The Brutal Truth About Being Childless at Work

November 7, 2015, 4:30 PM UTC
Caucasian woman standing near passing subway in train station
Photograph by Getty Images

In 1974, 60 Minutes did a segment on people with no children by choice. To the surprise and dismay of those who appeared on it, what aired was a portrayal that was far from positive. After the show, they were ostracized.

Fortunately, we have come a long way since then. Since the 1970s, being childfree — not wanting children — has slowly become more recognized as a legitimate choice. People don’t have children for other reasons as well. Many people want children and are childless because they are waiting to find the right relationship before having children. Others are in a relationship and childless due to fertility issues. Still others end up with no children after saying no to another round of IVF and adoption. Whether childfree or childless, we still have a ways to go when it comes to society accepting those with no children without judgment or stigma. This lack of acceptance has played out in the workplace.

Perceptions of personal time
When it comes to work-life balance, the “life” part has often been synonymous with personal time related to parenting. Workplace culture has regarded caring for one’s children as the most valued personal time outside work. Typically, what non-parents do with their personal time has been viewed as not as ‘important’ as parent time.

There’s also the common assumption that with no kids, people must have a lot of free personal time, and the work-life balance does not really apply to them. As Melanie Notkin, author of Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness, puts it, “It’s rare that childless workers are thought to have a life outside of work, so ‘what’s to balance?’ some may think.”

These two perceptions create common workplace expectations that non-parent employees can and will pick up the slack for their parent colleagues when asked. And when they do, Karen Malone-Wright, founder of the Not Mom Summit, asks, “What do we do when the boss starts to expect the sacrifice of our personal time?” It can create an environment where those with no children feel their employer does not value their personal lives as much as the personal lives of parents.

No kids must mean putting your career first
In the workplace, people all too often assume women with no children in particular must be putting their careers ahead of having kids. While true for some, this is certainly not true for many women. It is often assumed that a childfree woman must be that ambitious, driven to climb the career ladder woman who says no to motherhood because it will get in the way of her professional goals. The truth is, most childfree women don’t have children because they simply lack the desire to be a parent.

For childless women, it can be maddening to feel seen as career-obsessed when it’s not the case. It can feel frustrating, even hurtful, when others perceive them as having time for anything else in their lives, when in reality, now or in the future, childless women may want nothing more than motherhood in their lives.

Parental leave and flex time policies
For a long time now, our society has held the assumption that parents and children come first. This has resulted in inequitable policies in the workplace. From leave policies that only apply to birth and adoption to flex time policies that mostly apply to parents, many policies don’t treat employees consistently across the board.

According to an email interview with sociologist Amy Blackstone at the University of Maine, for employees with no children “there’s very little that protects their time to care for themselves and their families and enjoy work-life balance.” In today’s workplace, employers could do more to show they value all employees, not just those who are parents. Blackstone thinks we don’t see more policies that do this because of a “cultural lag.” Policy makers haven’t caught up with the reality of the growing numbers of the childless and childfree in workforces, and that these employees want and deserve work-life balance just as parent employees do.

In an email interview with Notkin she says, “we’re playing with a new cast and an old script.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2015 National Vital Statistics Report, the average age of first-time mothers is increasing because more women are waiting until their 30s and 40s to start having children. As Notkin puts it, for a woman, “this means that there is a long stretch of her early career when her life priorities are not considered.”

The good news
In the last decade or so, we have seen signs of progress. Stephanie Deleon, manager of human resource services at Insperity, a national firm that provides human resource and business performance solutions to small and mid-size companies, indicates that paid time off policies are on the rise. “We’ve seen a shift from traditional vacation and sick leave policies to PTO policies,” says Deleon. “After the first year of employment more companies are offering full-time employees a set number of days per year that they can use however they see fit.”

Like PTO, flex-time policies also need to reflect consistent treatment of all employees. Cali Williams Yost, who has advised the United Nations, Microsoft (MFST) and Johnson & Johnson(JNJ) on flexible work strategies, says flex-time policies should not require asking what the employee is taking the time for; “Instead, employees should focus on, How am I going to get my job done?” And as Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in her new book, Unfinished Business, “The kind of flexibility we need does not stigmatize or exploit.”

If we let go of misconceptions about the childless and childfree in the workplace, and if more companies continue to create policies that treat all employees equally regardless of their parental status, it will reflect a growing acceptance of those without children in the workplace.

Laura Carroll is the author of Families of Two: Interviews with Happily Married Couples Without Children by Choice, and The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking about Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World.

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