Women living in poverty play a high-stakes game

In Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In,” women are told: “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”

As director of The Legal Aid Society of Columbus, I’ve thought repeatedly about how Sandberg’s idea applies in my own professional life. But despite the fact that I work with low-income women and their families, it wasn’t until I read “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” by Matthew Desmond, that I thought about how this idea effects poor women.

Using real-world examples from Desmond’s book, “leaning in” can bring about harm and negative consequences that are unique to women living in poverty.

Gender perspective on eviction

While living in a Wisconsin trailer park, Desmond follows the lives of individuals, many of whom fall behind on their rent, on the verge of eviction. He notices a gender difference.

Men, he states, are more likely to talk to the landlord, explain the circumstances, try to get an extension and offer to do odd jobs around the rental complex to make up some of the difference. Women, however, are observed hiding in their units, closing the blinds and hoping no one notices them. That, you might think, explains the difference in eviction rates by gender.

Desmond reports that three of every four African Americans who were evicted in Milwaukee were female. The Community Shelter Board, a nonprofit that oversees Columbus’ response to homelessness, reports that nationally 78 percent of families with children in the shelter system have a female adult in the household, while only 22 percent have a male adult.

With these statistics, the solution seems easy. Poor women, like more highly educated, affluent professional women, need only to “lean in.” They need to be assertive, talk to the landlord and see what they might do to avoid eviction.

But low-income women have learned the perils of such an approach much more painfully than those of us with professional careers.

High-stakes risk

After his trailer park stay, Desmond moves to an inner city apartment in Milwaukee. There, he sees the result of domestic violence on housing and the unintended consequences of nuisance laws. Poor women who speak up and reach out, whether to 911 for an asthma attack or the police after a domestic violence assault, are at risk of eviction.

“In the vast majority of cases (83 percent),” he reports, “landlords who received a nuisance citation for domestic violence responded by either evicting the tenants or by threatening to evict them for future police calls. Sometimes, this meant evicting a couple, but most of the time landlords evicted women abused by men who did not live with them.”

Without structural change, “leaning in” for poor women doesn’t just risk not getting the raise you wanted, it also risks the roof over your head and the stability of your family.

As professional women, we must continue to explore the privileges that our lives provide and advocate for systemic changes that allow low-income women to also “lean in” without such high-stakes risk.


Kathleen McGarvey is the director of The Legal Aid Society of Columbus, a nonprofit organization that provides civil legal help to low-income individuals and families. Kathleen has been involved with the LASC since 2001. She also serves as the managing attorney for the health and public benefits team. In that role, she served as lead counsel in the Homewood case, which reinstated Medicaid coverage for 150,000 people across the state.