Rhodes – and offers to write a letter of recommendation – is providing sponsorship. The best companies for diversity have formal sponsorship initiatives to achieve similar results.

Much has changed in the workplace in the 20 years since we first took our daughters to work, but women’s rates of top leadership have barely budged. That disparity is costing our companies talent, hurting the country’s competitiveness, and undermining our ideals of fairness and social equality.

Simply showing our daughters what an office looks like is no longer enough. Real breakthroughs will come when we bring girls inside the halls of power. We need to take our daughters into the C-Suite now so they can lead in the future.

Jennifer Allyn is a managing director at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP responsible for retaining and advancing women.

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