'MOST TIMES girls don't really have an idea what they want to do when they grow up. A lot of girls in this precinct feel that the only way they can express themselves is to have a baby.'

This is Sylvia Langston, a police detective dealing with some of Brooklyn's meanest streets, and what she'd like is for some of the neighbourhood girls to grow up to be cops. She has invited eight of them to spend today on the beat. 'What you see is what you strive for. They see officers on patrol, they think: 'She's a woman. I can do that, too]' '

In the United States, today is Take our Daughters to Work Day, when a million girls between nine and fifteen will sample the workplace. Entire schools have given girls the day off. There are girls on the beat in Brooklyn; girls across the bridge in Manhattan, jamming the subways in the morning rush hour; girls on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange; girls in court; at the New York Times; at ABC television, with Peter Jennings, the news anchor. Mr Jennings' own daughter, it appears, will be at a mental health agency.

The event, sponsored by the Ms Foundation (a non-profit-making group dealing with women's issues), focuses on the working future of the American girl. The campaign was conceived to address the evidence that, at adolescence, girls suffer a damaging loss of self-esteem. They lower their expectations, tune out ambition and check into a society that rewards good behaviour and a pretty face instead of brains. Feisty, self-possessed, assertive kids turn into fragile creatures obsessed with looks and diets, all of it reinforced by a society where, according to Marie Wilson, president of Ms Foundation, 'boys are still the centre of life'.

Take our Daughters to Work is intended, in the snappy lingo of good intentions, to make girls 'visible, valued and heard'. Or, as the campaign slogan has it: to make sure 'every girl can grow up believing she can be president'.

But this is not just New York hype. There's a rumble at grassroots level, the national tom-toms tapping it out: Girls at Work. At Yosemite National Park in California. At the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the fire department in Aurora, Colorado. In New Orleans, girls will patrol the port alongside the harbourmaster; at the Tennessee Valley Authority, girls will ride cherrypickers to help restore power lines. There's hope that the First Daughter, Chelsea Clinton, will turn out for a stint at Dad's office.

In Austin, Texas, B J Taylor saw an item in a magazine in January and persuaded the Department of Transportation where she works to get involved in Take Your Daughter to Work. Pretty soon the office of the Governor, Ann Richards, was involved, and so was half of Texas. Ms Taylor also wanted to 'help erase that sexist behaviour' which she believes thrives in the south. 'A lot of women down here are content being passive. A lot of women figure, 'My place is in front of the typewriter'.'

A few cynics reckon all this is merely a one-time event, laid on to pander to those obsessed with sexual harassment, date rape and 'correct behaviour'. Yet there is a spontaneous exuberance about it, so that not even the right has come forward yet to bluster about The Feminists.

Today's events will give girls and the workplace a merry glimpse of each other; the long-term aim, Ms Wilson explains, is to make the public aware that girls need support and, aware of the physical damage that results from lack of self-esteem, role models or opportunities: the eating disorders, the suicide attempts (four to five times more likely than boys), the teenage pregnancies.

In up-market precincts, girls starve themselves to fit in with society's idea of how to be girls. In Detective Langston's neighbourhood, at 14 or 15, they get pregnant; it is their idea of a grown-up life, most of the women they know were pregnant as girls.

'For the boys, there are at least basketball players to relate to,' Detective Langston says. 'For the girls, there is nothing.'

There is something else: when boys have problems, they act, sometimes violently. 'Then the country listens, right?' says Ms Wilson. 'Girls who hurt themselves have no immediate effect on society.'

Girls are often seen as marginal, even among middle-class parents, reinforcing the notion that boys are more important. One Manhattan mother, who is a corporate lawyer, says: 'I know a parent - a woman - who was furious because there were nine girls in her son's class and only six boys. She felt he was being discriminated against . . . but, then, most Americans start with a bias in favour of males.'

'To change things for girls, we have to ensure that boys understand how to be allies to future women in the workplace,' says Alan Shore of the Oakland (California) Men's Project, who is taking part in the campaign. This is not easy for American boys, taught that 'aggressive' women at work are bad. These are boys who would rather be dead than be a girl.

In a Michigan survey, Mr Shore says, boys of nine or ten were asked what would happen if they woke up and found they were a girl. 'Most felt it would be worse than being a dog. Many talked about killing themselves or killing other people.'

Thank Heaven for Little Girls? Well, maybe. It's true there is bad news from the boondocks about violence against women; there is damaging loss of self-esteem among girls. But the buzz about Take our Daughters to Work seems to show that, at some subliminal level, the national Zeitgeist is OK. Things will change, sooner or later, if only because a lot of people have daughters.

Still, as the next generation of working girls strides out today to take on the country, from power lunch to power line, there remains the feeling that 'the essence of girlhood is to be attached to a man', as Ms Wilson puts it. Southern-born and a humorous woman, she adds: 'The movies and songs are always there to remind you, you were put here to stand by your man.'