I first met Antigone when I was nine. She just hung there on the wall. Her task was to bury her dead brother; mine was to dust her off. As I polished the frame that held her, I fell in love with a world so different from mine, one of poetic words and lofty art. While helping my mom clean professors’ homes, I became conscious of socioeconomic stratification, of looking within while being without. Like many minority women, my mom did this as a second job—a burden we both carried just so that we could get by.
Those are the challenges engulfing minority women every day. Yet conversations on empowering women that have flooded the media’s gateways—the ones encouraging us to “lean in,” telling us what it’s like to “opt out,” or prescribing what we should look and sound like in order to be successful—overlook the minority reality. It’s been mostly a debate about the fate of well-educated, well-off women, without incorporating the voices of minority women, who, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, make up 33 percent of all women in the workforce.
I grew up watching minority and immigrant women having to hustle to make it. I marveled at how resourceful and entrepreneurial they had to be, and I also witnessed how the economic tradeoffs they endured hampered their ability to compete for the type of jobs that led to a career. They leaned in to work as hard as anyone. They had no alternative. But they vied for a chance to clean the boardroom, not for a seat in it.
That sheds light on the troubling correlation between gender, race and income inequality in this country. Let’s remember that the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of African-American households and 18 times that of Hispanic households—which are overwhelmingly run by single mothers. More than just statistics, the data highlight why we need a more expansive understanding of the choices women face in America.
I am an immigrant who came to the United States as a child when my parents fled communist Romania. In revenge, the securitate drowned my grandmother in the very tub that she bathed me in, casting a dark shadow over our American Dream. My mom cleaned schools. My dad drove trucks. We spent weekends with him on the road because it was the only time the three of us could be together. Those are the types of realities that impede many women from pursuing their dreams. Telling minority women to be tough and aggressive ignores the difficulties they’ve overcome to get here. It’s preaching to the choir.
While money isn’t always the solution, it is certainly a key part of the problem. For many women, believing they can lean in to a career, rather than multiple low-paying jobs, starts when they’re exposed to alternate realities. They need a sense of community that extends beyond others who sound or look like them, and that can help them see new opportunities. That’s why we should make sure the debate on women’s empowerment doesn’t leave out those who can’t afford the same set of choices.
The First Lady seems to understand this. She hosts dinners occasionally at the White House for young women from underserved communities, because she knows that success and achievement in many ways require an exposure to money and power. If women learn to be comfortable in that setting, they also begin to see a new range of what is possible. That’s the type of outreach and exposure that encouraged me to even consider going to the University of Chicago and later Harvard Kennedy School, places no one in my own immigrant community considered as options.
We need to put our money and our time where our hearts are if we’re serious about wanting a country where all women can be leaders. But it can’t be done without broadening the conversation and certainly not without building community and being intentional about political and entrepreneurial training. It’s time to start a meaningful debate about how minority women can make the leap from cleaning the boardroom to leading it.