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Women who don’t have anything close to ‘it all’

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Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first women to head policy planning in the State Department, has set the punditry buzzing with her Atlantic cover story, “ Why Women Still Can't Have it All,” on the pressures felt by successful professional women.  

Women with high-powered careers competing for leadership roles while raising a family face harsh and conflicting pressures, as Slaughter details. But the stark reality is that most working mothers face far more daunting obstacles simply trying to keep their families afloat. And with advertisers geared to young affluents, celebrating a lifestyle that few can afford, the reality of most working mothers is too seldom discussed in the media.

Last week, as the New York Times featured Slaughter's article on its front page, Greg Kaufman, in his weekly Nation blog about poverty, told the story of Adriana Vasquez, a 37-year-old single mother of three working as a janitor in Houston, Tex. She is tasked with cleaning 24 bathrooms on 11 floors of an office building, five hours a day, five days a week. She literally sprints to be able to finish her work on time. For this, she is paid $8.35 an hour, and she and her colleagues average $8,684 per year.

This is the reality that faces millions of working women. More than 70 percent of all mothers and more than 60 percent of mothers with children under 3 are in the workforce. Two-thirds of them earn less than $30,000 a year. Nine of 10 less than $50,000. In the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s powerful image, “They catch the early bus,” or, in Vasquez’s case, the late bus. They work out of need, whether they want to or not. Half are their family’s primary breadwinner.

These mothers don’t have the luxury of flexible time or the ability to leave when a child is in trouble or sick. Most can’t afford to take unpaid sick leave to care for their children — and many would lose their jobs if they did, despite the federal law guaranteeing unpaid leave. Many work in jobs — as home-care workers, farm workers, cleaning people — that have scant protection of minimum wage and hours standards. Many cobble together two or three part-time jobs. Child care gets done by grandmothers, neighbors or simply the TV.

Vasquez’s fellow janitors are negotiating with their contractor for a wage increase to $10 dollar an hour, phased in over three years. The employer is offering an increase of 50 cents phased in over five years. (If you want to see why the American dream is dying, just follow wage negotiations where there is a union — and remember it is far worse for the 93 percent of workers without a union in the workplace.)

Vasquez cleans buildings of which JPMorgan is a major owner. So with the help of the Service Employees International Union, she found herself in Washington last week when JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon testified on how the bank blew $3 billion or so on a bad bet on derivatives. As the hearing ended, she approached Dimon with one question: “Despite making billions last year, why do you deny the people cleaning your buildings a living wage?” Dimon’s security guard acted as if she were bearing a deadly weapon, surrounding Dimon and moving him away, as he told her to “call my office.” Vasquez wasn’t able to invite Dimon to “walk a day in my shoes.” JPMorgan reported over $17 billion in profits in 2010, and Dimon hauled in $20.8 million — or about $57,000 a day, if he worked every day of the year. Walking in Vasquez’s shoes for a day would surely be instructive.

Slaughter is smart enough to recognize that the “majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article.” She makes sure to note she is writing for her demographic, “highly educated, well-off women who are privileged to have choices in the first place.” And while she envisions more women at the top, changing workplace culture and policies, she fails to note the discrimination that still keeps so many of them from reaching those high positions. Slaughter sees the best hope for improving women's condition as closing “the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators.”

I’d like to think that is true, but leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Michele Bachmann raise doubts. That is why it is important that the media focus on the structural barriers women continue to face in politics and the workplace, and on the real lives of working women. Not those at the pinnacle of society struggling to “have it all,” but the vast majority struggling simply to keep their families from drowning. If those women, led by heroic and brave ones such as Adriana Vasquez, rise up and tell their stories, we may see real progress on the basics — living wages, affordable health care and child care, and paid family leave — that could transform the lot of women.

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