5 Ways to Make the Lean In Movement More Inclusive of Poor and Working-Class Women

Someone working at Taco Bell or Burger King is not going to be able to have the same work-life balance discussion that someone who works for Facebook or The New York Times. Sheryl
Publish date:
March 29, 2013
career, work, lean in, business, class

Every time I read an article about Sheryl Sandberg, leaning in, leaning back, and the choices that the most privileged people in America get to make, it leaves me feeling like there is a gigantic piece of the conversation missing.

The other day I was listening to NPR while I was driving to work, or maybe it was on the way home, when I heard Ms. Sandberg say how her husband had to tell her to ask for more money when she was offered her job at Facebook. Like, that’s awesome for her, but so not reflective of the general population. Most people who are offered jobs are happy just to get an offer.

While I think it’s great that some women, and men, have the luxury to choose who gets to stay home and who gets to work, and how to jockey for the best possible salary, I feel like the discussion overlooks entire segments of the population, like gay people, poor people, working class folk, and many recent immigrants.

As the Welfare to Work IHTM Finalist, I will tell you why, and how, I think the whole lean in movement can widen to fit the realities of more people in America. The truth of the matter is that there are a lot of poor people living in this country. If you are poor, when you are offered a job, you are probably going to accept the first offer. Because more likely than not, you are desperate for a paycheck, or you have a welfare worker telling you that you must take it.

The facts on poverty in the United States:

• More than 46 million people living in poverty.

• Almost ten million families live in poverty.

• Stephen King, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Cesar Millan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise, and Hilary Swank all lived in poverty early in their lives.

As someone who started my parenting journey as a single mom living in poverty, I knew that I wanted more than that for my daughter when she was born. In fact, when I was pregnant I began reading every book on child development that I could get my hands on.

From my reading, I learned how important bonding and attachment were to an infant. I knew I wanted to spend as much time with my baby as I could. Yet, welfare reform had recently been enacted and mandated poor women to return to work when a baby was three months old.

If you couldn’t find a job, you had to participate in work search, or certain educational activities full time. In order to do this, you had to find childcare for your baby. These days, in my city, that’s more than a thousand dollars a month. Not every childcare facility will take payments from the state for a variety of reasons. Again, your choice is limited to factors largely beyond your control. I won’t even begin to discuss how hard it was for me to find good childcare for my daughter because that’s whole story in itself.

From the very beginning, the choice to stay home for a poor, single mother, or father is non-existent. Welfare recipients are mandated to accept the first job offer they receive.

The choices one gets to make, or not, in their lives is significantly shaped by your economic resources.

Poor parents who are living together or married are slightly better off because they have each other. But someone working at Taco Bell or Burger King is not going to be able to have the same work-life balance discussion that someone who works for Facebook or The New York Times. Does this mean that one person is better than the other? No. It simply means that one person has more choices than the other.

Just because a person is poor at one point in their lives, does not mean they will remain poor.

But they do need access to a variety of support systems, such as education, health care, and affordable housing, in order to change their position in life. And this is where I think very privileged women could very well change the whole dialogue when it comes to choice, feminism and work-life balance.

Because if the wealthiest, most educated, articulate women in this country can talk about choice, career, motherhood, and fulfillment, shouldn’t we also be expanding the conversation to include the least privileged? Shouldn’t the goal be to make it better for everyone?

Here are my suggestions for the powers that be to make the whole Lean In discussion more inclusive.

1) Include the voices of more people.

I’d love to hear some quotes from cashiers, early childhood education teachers, some men or women living in transitional housing. I’d like to hear the stories of the gardeners, landscapers, waitresses, and nannies. Society is made up of all kinds of people, and I would like to hear how other people struggle to make ends meet, and their ideas on how to improve the work-life balance.

2) Advocate for programs that help people develop human capital.

Access to quality public education, training, affordable housing, immigration reform, and healthcare help to prepare people for the workforce. Parents with low-incomes need access quality, affordable childcare and educational grants to attend college. Head Start helps get the youngest, most vulnerable children ready for school. Those who are positions of power can advocate increased funding for these programs, most of which are facing massive budget cuts due to sequestration.

3) Mentor those who are on their way up.

There are entry-level workers with high ambition who want to make a difference but don’t always know how. Having a more experienced professional mentor can make a world of difference when you are getting started.

4) Encourage and support those who are working hard to create better futures for themselves.

If you have a friend or family member who is trying to raise kids and go to college, encourage them. Tell them they can do it. Offer an evening of childcare so mom or dad can write that paper!

5) Recognize that ambition manifests itself in different ways.

If you start from the bottom, ambition will look a little different than if you attended elite private schools your whole life. Undocumented immigrants are some of the most ambitious people I can think of. Those who leave everything they know behind, who risk their lives to come to this country to work as janitors, dishwashers and maids are highly ambitious.

I agree with the premise that there is more we can do as women, as individuals, to lean in toward professional aspirations. But I think there is also a lot we can do as a society to allow more people to pursue their full potential, starting with access to quality, affordable education. Children need access to quality early childhood education programs and our public schools need to be adequately funded.

If the most powerful women in America are married to equally powerful men, whom they depend on to realize their ambition, what about gay couples are not, at this writing, allowed to marry? What about the immigrants who have been living here, working hard, but cannot go to school because they lack the legal status to do so? What about those with a criminal history, who may have made just one really bad decision and then found themselves facing an uphill battle for the rest of their lives?

America is still the land of opportunity, but the opportunities available vary greatly by the socioeconomic status that one is born into. Well-established professional women can make the lean in movement more welcoming for the less experienced by advocating for access to the educational and training programs that allow us all to reach our full potential.