ACROSS the United States today, millions of adolescent girls are trading the three R's for what could be called the three W's - work, wages, and wider horizons. Instead of going to school, they are visiting offices, factories, stock exchanges, judicial chambers, space centers, and newsrooms - just about any place, in short, where people earn a paycheck.
As participants in the second annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day, these young women are getting an inside look at how their parents and other adults spend their days. In the process, sponsors at the Ms. Foundation hope they'll also get a heightened sense of their own worth and capabilities.
Call it a field trip or skipping school. Call it ``experiential learning'' or ``shadowing.'' By whatever term, the idea of observing the world of work firsthand holds merit. So popular was last year's inaugural event that the project has now spread to Britain, Ireland, Japan, Puerto Rico, parts of Africa.
Why daughters and not sons, too? Because the onset of adolescence supposedly brings a perilous drop in girls' self-esteem and confidence. Just when girls should be shaping their ambitions for the future, experts observe, they tend to constrict their horizons, often thinking more about their looks than their abilities.
By every measure, young women continue to be slighted, both in school and beyond. Teachers give boys more attention than girls, according to researchers. Foundations award only about 6 percent of their dollars to programs targeting girls and women. And employers still reward equal work with unequal pay, although the wage gap is shrinking gradually.
Critics and skeptics complain that today's event, like much of the women's movement itself, suffers from a middle-class bias - that it unrealistically focuses on high-level jobs and ignores the pink-collar ghetto where a majority of women spend their working lives. Yet what are dreams for if not to exceed one's present reach?
And what about the boys left behind in half-empty classrooms today? For them, the Ms. Foundation has created a ``gender awareness program'' dealing with men's roles and stereotypes.
Despite the number of working parents, offices and factories remain mysterious places to many young people. Children may know how hard their parents work, but they have little concept of the activities that engage them for 40 hours a week.
How are they to learn? Television sitcoms seldom portray characters actually working. One notable exception, Murphy Brown, offers a look inside a glamorous TV newsroom. At the other extreme, Roseanne gives glimpses of life as a waitress. But two of the highest-profile TV parents, on the Cosby Show, seldom revealed much about their professions as doctor and lawyer.
When I was growing up, our awareness of other occupations came largely from three grade-school field trips: to the fire station, the police station, and a potato-chip factory. I made only a few brief visits to the company where my father, an electrical engineer, worked. They were Saturday visits, with desks empty, typewriters covered, phones silent - a corporate ghost town.
Today the question ``What do you want to be when you grow up?'' has never seemed more complicated, for boys as well as girls. Single-word occupations - engineer, biologist, journalist - now demand specialties: software engineer, microbiologist, investigative reporter. As specialization increases, so does the need for career information.
Take Our Daughters to Work Day is a worthy beginning, assuming that its value doesn't get diluted by a swirl of media hype and a cache of souvenirs that the Ms. Foundation's 800-line describes as ``T-shirts, buttons, and other great mementos.''
Taking sons to work would be a good idea, too. It will require more than a day at work for girls and a day of gender awareness for boys to help the next generation of employees fine-tune their dreams and grasp the range of choices available. For that matter, even some adults could stand another round of orientation.
Perhaps there's a market for a Take Our Parents to Work Day as new demands modify everyone's career in a workplace that never stands still.