Blog Post: Lifting Up not Leaning In is Key to Helping Women Get Ahead

By Linda Meric, national executive director of 9to5
Posted on MomsRising Blog Carnival. Click here to view the original.
Cross posted on HerBlog

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.

Research examines whether some women pull up ladder after breaking glass ceiling

by Alecia M. Santuzzi, Ph.D., Sarah Bailey, Jasmin Martinez and Giulia Zanini, guest contributors

When reflecting on the future of women’s equality, activist Germaine Greer stated that her worry was the potential damage of “women’s own misogyny” against each other. Recent psychological research supports Greer’s concern.

Women’s representation in the U.S. workforce has increased tremendously, which ought to give other women confidence that they can break through the glass ceiling that prevented leadership opportunities and career success in previous generations.

As women advance to new opportunities, it is often expected that they will be supportive of other women. This support could include helping their female co-workers learn about the organization, providing friendship, or facilitating new career opportunities. Employers might assume that female employees will support each other, leading them to pair new female employees with female mentors.

Indeed, a long-standing phenomenon in social psychology suggests “in-group favoritism” occurs such that people will show favoritism to members of their own social groups (Brewer, 1979, 2007). For a category such as gender, women should be evaluating other women more positively than they evaluate men. Similarly, women may expect to be treated positively by other women due to their higher levels of trust in their in-group members (other women) as compared to men.

However, some studies have shown evidence contrary to these expectations such that in-group members do not show favoritism toward similar others. There are even instances where people actually show a bias against their in-group members.

One reason that women might not support each other is to avoid a marginalized status in the workplace. Not providing support to other women might be a way to distance themselves from women as a marginalized group (Jackson et al., 1996). Rather than helping other women succeed, women might distance themselves from their female co-workers to avoid stigma and negative stereotypes.

More recently, research has shown that women may not support each other’s progress specifically in situations where they are outnumbered by men. Ryan et al. (2012) found evidence that female supervisors were less supportive of female employees in male-dominated organizations.

Additionally, research has identified a “queen bee” effect among policewomen, where women achieve career success by distancing themselves from other women. When policewomen were asked to think about the possibility of sexism, those who did not consider their gender to be especially important to them distanced themselves even more from other women and denied experiencing gender discrimination (Derks et al., 2011).

Why would women in male-dominated work environments show less rather than more support for fellow female co-workers? One explanation might be that when women are underrepresented in the workforce, they see fewer opportunities for individual advancement. This prompts the need to act in individualistic ways and to evaluate other women more negatively to eliminate threats to their career opportunities (Ryan et al., 2012).

The irony is that women may enter male-dominated work environments expecting to receive positive evaluations from other women. Rather than the expected in-group favoritism, the above research suggests that women’s experiences in the workforce can be more aptly described as in-group competition. This suggests that in male-dominated work environments, the few women who break through the glass ceiling might be inclined to “pull up the ladder behind them.”

Negative evaluations among women not only have work-related consequences, but also might prompt feelings of betrayal due to an incorrect assumption of trust in other women. This effect is all the more severe if women are more likely to seek support from other women in work environments with an existing gender disparity—the conditions that unfortunately are likely to lead to less support being provided by other women.

My team of researchers at Northern Illinois University is currently conducting research exploring women’s evaluations of other women, women’s expected level of support from other women, and factors that lead women to distance themselves from other women in male-dominated work environments. We hope to uncover the reasons why women might withhold support from each other and identify ways that organizations might encourage better relationships and retention of women in the workplace.

Dr. Alecia Santuzzi is an assistant professor in social-organizational psychology at Northern Illinois University. Her research examines interpersonal perceptions in social and work situations. Her recent work focuses on how women and people with disabilities manage their social identities in the workplace. Members of Santuzzi’s research team include NIU graduate students Sarah F. Bailey and Jasmin Martinez, as well as undergraduate Giulia Zanini.


Brewer, M. B. (1979). In-group bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 307-324. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.86.2.307

Brewer, M. B. (2007). The importance of being we: Human nature and intergroup relations. American Psychologist, 62, 728–738.

Derks, B., Van Laar, C., Ellemers, N., & de Groot, K. (2011). Gender-bias primes elicit queen bee responses among senior policewomen. Psychological Science, 22(10), 1243–1249. doi:10.1177/0956797611417258

Jackson, L. A., Sullivan, L. A., Harnish, R. J., & Hodge, C. N. (1996). Achieving positive social identity: Social mobility, social creativity, and permeability of group boundaries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 241-254.

Ryan, K. M., King, E. B., Adis, C., Gulick, L. M. V., Peddie, C., & Hargraves, R. (2012). Exploring the asymmetrical effects of gender tokenism on supervisor-subordinate relationships. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42, 56–102. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.01025.x

Soroptimist means “best for women” and that’s what we strive to be—an organization of women at their best helping other women to be their best. As a volunteer organization of business and professional women we feel uniquely qualified to help women and girls live their dreams.

It’s true that both men and women live in poverty, face discrimination and must overcome obstacles. But throughout history—in every country in the world—women and girls face additional obstacles and discrimination solely because of their gender.

Why do women and girls need our help?

Consider the following:

  • One in three women have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetime.
  • According to a recent report, of the 600,000-800,000 people trafficked across international borders annually, 80 percent are female.
  • Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours but earn only 10 percent of the world’s income, and own less than 1 percent of the world’s property.
  • Of a total 550 million working poor, 330 million (60 percent) are women.
  • The United Nations estimates that globally women’s unpaid care is worth up to $11 trillion annually.
  • Two-thirds of the 880 million illiterate adults are women.
  • Of the more than 110 million children not in school, approximately 60 percent are girls.
  • By age 18, girls have received an average of 4.4 years less education than boys.
  • In some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, adolescent girls have HIV rates up to five times higher than adolescent boys.
  • Pregnancies and childbirth-related health problems take the lives of nearly 146,000 teenage girls each year.
  • An estimated 450 million adult women in developing countries are stunted, a direct result of malnutrition in early life.
  • Two million girls and women are subjected to female genital mutilation every year, and thousands suffer needlessly from obstetric fistula.

Gender discrimination often begins at a young age—in some cases even before birth—and girl children are devalued and discriminated against throughout the world. In many cultures, girls are considered to have little or no value, and therefore poor families often opt not to educate their female children. Without an education, women are less likely to find sustaining work at a living wage, and are more likely to remain poor throughout their lifetimes.

Because of the prevalence of gender discrimination, harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, female infanticide and pre-natal sex selection are still widespread. Additionally, the devaluation of women leads to girls and women being sold into human bondage and sexual slavery. Women also experience discrimination in food allocation and lack of access to health care, which results in lower survival rates. And women around the world experience sexual abuse and domestic violence on a daily basis.

By initiating club projects that benefit women and girls, and by honoring women who help women and girls, Soroptimist clubs and members improve the status of women and girls. Soroptimist projects and programs aid women economically, and empower them to make positive changes in their lives and their communities.