Early in my career, I had a male manager who casually told us during an all-hands meeting that one reason we would not be getting raises or paid time off was because we did not have children to support.
It took me years to realize how unprofessional, shocking and inappropriate that statement was. At the time, no one challenged the manager’s statement. The meeting continued. There were both male and female colleagues in the room, and as far as I knew, we all had important people in our lives.
The Unfair Assumption That Single, Childfree Women ‘Don’t Have A Life’
Like many of my colleagues at the time, I was an unmarried, childfree woman, and that incident was my first encounter with what Bella DePaulo calls “singlism.” A social scientist and author of “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After,” DePaulo defines singlism as the stereotyping of, stigmatizing and discrimination against people who are single.
What that manager of mine was doing was making an assumption about my worth and monetary needs. I’m not the only childfree, unmarried worker this has happened to; several readers told us their stories. Sophie, who worked in community engagement for a nonprofit, said that she was “constantly expected to stay late and attend evening functions by default because my boss had ‘two young ones at home.’”
“It was always an assumption that I didn’t have any errands, personal or social obligations outside of my established 9-5,” Sophie said.
A reader named Wen said that when she was a single TV news producer, she was expected to work every Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day because her colleagues with spouses and kids “needed those days off more.”
If you don’t have children to support, do you not deserve to have a life outside of work? That’s a common stereotype that gets attached to single people, DePaulo told HuffPost.
“Single people without kids get saddled with the stereotype that because they don’t have a spouse or kids, they ‘don’t have anyone’ and they don’t have a life,” she said. “Of course, that is totally untrue. Single people have people who matter to them, and commitments and interests and passions that matter to them. All that should be irrelevant, anyway — workplace should be about work. Everything should even out — how often you get to leave early, come in on the holidays, get your choice of vacation times, etc. — such that over time, every worker is treated the same, and marital status or parental status do not matter at all.“
The mentality that single people “don’t have a life” got a famous public example in 2008 after Janet Napolitano, who was unmarried, was nominated to be head of Homeland Security. On a live mic, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who was married with children, remarked that Napolitano was a good choice because “you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19 to 20 hours a day to it.” Never mind that Napolitano’s two previous male predecessors had been married parents who still somehow found the time to do the job.
Being a single, childfree woman while working means there are sometimes people making assumptions that if you rise up the ranks, it is only because your life outside of your profession is meaningless. And this diminishes your achievements. The insidious assumption: “What else should she be doing, if not working long hours?”
How Single, Childfree Women Get Less Flexibility For Time Off
When there’s an assumption that married colleagues and colleagues with kids have more important responsibilities outside the office, single, childfree women can be buried under the hours or tasks no one wants.
“Many people really and truly believe that what married people (and people who are parents) have to do in their lives is more important than anything in the lives of single people (or people who don’t have kids),” DePaulo said. “They think it is fair to ask you to stay late and come in on the weekends and holidays and take the travel assignments no one else wants.”
In an August HuffPost/YouGov internet poll of 503 U.S. adult women working full time, respondents answered questions about whether being married or having children led to better treatment at work. Forty-nine percent of respondents said that both women with kids and women without kids got fair treatment, and 55% said that married and unmarried women were treated equally.
But a significant number noted that parents got more flexibility. Of the women who said this question applied to their workplace, about 28% said that women with children were more likely to be given flexibility in terms of things like working hours.
Sometimes Being Childfree May Mean Easier Access To Opportunities ...
For some people, there can be career advantages to being childfree. Andrea Casillas, a Ph.D. candidate in cancer biology, said her single, childfree status has afforded her the flexibility to present her research ideas at out-of-town meetings and conferences, networking opportunities that one of her colleagues with a child could not make.
“Being childless has been a major contributor to my success academically and scientifically,” Casillas said. “One of my classmates dropped out specifically because it was impossible to manage this aspect of graduate school and adequately care for her [then] 7-year-old-son. Shortly before dropping out, she was trying to attend a conference, her first conference, in another state, but the program could not pay the travel costs or childcare costs of her son, too, only the travel for herself. She was forced to stay back and miss her conference, and shortly after, she put in her resignation.”
Whether you are single by choice or by circumstance, you may have more time to commit to the “yeses” that boost your career.
“Recently, I was appointed to a prestigious training grant by my program, an honor that I worked very hard for, but that nonetheless I know having no children contributed to,” Casillas said. “I don’t know what my classmate or her son are up to nowadays, but I think of them often. Becoming a scientist and being a mom should not have to be so mutually exclusive, but it seems they still are.”
But not all single, childfree people have more free time or fewer responsibilities in general. And all women face their own unique challenge at work with the well-documented “motherhood penalty.” It does not matter if you are not even a mother: Research has found that working women who are not moms face this gender discrimination, getting sidelined from opportunities as bosses assume that they will get married and pregnant and leave the workforce.
In a society in which women are still seen as mothers first, workers second, people may more easily understand the ambitions of childfree, unmarried women. Citing the examples of childfree, unmarried powerful women like media mogul Oprah Winfrey and Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, journalist Rebecca Traister notes in her book “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and The Rise of an Independent Nation” that their unusual power and positions made sense because “yes, structurally and strategically, they had not been forced to divide their educational and professional attentions, but also because without families, it could be assumed that their lives were otherwise empty.”
But Being Single And Childfree Can Literally Cost You Money In The Long Run
There can be financial disadvantages to being single, too. Married women in the HuffPost poll were more likely than unmarried women to say their marital status has helped their career.
Some bosses may see parental status as a reason for a raise. When Kathy Hamann was a federal worker, she said that she did not get the same pay raises as her sister, who had the same job but also had children. “After a year, she had gotten two pay raises. [I] went to management and was told, ‘Well, she has kids to support, and you don’t,’” Hamann said.
Then there’s the institutional cost to being single in America. Being married is still seen as a social good in American law and there are over 1,000 federal laws that privilege married people. Single people have fewer financial protections. If you are married, you can can put your spouse on your employee health insurance. If you are married, you can save thousands of dollars by filing jointly with your partner on your income taxes. If you are married, you can put two people on your IRA, while if you are single, no one can put away money for you on their IRA if you become unemployed.
If a married person dies, their family can use their Social Security benefits. If a single person without children dies, however, her Social Security benefits are absorbed by the system, not distributed to the important people in her life who could use it. As Stephanie Coontz detailed in a 2007 New York Times article arguing against these marital privileges, “A woman married to a man for just nine months gets Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies. But a woman living for 19 years with a man to whom she isn’t married is left without government support, even if her presence helped him hold down a full-time job and pay Social Security taxes.”
Then there’s the lost time, which can lead to lost wages. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, qualified workers can get job-protected leave to go take care of a spouse, a child or a parent. But if you’re a single person with an important person who does not fit the limited definition of family, you’re out of luck.
And being single and childfree does not mean you don’t have caretaking responsibilities, of course. Jennifer, for example, said that she has never had a time-off request denied, but that her absences for emergencies have received more scrutiny compared to absences taken by her colleagues with kids. When Jennifer needed to leave to take care of her disabled parents one day, she said she was told she would have to take a vacation day.
It Shouldn’t Be Up To Single People To Speak Up About This
Bringing up being treated differently to your boss or your colleague can backfire, because when you say you are being treated unfairly at work, it can be threatening to hear. “They probably see themselves as open-minded people who are not prejudiced against anyone else, and you are, in a way, suggesting that they are,” DePaulo said. “People can get very defensive in situations like that. They sometimes respond by insulting you (for example, telling you that you are just bitter) rather than addressing the issue.”
If you’re a manager, the point is not to assume which employees have it harder, but to make time off and equal benefits available for all. One fundamental step forward is recognizing that single, childfree people are workers deserving the same work-life balance and benefits that married people and parents get at work.
“The best solution, I think, is to get to a place where it is not up to individual single people to try to handle these issues,” said DePaulo. “We need to get to the point that just about everyone just knows that it is wrong to ask single people to work longer hours or take on burdensome assignments just because they are single.”