women-workplace

Women in poverty face workplace challenges

Jan. 14, 2014 at 11:00 AM ET

Climbing out of poverty isn’t an easy task, and it can be even harder for low-income women who are caring for their families.

Take Sofia Lopez. She’s trying to do everything right but is still struggling to keep her head above water. She’s going to school part time to get a bachelor’s degree, while at the same time working part time as a security officer for a hotel. She works all day and then heads to class, until 10 p.m. on some days.

In addition to money and time woes, she’s recently had to be caretaker for two family members. The bottom line: Lopez is often overwhelmed.

Video: NBC’s Maria Shriver presents a special series called “Doing It All,” in which she spotlights the struggles women face trying to juggle multiple roles. In this release, women on the poverty line talk about balancing work and family life.

Indeed, 42 percent of low-income women experience high levels of stress compared with 22 percent of men, according to research from Families and Work Institute.

Lopez is a subject in What If Employers Put Women at the Center of Their Workplace Policies — the Institute’s chapter in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink. She epitomizes the struggles low-income women face as they strive to create better lives for themselves and their families. (Lopez’ name was changed to protect her identity.)

“I get paid, and three days later I’m broke,” she said. “I have my elderly dad that lives with me and I take care of him.”

Adding to her stress and responsibilities, Lopez’s father has diabetes and her daughter has health problems. “My youngest daughter had surgery a while back. It was bad for her. I had to take time off. They really gave me a hard time about taking time for her surgery and her aftercare.”

What would help Lopez?

More flexibility on the job would make her life easier, she says, and it’s a common refrain from women like her, according to Families and Work Institute’s National Study of the Changing Workforce.

In the Institute’s national study, employees were asked how important various job characteristics would be in deciding to take a new job. Overall, 55 percent of low-income employed mothers surveyed said it would be “extremely important” to “have the flexibility I need to manage my work and personal or family life.” Another 42 percent of working mothers (for a total of 97 percent) said it would be “very important,” while only 3 percent said “somewhat important.” No one surveyed said it was “not important.”

In addition to flexibility, there are a host of workplace and job characteristics that can help low-income women, and employees overall, thrive in their careers, according to the Institute’s research, including: job autonomy; adequate benefits; learning opportunities and challenges; supervisor support for meeting personal and family needs; and a culture of respect and trust.

These are the key attributes of an effective workplace and they are linked to positive outcomes for employees — women and men of all income levels — and employers, says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute.

Here are some tips for how to have a more effective workplace that benefits you and your employer:

  • Find out if your employer offers on the job training, educational opportunities or tuition assistance and take advantage of them as much as you can. 
  • Make a business case for more workplace flexibility — describing to your supervisor how it will help the organization and you. Make sure there is a plan to assess the impact of the flexibility so that you and your supervisor have a clear understanding of what will be seen as success.
  • If you have a less supportive supervisor, see if you can find a way to report to someone who will help you succeed on the job and is supportive of your family or personal life.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for work adaptations that may not seem commonplace, especially when it comes to child-care issues. Northwest Lineman College, a power-line operator training company, has allowed low-income women to bring newborns to the office, and has even set up playpens when needed.
  • Take advantage of employee assistance programs, or other such benefits, if available. These can provide help coping with stress and even offer assistance figuring out your finances. 1-800 Contacts, for example, offers employees financial training workshops.
  • Find a mentor on the job, or ask about getting additional coaching to help you handle new tasks. Low-income employees at Educational Data Systems advancing in their careers at the workplace development consulting firm have access to individual coaching to help them adjust to job challenges.
  • Even if the culture of respect and trust is lacking, try to treat others the way you would like to be treated; hopefully, it will spread.
  • If you are looking for a job, think of these characteristics of effective workplaces. You can also check out the winners of our effective and flexible workplace awards, part of a project called When Work Works, a partnership between the Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management. To be a winner, a representative group of employees in the organization are surveyed and the two-thirds of the winning score comes from employees — so you can consider them employee-rated.

Many low-income women who have come back from the brink have told us in interviews for The Shriver Report that they had to work hard, change their mindset and jump on opportunities, especially when they found an employer who cared.

In the end, Galinsky stresses, emerging from poverty and excelling on the job is all about “taking control, which happens best within a supportive environment.”

Eve Tahmincioglu is a former TODAY.com labor columnist who blogs at CareerDiva.net and works for the Families and Work Institute. She and two Institute colleagues, Ellen Galinsky and James T. Bond, penned an essay for the Shriver Report, which can be read here. Follow the Institute on Twitter at @FWINews, and on Facebook.

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