Nell Merlino was at her father’s retirement dinner in 1992 when she looked around the room and saw so many people who had been influential in her life. Her father, an attorney and New Jersey state legislator, had often brought Merlino to his office and work events, where she met many of the people at that dinner.
At the same time, Merlino was in the thick of working with the Ms. Foundation to create a campaign to improve girls’ self-esteem. A spike in teen pregnancies and suicides had led to a sense of urgency about helping women see what bright futures lie ahead. That retirement dinner created a spark:
What if more parents did as her father did and took their daughters to work?
What if young women saw their parents working at their jobs and had a better understanding of what it meant to build a career?
She went home that night and wrote a five-page overview of a campaign she called, “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” which would encourage people to bring their daughters to the office and give them a better understanding of their parents’ careers.
A few weeks later, Merlino and the Ms. Foundation team had refined the idea to a one-page executive summary when they showed it to Gloria Steinem. Merlino says the first thing Steinem did was pick up her pen and change the name to “Take Our Daughters to Work Day.”
“It was a moment of real understanding; one that it needed to be that people would collectively think about daughters, not that if you had one you would do this, and two that she so quickly understood the power of it,” she says.
Steinem left the room with the summary to go have lunch with the publisher of Parade magazine, which ended up covering the event a few months later. The story generated approximately 10,000 letters about the event.
Soon after, each of the major women’s magazines covered it, as did People magazine and even Esquire, which wrote an editorial about how important the concept was, she says. The fact that a men’s magazine covered this idea about educating girls and young women made Merlino realize that her idea had become bigger than she ever imagined.
Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Foundation is now its own nonprofit organization, based in Elizabeth City, N.C. An estimated 20 million Americans participate. It was expanded to include sons in 2003. From the beginning, however, Merlino says there was backlash because the campaign didn’t include boys. Some called it sexist or unfair. She says:
There are 364 days a year where men and boys are the focus and we want one eight-hour period that focuses on girls and somehow that meant the boys were being left out of something. [Some thought] that it wasn’t fair.
Yet here we are, still 22 years later, where we’ve made great improvements, more girls going to college, but we still have problems on the money side.
She’s referring to research like that from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) which found women age 35 to 54 still earn 77% of what men earn. That costs the average woman $400,000 in lifetime earnings.
That economic disparity is something Merlino is tackling with her latest venture, which she launched in 2000. Count Me in for Women’s Economic Independence is a nonprofit resource center for women entrepreneurs.
Through programs like Make Mine a Million $ Business, which helps women entrepreneurs reach higher revenue goals and the Women Veteran Entrepreneur Corps, which helps women business owners from military families, she’s helping women find economic parity through entrepreneurship.
Merlino says successful movements have to capture the public’s imagination. She points to the recent shift in attitudes about marriage equality. The keys are to have a vision about what you want to see happen and have a plan for making people care about it.
Then, work on finding the most effective ways to talk about it. Today, the latter can be one of the toughest areas to conquer because there are so many information channels competing for attention, she says. But having a strong story to which people relate helps.