Women without children in the workplace: a hidden and growing diversity issue

After issues with unempathetic friends and family, workplace issues are the next biggest issue that seem to create problems in the life of childless (and childfree) women.

This anonymous guest blog (below) was written by a member of the Gateway Women Online Community during World Childless Week and she shared it with her whole organisation by email. It was well received and thus I wanted to share it with you.

Here is an excellent example of an organizational Diversity Policy which includes childlessness, from Bristol University in the UK. It was suggested and created by a Gateway Women member (Dr Lindsay Bishop) and her colleague Less Finnemore (both interviewed about it below). Many childless women are sharing it with their HR departments as an example of how this can be done.

Perhaps you might like to share it, and some of the other resources below, with your colleagues, managers or HR department?

  • This entire blog post including the first-person account by an anonymous Gateway Women Online Community member: www.gateway-women.com/workplace
  • Bristol University (UK)’s ‘Diversity and Inclusion (Staff) – Childlessness’ Policy
  • An article entitled Are Women Without Children Discriminated Against At Work? which includes reference to a study conducted by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) of 25,000 workers, and which found that two-thirds of childless women aged 28 to 40 years old felt that they were expected to work longer hours and to be more readily available during late-night shifts and on the weekends.
  • My 2017 TEDx Talk, The Lost Tribe of Childless Women which I gave to introduce us to those who are not members of our tribe, and which includes my comments on how/why ‘Women without children are the biggest diversity issue HR has never heard of” (it’s time our numbers and stats were known!)
  • My 2017 keynote address at The NotMom Summit in which I address the issues facing women without children (both childless and childfree) in the workplace, outline the top five issues that cause the most problems and list what an inclusive workplace might look like (start at 35:00 minutes in the talk for this section).
  • My 2018 FertilityFest.com ‘Fertility Fight Club’ talk Calling Time on Pronatalist Privilege, (go to 09:40 in the video for my 10-minute talk) which starts to unpack some of the reasons how the prejudices against women without children operate, and why raising it can sometimes provoke a hostile reaction. If you then jump to the end of the talk, you will see #PronatalistPrivilege in action as a parent challenges me on my views. You can find my speaker’s notes here too.

We need to create change, and it’s only by speaking up about this, difficult as it is, that it’s going to happen.

Together, we can do this.

Below are the words of an anonymous Gateway Women, as posted in our private online community and reproduced here with her permission:

I am a woman who has never had children and I am coming to terms with the fact that I probably never will. Not every woman wants children, but many do. I did and my route to not having them has been complex.

Do you know anyone else like me at work? Chances are you do or have at some point, because official statistics show that one in five women currently reaches 45 without having children and that the majority of those women hoped one day to become a mother; that overall proportion is likely to rise to one in four in the next few years.

If you do know someone like me at work I wonder what you think? Do you just not notice – like all women who are not mothers (or indeed men who are not fathers) we often blend into the background, since we can’t share in the parent banter in the office about lack of sleep or taxi runs to after-school clubs. We don’t give talks about how we managed to juggle a career and children or participate in workshops about returning to work after maternity leave. We just plod on, always there, never apparently changing much.

If you do notice us, perhaps you assume we are too ‘career focused’ to want children? Too busy building a career to step aside and have a family? That’s another common one that I have heard recently, assumed about someone else. And whilst there’s nothing wrong with a woman who has been raised to have a career concentrating on that or other relationships and interests (is there?) … and that might well be one reason why someone doesn’t have children … it’s not really a single accurate label for any woman. “Career man” anyone?

Or perhaps you pity us? We are often told you don’t know what love is until you have a child, or that you don’t grow up until you become a parent, or hear people say their lives were ’empty’ or ‘incomplete’ until they had children. Or that people without children are selfish, their lives somehow ‘less than’. By implication if not directly, but it’s OK, we get it.

Perhaps you see us as having failed slightly in the task of being a woman: in this supposedly enlightened day and age, the message that a woman’s main purpose in life is to reproduce can still be pretty loud. That can be annoying even if you didn’t want children. If you did, it can be heartbreaking. Empathy and respect for what we have been through and the perspective it brings are infinitely more welcome.

Or maybe you envy us? After all, we have no responsibilities or commitments, our lives are pretty easy, just like your life was before you had children, right? We’re kind of eternal students (or that ‘career woman’ sipping Sauvignon on the sofa).

I got told by someone in my team who has children recently, without any irony, that, ‘My wife and I only get to watch one box set episode a night now, you know.’ (If anybody knows the right response to that, please let me know – that’s all I ever manage either, occasionally.)

In one area I worked in I tried hard not to tell the parents of young children or teenagers in my team (almost everyone) what I’d done the previous evening or weekend after I lost count of the number of times they responded by telling me I was ‘lucky’ as they never got to do whatever-it-was anymore – however mundane. I have longed to say that my life isn’t a picnic either in ways in which I have had no choice and cannot change …. But I don’t because it would be considered over-sharing or impolite.

There are dozens of often very complex reasons why women (and men) never have children – choice is one and, whilst I applaud people who make that choice, it is less common than often assumed. None of the reactions above are ones we want; they are grating and irritating at best, often belittling, and for those of us who did want children they can be a hurtful blow, especially on a day when you’ve put on your best mask and have struggled into the office in the hope of a distraction. They are, however, ones experienced by childless women all over the world in the workplace, where like any social setting people bond over common experiences without much thought for those who might sit on the outside.

I want to emphasise that this is not a post against parents. I don’t underestimate what parenting involves and that it is very hard work – indeed that is why some people decide it is not for them. I fully support parenting and have close friends with children who I love spending time with and supporting in my own way (and many other friends I have lost as they got increasingly consumed with family life and/or preferred to hang out with other parents).

Also, let’s be frank – women are judged, including by each other, for whatever they do and that includes many aspects of motherhood. I despair of that too. But putting parents of any gender on a pedestal, which seems to be society’s response to the struggles parents experience today, or guilt-tripping those of us without children, leaves those of us who would have given anything for that choice alienated. It can feel exclusive and divisive.

I have worked with some great people during my time here. A very few of them know of my struggles and have tried to be supportive.

But increasingly as I have got older and my peers at work have children and I do not, I feel like an outsider because of the throwaway comments and assumptions made by those who wanted children and have been lucky enough to have them.

I have sat through entire management offsite lunches or Christmas functions where we have only discussed people’s kids and related issues and I have been unable to meaningfully participate, and have given up trying to introduce more neutral topics that include everyone for at least part of the time. I have felt alienated by women’s talks and groups where the leader or speaker equates ‘woman’ with ‘mother’ or makes references that assume everyone is a parent or that only parents can relate to certain things.

On a good day, I can brush it off. On a day where I haven’t slept for crying, or am angry at the unfairness of it all, it can feel like I have dragged myself out to what should be a safe place with common work goals only to be knocked down all over again.

Many people don’t realise that it is normal – and increasingly well documented and officially recognised – to grieve for children you wanted and could not have. It is called ‘disenfranchised grief’ and can be particularly painful, but many struggle to empathise with it – because how can you grieve for something you never had?

It is hard to describe to someone who is a parent, but all I can say is: think about why you had your children and all the things your children give you and the life it has created for you and (maybe) your partner, your family life; think about the hopes and dreams you had of starting a family and what those meant to you; or the ways your parent status helps you fit into society without a second thought. Then imagine all that being taken away and watching other people do it instead, whilst you stand on the sidelines. It can see us lose friendships and affect other relationships too.

Work should be a relief from these pressures, one place where our outside life and family status do not matter, only our professional skills and qualities.

You might think I am making a bit much of this and am being ‘oversensitive’ – another common assumption, but I am not alone: Gateway Women was founded by a British woman Jody Day in 2011 after her own childlessness grief was compounded by the attitudes she experienced from the world at large, and its private online community has members globally and we regularly share the issues we have encountered at work. It’s a safe space where no one judges, everyone gets it and it’s a blessed relief. I long to bring the rest of society to that place.

Alongside the attitudes and assumptions I have mentioned already we share the many times we are asked why we don’t have children (a deeply personal question, which no parent ever gets asked in reverse); the times we get asked why we don’t ‘just adopt’, the endless ‘miracle baby stories’ that are told to us in response to our pain over miscarriage, failed fertility treatments, failed adoptions, the corrosive shame felt over the failure to find a partner in time or the inability to face fertility or adoption processes alone. We share our sense of otherness in a world where ‘woman’ so often automatically equates to ‘mother’…

Meanwhile we try to support parents – we patiently cover maternity and paternity leave, we listen to parents’ complaints about lack of sleep, toddler tantrums or school holiday prices and we nod sympathetically before getting on with our work because our concerns aren’t so easily shareable and we feel less sanctioned to complain about anything.

It’s taken a long time to build the courage to share these thoughts and I want to underline a few other things because I know this is tricky ground.

I am not for a minute claiming that the issues I have encountered here – which all sit within my experience over the years – are unique to this workplace: in some ways here is better than most in that we at least have the same flexible working rights and priority at holiday times etc. I am also pretty sure no one deliberately tries to sideline those without children or make life harder for us. But I guess this lack of consideration is why I feel the need to raise this and to highlight our perspective, which can get drowned out in the workplace as well as society at large. It might not seem as important as other diversity and inclusion issues but I believe it is one we should consider at least a little bit more.

I am also not claiming to speak for everyone in my workplace who doesn’t have children. As I said before, I acknowledge those who have decided not to have children as a deliberate and responsible choice; and I also fully accept that for some people children never happened and that’s something they are absolutely fine with.* But I do want to reach out to those who find the workplace a sometimes less-than-supportive environment in their struggles with childlessness, so that together we can find some strength and solidarity at least. T

This week is World Childless Week** and if you visit www.WorldChildlessWeek.net you can find out more about the many roads that lead to unwanted childlessness and why the often unthinking treatment and reactions we get in a parenting-mad culture can be difficult.

And perhaps take a moment to reflect on another aspect of the diversity of human experience. Because though very difficult and painful, the experience of unwanted childlessness brings wisdom and other resources and means we can (and do) contribute a lot to society and the workplace.

None of us without children are ‘less than’ – we are a critical part of what makes the world go round and helps you raise your kids; our lives are not always so simple either and like everyone we do the best we can. Please think of us and value us equally, including challenging assumptions that alienate us and label us, whether they are your own or other people’s.

* But they still probably don’t want to be quizzed about it or have assumptions made about their life.
**World Childless Week 2018 was September 10-16th 2018 www.WorldChildlessWeek.net

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14 Comments on Women without children in the workplace: a hidden and growing diversity issue

  1. A few days after my wonderful mum died (whom I was extremely close to) someone told me that I didnt know grief until I would become a mother.
    They knew full well that my mum had just died.

    • Hi Kaz – I’m so sorry for your loss and what a cruel and thoughtless comment from your colleague. Completely unacceptable. It’s comments like these that we need to keep a big list of so that the next time someone says, “Oh, aren’t you all making a big deal out of nothing?” we have evidence. This is emotional cruelty. I’m so sorry. Hugs, Jody x

  2. Dear Jody, thank you so much for sharing this! I finally spoke out with our “diversity manager” and she was very thankful that I helped her getting aware of our issues. I also sent her the link to this webpage. Thank you xx

    • Hi Lea – that’s excellent progress, I’m so pleased you had the courage to speak up and that it was received with the interest and respect it deserves. Yay! Jody x

  3. Brilliant article Jody. I worked with a group of mothers. I was very disappointed when I asked my manager for a flexible work day, on a day I had to travel to another city for a medical appointment. She kind of snapped at me when I asked for this, and I had noticed that other members of the team constantly got to use flexible working (for childcare), working short hours, working from home all the time, etc. It was so bad that I brought it up higher up. To cut a long story short, I ended up getting badly bullied for this, mobbed actually, by these lovely, caring mothers 😉 I left, and while it was all grossly unfair and abusive, I am okay now. I don’t regret taking at least a small stand against this rampant unfairness. There is definitely a huge amount of discrimination in the workplace, I have found that the childless among us have to work longer and harder and get worse conditions, on top of the snide or at least insensitive comments. I think the more of us that can get together to demand better working conditions the better.

    • Wow, that’s terrible, I’m so sorry you not only got discriminated against but bullied for asking for a very reasonable request! As I say in my talk at FertilityFest (linked to in the article), challenging pronatalist privilege (any privilege) is hard because the ‘privilege holders’ see their ‘right’ to special treatment as something natural and unassailable, and so are often very unwilling to recognise that it is a product of the unfair treatment of others…. so it is with white privilege (which refuses to acknowledge the cost to people of colour of their ‘superiority’), ageism, sexism, ableism… all of it. I truly believe that this will be humanity’s Achilles heel – our unwillingness to recognise and balance out privilege and/or difference. The cost to each individual (as in your case) of pushing back against such structural unfairness can be so very high too, so it’s a hard one to change. But I sincerely hope that in our lifetime we will see some big changes. I agree that this is an issue we need to pull together on and one I’m keen to lead in the next decade! Hugs, Jody x

  4. Thank you for this post, it hits the nail on the head! I was once told, in a manner that brooked no argument, that my colleague, who was a single mother, got priority regarding annual leave. It was put up or shut up – no way to run an office!

  5. Reading this article makes me feel not alone. I do have work colleagues that have children and thats fine and they are lovely children. I was once told that another staff member got the extra available shifts because it was Christmas and they had children. I made a complaint about this and was listened to fairly but I still felt my situation was lessened because I didn’t have children. I have a good life with my partner of 26 years and we talk about the fact of our childless life. There are so many things I could write about in this subject so thank you for the chance to start to put it into words.

  6. Thank you for writing this article and to Jody for sharing it. Like the other Gateway Women who have posted, it really spoke to me. I am very fortunate to work in a place where the divide between parents and non parents is less keenly felt. Phew! But it hasn’t always been the case and I too have experienced pretty much everything that is written here.
    The thing that hurts me the most, and that I still haven’t managed to get to grips with, is when you listen to all the stuff that parents are going through; you are sympathetic, empathise with how hard that must be, and you smile and laugh too, say how lovely their child is when something good happen etc. And then when you share something of your life that was good and you are told, well “That is one of the luxuries of not having children” or “You are able to do that because you don’t have children and I’m jealous of you”…yup direct quotes….but sure you’ve all had similar. Though said quotes were actually made at family gatherings, another minefield, which has been blogged about before.

  7. Yes I wanted to be a mother but it didn’t happen and I have blamed and judged myself for my life choices and felt blamed and judged by society. Now it is too late for me, on top of my being single (never in a successful relationship) and childless, I am living with cancer. I feel judged and made to feel a failure for all. I have sat through endless work meetings where colleagues have talked about the kids, the same with nights out with friends. I try to empathise and join in but never feel that anyone thinks of changing topic or adapting tone, it’s all about them and their world so i sit quietly and listen and retreat into my head thinking of what else i could be doing if i wasn’t there and how to avoid this encounter in the future.
    So yes yes yes and yes to all you have experienced.

    • Dear Jyoti,
      Your comments really touched me and I feel for you. Having walked some, but not all of the path that you are walking I know that it takes a lot of courage and bravery so respect and love to you x

  8. Powerful article. Thanks for sharing. I’m one of those women in the workplace who has been too willing to cover colleagues with childcare responsibilities. I realise I’ve done it without thinking about how it reinforces my acceptance of the ‘childless martyr’ who has nothing better to do. Would my parent-colleagues cover me if I wanted/needed time off to be with my childlessness? What about my ‘me-care’ responsibilities? I’m a team player & happy to give support but I’m going to ask for more support for my needs in future.

  9. “Meanwhile we try to support parents – we patiently cover maternity and paternity leave, we listen to parents’ complaints about lack of sleep, toddler tantrums or school holiday prices and we nod sympathetically before getting on with our work because our concerns aren’t so easily shareable and we feel less sanctioned to complain about anything.”

    YES YES YES – what a breath of fresh air it is to read this. Thank you.

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