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The Struggle for Work-life Balance is Especially Hard for Disadvantaged Women

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Recently, there has been a lot of attention given to the notion of women having it all. Can we do it or is it impossible? We are hearing from extremely accomplished women who struggle with being present in their careers and with their families. From Anne-Marie Slaughter's story in The Atlantic to Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg's recent speeches, women are sharing how they overcome, suffer through or find a balance to the pressures of having it all. I completely felt their pain, as my own 13-year-old son lacked focus this past school year... let's just call it hormones.

While I am excited to see this conversation go viral, I can't help but notice a significant portion of the population is not being discussed. So I pose this question: How can a woman who is financially disadvantaged achieve work-life balance? Many women in the U.S. are trying to find the balance of family and work, but there is often an added burden for the women who have not had the advantages of others like Ms. Slaughter, Ms. Sandberg and even me.

It is time to expand this important conversation and address the additional obstacles facing women with limited means. We can look to the women of Dress for Success who are taking the steps needed to achieve self-sufficiency and attain economic independence to create a better life for their families.

Many of the challenges disadvantaged women face are often things we take for granted. At Dress for Success, 70% of the women we serve are single mothers. They do not have a partner who can assume half of the child-rearing duties. Many are also caring for grandchildren, parents and other family members. In addition to working full-time, they are also 100% responsible for their children -- another full-time job. When the children are sick or have problems at school, they take care of it all.

Work-life balance is an important pillar of our Professional Women's Group (PWG). During the PWG meetings, our employed women have the opportunity to network with one another and listen to industry experts who share their expertise in order to help them achieve success. The conversations can be high-level, discussing financial literacy, for example, but the basics of life and work are also addressed. As many of these women are in a professional setting for the first time, they do not always know what to do when their children get sick on a work day and they have no one to turn to. If she is new to the job with no sick or vacation days accrued, can she just stay home from work? Before she starts her job, our women will need to determine how they will get to work on time. Unlike her wealthier counterparts, she may not have access to a car. Before her first paycheck (or several paychecks), she may not be able to afford a monthly train or subway pass. What does a woman do when she has young children who get out of school at 3 pm and she is at work for another three hours? She may not be able to afford childcare or an afterschool program. And with libraries closing due to government budget cuts, where do these children go?

Often times, disadvantaged women find themselves not unemployed, but rather underemployed. She may need to take on a second or even third job to care for herself and her family; making time at home even scarcer. But perhaps she has that one job, a 9-5 that is a step to a fulfilling future. That job may not be as flexible. She may not be able to telecommute or put in hours at home after dinner with the kids. She may not have the job flexibility of leaving work in the middle of the day to tend to an issue with her child.

Ms. Slaughter and Ms. Sandberg brought this very important issue that women have faced for decades in the spotlight. I understand and struggle to be the best mother to my two children while also being the best CEO of an international non-profit organization. It is not easy for any of us and we all need to find the balance that is right for ourselves. I have a husband who shares in the duties. I travel often, but know that I can take time off if I need to. I can have meetings scheduled early so I can leave to attend my children's events. I am fortunate. I may struggle with attaining the perfect balance of work and family life, but I realize that I have advantages that many other women do not have available to them. Without the resources, knowledge or tools, how can these women achieve a work-life balance?

Dress for Success aims to give disadvantaged women the information and the resources they need to help them level the playing field and acheive success in both their personal and professional lives. It is my hope that as this conversation continues, it will expand to be inclusive of all women -- women whose backgrounds are as diverse as those of Anne-Marie Slaughter's, Sheryl Sandberg's, my own, and especially the women we serve every day at Dress for Success.