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Can poor women 'Lean In' to better lives?

Posted by Angela Nelson, Boston.com Staff  April 27, 2013 06:08 PM

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Sharon-Scott-Chandler.jpgBy Sharon Scott-Chandler, executive vice president of Action for Boston Community Development Inc. (ABCD)

At one point In her popular and controversial book "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," Sheryl Sandberg quotes Ellen Bravo, Director of the Family Values @ Work Consortium, who observes: “…most women are not thinking about ‘having it all’, they’re worried about losing it all – their jobs, their children’s health, their family’s financial stability – because of the regular conflicts that arise between being a good employee and a responsible parent.”

Which raises the question, “can poor women lean in?” Are this book and the “Lean In” movement relevant for low-income women struggling to pay rent, put food on the table, and hang on to their jobs?

Absolutely! Perhaps there is a different reality for supervisors at fast-food restaurants and hotel cleaning services who may approach employees’ new-found self-confidence and concerns about work-life balance differently than Fortune 500 CEOs, but good managers everywhere know that energized, motivated employees enhance productivity. “Lean In” encourages workers to pursue their goals vigorously, to be ambitious in any pursuit.

Sandberg states that workplace conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns. In addition, the vigor and enthusiasm of the “Lean In” movement is bound to reach employers, inform and sensitize them, and ultimately facilitate institutional change that makes a difference for the 62,000 women in Boston and 18 million nationwide who live below the poverty level. The vast majority of them head single-parent households.

Lean In is primarily directed toward professional women who are educated, career focused, and milling around the ladder to corporate success. But the content is eminently transferable to women at every economic level. Sandberg shows readers how to shed internal barriers that may be holding them back. She encourages them to take risks. She asserts that not only can women have both families and careers, they can thrive while doing so. She urges women to “internalize the revolution,” to make achieving success personal, to not count on removing institutional barriers and changing social policy as the feminists of the 1970s sought to do, but to tear down the internal barriers that keep them from moving forward.

Her menu of change includes increasing self-confidence to make sure you are at the table in the workplace, getting partners to do more at home, not holding yourself to unattainable standards (get it done, rather than get it perfect), not being afraid. These would constitute tall orders for low-income women who are often heading households by themselves, but with adaptation of some of her advice it can work.

Those of us who started out poor or struggle now with economic difficulties or work with people in the low-income community know about the talent, intelligence, motivation, and strength that propel so many in the community to improve their situations – often by “leaning in” to take advantage of a rare opportunity. And it is just that one opportunity that can bring hope and can help achieve dramatic life change. At ABCD we see women who work all day, rush home to fix dinner for their children, and head out to Urban College classes in the evening. They are moving up. They possess a wealth of work and life skills and can benefit hugely from the “Lean In” movement, now and in the future.

The internal barriers that Sandberg highlights – how women hold themselves back – apply to poor women also. “Leaning In,” being ambitious in every pursuit and not afraid to say what you need, is important whether you are working in high tech or retail or service, earning six figures or minimum wage.

But women of low-income – and all women – need more than encouragement. Women (and men) need quality, affordable early childhood care, and education – it is the essential component of any workplace success. Families need health care coverage and paid parental leave. Ongoing and increased funding is needed for the institutions that promote opportunities for women and families: higher education and workforce development programs, Head Start, financial literacy programs, summer jobs and skill building programs for young women and men, low-income teenagers, and many others. Every dollar invested has a huge payback to society.

Perhaps the new, non-profit foundation, LeanIn.org, can also fund scholarship assistance, community-based initiatives, and other support for women in need whose talents will truly make a difference.

I applaud Sandberg's charge to working women and hope that she uses her well-earned and deserved clout to support the programs and institutions that give women in need the tools to move forward with their lives. Let’s give them the opportunity to achieve their full potential and ensure stability and success for their children. Together we can change the world!

Chandler, an attorney, is also a trustee at Urban College of Boston.

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