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Linda Meric's picture

What a lot of attention the book Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has generated. The self-help book, mostly geared towards college-educated women who are or want to be on the executive track, promotes believing in oneself, taking risks and pursing ambitious goals as tactics for personal and professional success. Whether or not you agree with Sandberg’s focus, there’s no doubt that she’s part of an ongoing national debate on the struggles of working women which highlights the challenges facing women in low-wage jobs, even if that wasn’t her intent.

Sandberg has shattered the glass ceiling and shot to the top - earning her corner office and seven-digit annual salary – good for her! Many would say she is living the American Dream and then some.

Unfortunately, though, Sandberg is the exception rather than the rule. We still have a long way to go for most women.

Any version of the American Dream is out of reach for millions of hard-working women. Women make up less than half of the workforce, but are two-thirds of minimum wage earners. These women are working hard and playing by the rules, but even working full-time, they can’t make ends meet, much less be economically secure or join the middle class. The dream of building a better life for themselves and their families is most often just a fantasy.

Over the past year, corporate profits soared while working wages declined or stagnated, leading to a chasm of income inequality hitting women the hardest. Millions of women ‘lean in’ and work as hard as Sandberg, but barely scrape by on wages that amount to less than $15,000 a year. These women, often invisible to the world, provide essential services in our communities -- they clean our homes and offices, cook and serve us our food, and care for our children and elderly parents.

Bridget Piggery, a single mother of four, made $2.33 an hour as a server at Applebee’s. Unable to pay her rent, Piggery and her children were forced to move in with her mother. “I was a good server. I worked hard. I worked double shifts to try to make ends meet and it still wasn’t enough,” said Piggery, a 9to5 member. Workers shouldn’t have to depend on the whims of their customers to earn a decent living. “If I served customers a two for $20 special, that would leave me with a 10 percent tip of $2.00. I can’t even get on the bus for $2.00. Women need fair pay-- period.”

Women in low-wage jobs are least likely to have any paid sick, personal, or vacation time at all, leaving one of the most vulnerable segments of our workforce unprotected. Tonisha Howard, a hardworking mother of three and sole breadwinner for her family, was fired from her job for taking her son to the emergency room. Unfortunately, many women are still forced to go to work when they need to be at home caring for themselves or their families.

Not only are millions of women not paid fairly and denied paid sick days and family leave, the lack of available, affordable, quality child care is one of the biggest obstacles to low-income mothers being able to enter and stay in the workforce. Women making only minimum wage or below (and there are millions of them), can’t afford the rising costs of housing, food, medical care and transportation, let alone safe and affordable child care – putting children and families at risk. The average cost of child care ranges from $3,900 to $11,700 annually, often making it impossible for women in low-wage jobs to make ends meet.

For women who are playing by the rules and working hard, even full-time, at low-wage jobs, ‘leaning in’ and other personal decisions and choices – don’t provide a path out of poverty.

We need labor standards that provide a stable floor for all workers and families.To ensure that all women, including the lowest earners, achieve their dreams, we must ensure basic standards that help them join the middle class – a fair minimum wage, predictable and stable work schedules, paid sick days and paid family leave, and affordable, quality child care. Rather than focusing on one woman, we should lift up all women. Because working together, we can make certain that women with the lowest incomes, and their families, make progress toward economic security and a brighter future.

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