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Liz Watson's picture

Sheryl Sandberg is telling women to “lean in.” She's encouraging us to strive for bigger and better jobs. She's telling us to resist “leaving before we leave” in anticipation of having families. Through her “lean in circles,” women will have opportunities to share success stories about how leaning in to their careers, while also having families, worked for them.

Here’s the problem: “Leaning in” any further is not an option for most low-wage working women, any more than choosing to leave their jobs is an option. They’re already leaning in, with all their might.

In families with children in the bottom 20% of the income distribution, nearly 70% of working wives are either the primary breadwinners for their families or share that responsibility equally with their husbands [PDF]. But the hourly wages that women at the bottom of the labor market earn are often simply not enough to get by – nearly two-thirds of workers earning the minimum wage are women. Many women in low-wage jobs are working more than one job to sustain their families, since they can't get enough hours at a single job to make ends meet.

Then there's the unpaid work. These workers cannot afford to pay nannies and housekeepers to do all of the work at home that's necessary to run a household. Instead, they lean in to the housework and childcare work too.

Low-wage women workers are leaning in, frequently despite crazy-making work scheduling practices that require employees to be available to work whenever they are called in, on no notice, or that call in workers only to send them home without pay when work is slow. These types of practices make it nearly impossible for many low-wage women workers to set up stable child care. Instead, they often must piece together care on a daily basis [PDF].

Many women who earn low wages also work in physically demanding jobs. Pregnant women who request a temporary job accommodation during their pregnancies, like being permitted to carry a water bottle or temporarily not doing heavy lifting, often find their requests denied. When THESE women lean in and ask for what they need – a bathroom break, time off for a prenatal appointment – they’re turned down… and some are fired. Others are forced to quit rather than put their pregnancies at risk.

Many low-wage women who leaned in, worked throughout their pregnancies, and then hoped to return to work after having a baby, find themselves without any job-protected leave, paid or unpaid. Only 60% of the workforce has access to protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and many low-wage women workers who DO have access can't afford to take it because it is unpaid. Low-wage workers are also far less likely than other workers to have access to paid leave. Those new mothers lucky enough to have a job to return to, often find that their rights to break time to express breast milk, now guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act, exist only on paper.

The point of “leaning in” ought to be that it results in more women getting high-quality jobs that pay family-sustaining wages and allow them to actually take the time they need to care for their families. But for low-wage working women, who have been leaning in mightily, that outcome is close to a pipe dream.

Here are some of the standards we need to have in place for leaning in to start paying off for low-wage working women: A fair minimum wage and adequate enforcement of wage and hour laws; flexible, predictable and stable scheduling policies; clear legal standards prohibiting employers from denying accommodations to pregnant workers; paid sick days and paid family leave.

I wholeheartedly agree with Sandberg that women can and should achieve their dreams.

As women at the top follow Sandberg's advice and lean in, I hope that they will do so in part to help their sisters in the jobs at the bottom of the labor market secure a greater measure of job quality and economic security.

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