Stepping Out of Line: Lessons for Women Who Want It Their Way...In Life, In Love, and At Work

Stepping Out of Line: Lessons for Women Who Want It Their Way...In Life, In Love, and At Work

by Nell Merlino

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When activist Nell Merlino decides something needs to change, she throws everything she has into changing it. Whether it is raising the visibility of girls or helping women build their businesses, her many campaigns have helped women make dreams come true. Now she marshals her life lessons—and those of other gutsy women—to help women have it their way.

Stepping Out of Line is Merlino’s bold manifesto for women to stop waiting and get what they want, in the arenas of love or work or in the world at large. Offering practical nuggets like “Gain from complaining” and “The system is more malleable than you think,” she shows women how to imagine bigger lives, find support, and stay the course.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767931441
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 03/03/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

NELL MERLINO created Take Our Daughters to Work Day for the Ms. Foundation for Women in 1993, and today, more than 71 million Americans have taken part. She is currently CEO of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, which helps women grow microbusinesses into million-dollar enterprises through its Make Mine a Million $ Business program. She lives in Manhattan.

Read an Excerpt

1: Stepping Out with Take Our Daughters to Work Day

A phone call woke me up the morning after the very first Take Our Daughters to Work Day in April 1993. It was Wyatt Andrews, an old-school, serious, senior correspondent for CBS Evening News, calling from one of those phones that was embedded in the backs of airplane seats before they had tiny TVs with forty-seven channels. He was on the "power plane," the shuttle between Washington, D.C., and New York, with all the businesspeople in power suits drinking power coffee and reading their morning newspapers.

Wyatt told me he was calling because while he was walking down the aisle of that plane, he had seen Take Our Daughters to Work Day stories and photos on the front page of everyone's papers: USA Today, the New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, and others. There were photos of girls in every conceivable profession, dressed in uniforms ranging from hard hats to chef's toques to surgical masks to dainty pearls. There were girls in goggles soldering circuit boards. Girls reading fetal heart monitor graphs. Girls flying flight simulators. Girls walking through the halls of Congress. Girls computing. Girls lunching. Girls meeting. Girls everywhere.

"You did it," he said over and over. "You did it! You did it!"

Weeks earlier, Wyatt had interviewed me in New York for a national story. He had asked me tough questions, like whether the need for Take Our Daughters to Work Day was an indictment of the women's movement, if it was an indication of the failure of people like Gloria Steinem and others to change the world for women. I had said no, it was absolutely not an indication of failure. In fact, it was a mark of our success so far and a recognition of just how long it takes to make lasting, systemic, social and economic change.

During this celebratory phone call, Wyatt also mentioned to me that he had become an overnight sensation at his two daughters' school, because of his story on Take Our Daughters to Work Day. He was not famous because he was a newscaster. He was famous because everyone at school wanted to find out more about Take Our Daughters to Work Day. They had seen his news story and lined up to ask him whether they were planning the day correctly for their daughters. Wyatt said he'd never had so much interest in a single story. Everyone wanted to talk about and be part of Take Our Daughters to Work Day.

"You did it," he kept saying on the phone that morning. "You did it!"

The Steps to Change

Much of what I know about making change I learned or confirmed in the process of making my vision of Take Our Daughters to Work Day come to life. The story of this event--which changed my life as well as the lives of millions of girls--highlights many of the themes we will explore in this chapter and later chapters:

* Start with the end in mind. Define what success looks like and feels like to you. Define the desired impact of your actions.
* Activate your imagination. Whatever you are struggling with in your life, envision the best outcomes you possibly can. You have to see it before you can devise a plan to get there. Imagine how other people feel or how they might approach the challenge.
* Expect and listen to resistance to your idea or plan. Other people's criticism and questions help you find out what people are afraid of, what they are protecting. When used constructively, resis_tance is valuable information.
* Inspire, activate, and mobilize who you know. Engage all the help you need. Drop any notion that you have to--or can do--anything significant alone.
* Expand your definition of success to include others. As you step out of line, you will likely find that other people will follow your lead.
* Write it all down. None of the inspiring messages and stories in this book replaces the need for a strong plan. Take it from a communications expert: a strategic outline and a few clearly written paragraphs can go a long way.

As you will see from the Take Our Daughters to Work Day story, creating change is not magic. It happens by putting one foot in front of the other and using every bit of creativity, information, and support you can gather. A written plan is also essential. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it needs to be your road map that reminds you of what you are doing and why. Like everything else you want to succeed at, making change requires commitment, focus, and discipline. And to begin with, it takes imagination.

The Story of Take Our Daughters to Work Day

One of the most frequent questions people ask me is how I came up with the idea for Take Our Daughters to Work Day. The short answer is that I used my imagination. The longer answer is that I wanted other girls to have the kind of experience that I had going to work with my parents.

The Take Our Daughters to Work Day story begins in 1992, when Carol Gilligan completed a study that documented a pattern of strong, vital girls devolving into ten_tative, unsure young women as they passed through adolescence. Gilligan found that most girls' confidence levels plummeted by the time they reached their teens. By high school, more than two-thirds of girls had lost their self-confidence and faced poor self-image and low expectations. This meant eating disorders in girls as young as age eleven; a doubling of the incidence of depression for late adolescent girls as compared to boys; at least one suicide attempt for over 20 percent of teenage girls; and over a million pregnancies for those between the ages of twelve and nineteen.

The Ms. Foundation for Women wanted to launch a big effort to do something about this. I'd caught the foundation's attention because of a campaign I had helped organize with the Gay Men's Health Crisis to publicize the tenth year of the AIDS epidemic. The Ms. Foundation decided to hire me to come up with a campaign to make adults aware of the tragic loss of self-esteem that girls experience in adolescence. I knew this required a big idea, a way for girls to be valued for their ideas, strength, and aspirations and not just their cuteness.

Around this time I attended a retirement dinner for my father. I sat there looking around at all of the people my father had worked with over the course of his public service career, and thought about how my meeting all these people and observing them at work had influenced my own choices in life. I had gone to the office and on the campaign trail with my father and often observed him working. I had also seen my mother raising five children and painting on canvas, theater scenery, and public murals. I had gone to my mother's art studio and observed her and the other five women painters with whom she rented the space. I knew what my parents did for a living and I learned from watching them that they loved their work.

During the retirement dinner, I started to see a video unreeling in my mind's eye of a crowded New York City subway filled with girls traveling with their parents or other adults to work. There were as many girls as adults on this train. What if for one day, everyone focused on the potential of young women? What would that look like? For a national campaign to get attention, I knew that girls had to appear someplace that people never imagined girls being. Girls would need to step out of school for one day and populate workplaces across the nation and around the world.

Immediately, I started to imagine physically how such a thing would occur, and what help we would need to make my vision a reality. And I began to write down a plan. Take Our Daughters to Work Day was born. I started with a vision of the way things could be, and then step by step I worked to bring that vision to life. You can do this, too.

Start with the End in Mind
Write down or cut out pictures of what you ultimately see for yourself and others in life, love, and work. The more specific you can be, the more likely you will be able to communicate your vision to others so they can help you get there.

As you become clearer on your image of what you want in your life, you also need to define the finish line: What will be your evidence that this success has occurred? Defining success is a process of determining what's important to you and then setting clear outcomes to know you've accomplished your goals. In the case of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, our vision was a world where girls are visible, valued, and heard. Our definition of success was a day where as many girls as possible went to work with somebody. We measured the ultimate success of the first Take Our Daughters to Work Day in news clippings and letters by the pound, letters from girls and poll numbers that said over 2 million had participated in the first day. Girls' images were everywhere and they were being taken seriously. In the years since, over 100 million people have participated!
Can your definition of success change over time? Absolutely. You complete certain goals and set others. You might go down one path and decide that it's not really what you want. Circumstances change and your goals can change with them. Think about all the women who leave the corporate workforce because "success" in that realm turns out not to be satisfying to them. There is satisfaction in success. If you don't feel satisfied when you reach your goal, then it's probably time to rethink your definition.

Set Specific, Time-Sensitive Goals; Write Them Down and Post Them Where You Can See Them

Further hone your unique definition of success by determining the actual numbers, dates, dollar amounts, or other specific markers you want to achieve. This way, you'll be able to mark incremental successes and celebrate when you've reached your ultimate goal. Vague goals produce vague results.

Getting Started
Looking back, it's almost hard to imagine a time before Take Our Daughters to Work Day. It's become a permanent part of our culture, appearing in the scripts of popular TV shows--such as ER, The Simpsons, and The Office--and the frames of comic strips like Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury.

But in 1993, when we were planning the event from my home office in New York City, we weren't sure how it would all turn out. After the big vision, the detail work begins. There's no magic to this part of the process. Once we had our overarching definition of success for Take Our Daughters to Work Day, we proceeded to the rather mundane but crucial next step: we wrote up a one-pager. That's it. Nothing fancy. Just a simple Word document with a description of why we were doing this, when it would occur, and who it would help and inspire--parents, daughters, employers, and teachers.

To bring you into the detail work, picture this scene: we had three people at my office and three full-time staffers at the Ms. Foundation, all working long days and nights to plan and promote the day. This was pre-Internet, so everything was done by phone, mail, fax, and in-person meetings. There was no e-mail blasting, online researching, blogging, text messaging, or video conference calling. Phones were ringing off the hook and letters were streaming in from parents, teachers, business owners, and girls from across the country.

We received hundreds upon hundreds of faxes a day on those old fax machines with the rolls of slick paper. Eventually we were receiving so many faxes in giant swirls of white, shiny paper that they overtook the fax room and we had to find a volunteer just to cut all the paper as it spewed out of the machines! One of the biggest purchases we made the first year was a plain paper fax machine. The Ms. Foundation's fax machine got so clogged that they started sending people to my personal fax number.

Facing Resistance
It is hard to imagine now, but there were people who did not believe an event like Take Our Daughters to Work Day could or should happen. In fact, in my initial meetings there was resistance and fear about the notion of adults bringing girls into the workplace.

There were concerns about insurance, safety, legality, and disruption of work. There were questions about whether one single day would really make a difference in girls' lives. Would girls be better off if we gave them each the money for therapy? (Seriously, that was one suggestion.) Some board members and advisors were concerned that girls would take one look at women in administrative positions and get discouraged about their career prospects. Others cynically voiced concerns that prostitutes might bring their daughters to work.

At one meeting, a member of the Ms. Foundation raised her concern that if girls spent the day at Lincoln Center with Jessye Norman, the successful opera singer and Ms. Foundation board member, they would think success meant being the one "star" and life would ultimately disappoint most of them. Jessye had the best response. She said, "If what girls love is singing and theater, I will expose them to the entire staff of Lincoln Center and they'll learn about thousands of jobs related to opera, not just the job of the lead singer." She believed, as do I, that girls are smart enough to understand the range of opportunities available to them.

We also had to do some work convincing teachers. Around that time, the American Association of University Women ( had made videos for teachers to show them--to their absolute shock and amazement--that they called on more boys than girls in class, even when equal numbers of boys and girls raised their hands. We started sharing this research and showing these videos and received lots of media coverage on the topic. You can tell people something is happening, but until they see it, they're often not convinced.

And then there was the talk about the boys. Would boys feel left out and lose their self-esteem because there is a day just for girls? Wasn't this reverse discrimination? In fact, the first fax I received on the first Take Our Daughters to Work Day was from the American Men's Association, demanding that we include boys. I called the man who sent the fax and offered to send him all of our material so they could create a day for boys. They never did.

Name an argument against Take Our Daughters to Work Day and I've heard it. There has been resistance from day one. If you're wondering about my answers to the above concerns about prostitutes and opera singers, well, first of all, I've always argued that we need to resist the old-fashioned notion that we have to "protect" girls and women from reality. We need to replace illusions with reality. We need to engage them and say, "Anything you see, even though you may not see yourself in that position, is something you can do or not do. You have a choice." I wanted girls to understand that if you choose something, then you figure out what you have to do to get there. As for the boys, from the very beginning we spoke about the curriculum we created for them. Boys would spend Take Our Daughters to Work Day learning about inequality and why girls needed a special day. We would show boys how women had been discriminated against and what an important element of society their female classmates are.

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