Many of the discussions about women in the workplace involve motherhood — and why wouldn’t they? There’s so much (bad) stuff to discuss: The United States is infamous for its mistreatment of moms, starting from our lack of federally-mandated paid maternity leave to the “maternal wall” that impedes moms from advancing. These struggles go straight to the heart of our societal beliefs about women’s roles and who should have access to money and power, and our (narrow) definition of family. These are necessary discussions, of course. But we should also not leave out the particular way child-free women are affected by these very same beliefs.
The full scope of the child-free movement in the U.S. is hard to define, due to the different ways that people describe their non-parental status. Exact numbers of American women of all ages who have chosen to be child-free are hard to come by. But according to the National Survey of Family Growth, in 2015, 7.4% of women ages 15-44 were able to have children but were voluntarily childless. That was an uptick from 6% of the same age group in 2010.
For the most part, these women refer to themselves as “child-free” or “child-free by choice,” and some consider themselves part of a larger child-free moment. “For those of us who’ve intentionally opted out of parenthood, it’s a joyful choice,” says Amy Blackstone, Ph.D., author of Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family and Creating a New Age of Independence and a professor of sociology at the University of Maine.
The child-free by choice group is considered separate from people who are unable to have children for a variety of reasons (including infertility). That group sometimes refers to themselves as “childless” or “child-free by circumstance.”
Cultural views about gender need to change
Our socially-constructed ideas about gender shape our experiences in the workplace and subject us to differing expectations. Women are still considered more naturally disposed to nurturing behaviors and therefore more likely to be the ones raising children. There are also assumptions made that all women want to have children and that every woman will become a parent at some point. To this end, all women, even the ones who are child-free, experience a motherhood penalty in the workplace.
Those aren’t the only assumptions made about women without kids. Co-workers or management may draw conclusions that a woman who doesn’t have children is not nurturing or warm, or that she does not have the ability to empathize with the experiences of parents. There may be an assumption (and well-intentioned but misplaced sympathy) that there’s a pitiable reason that she is not a mother.
Yet another stereotype is that a child-free woman “sacrificed” having children in order to be more dedicated to her career and that she prioritizes work above all else. Or, that outside of work, she is lonely and doesn’t have a rich and full life.
This latter assumption is among the largest drawbacks. In her research, Blackstone spoke with women whose bosses made assumptions that they were always available for evening meetings or events. Child-free people also said co-workers made the assumption that they could work on weekends, stay late at the office or be available to travel. (Of course, these tensions do not happen in a vacuum: There is a long history of pitting women against each other due to their choices. While usually the so-called “mommy wars” are between stay-at-home moms and working moms, child-free women can also be pitted against mothers).
To be sure, not all assumptions about child-free women are negative ones. Just as working moms can be stereotyped as unambitious and less dedicated to their jobs, child-free women can benefit from seeming more dedicated to work. In fact, Blackstone said that in her research, she found “a number of the women [who] felt that they needed to make it clear at work that they were child-free, so that folks would know that they were committed.” (Of course, men in the workplace hardly feel the need to make such declarations. In fact, fathers are praised for their dedication to their kids).
Parents and non-parents need to work together to find equitable solutions for everyone, and it’s imperative that workplaces take the initiative to make sure all employees, regardless of parental status, are treated equally.
Here are a few proactive suggestions for workplaces to better serve their child-free women employees:
1. Clarify flex-time policies and make them equitable for all.
One frustration that child-free women encounter in the workplace is an unequal application of flexible work schedules — which they say are children-centric. For example, a colleague may have established a flexible schedule due to childcare reasons, but a child-free woman may not be afforded a similarly-flexible schedule if she needs to be the caregiver for an elderly parent. That is unfair — but it can feel awkward to bring up. “Workplaces need to think about is what their policies actually say,” says Blackstone. All families are different and each employee may need different accommodations at different times.
2. Ensure that shift work and PTO is available to all employees.
Another frustration that child-free women have voiced is the assumption that parents should be prioritized when it comes to shift work and PTO, especially when it comes to holidays. Non-parents also seek to spend time with friends and family during holidays, and they can feel as if their desire to take PTO gets trumped by those with kids. However, if workplaces expand their definition of family beyond children, we would respect that spending time with parents, siblings, nieces and nephews is important as well.
3. Offer remote work opportunities to all employees.
Working remotely is treated differently in each workplace. Some management has the attitude that so long as employees get their work done, it doesn’t matter whether its accomplished at home or not. Other management views working remotely as a perk for employees that has to be earned. Other companies have no centralized office space and every employee works remotely.
Due to childcare and other issues that come up with kids, working remotely may be more palatable for parents. But companies — especially ones that view working from home as a perk —need to be equitable about who gets to do this. One quick way for resentment to build up among coworkers is for only the non-parents in the office to fight their way through a commute because they’re not allowed to work from home.
4. Reframing the notion of “work/life balance” helps all women.
In addition to the steps that employers can take, there are a few larger changes that need to happen in society in order to make life more equitable for child-free women.
All workers want to have work-life balance and yet the “work-life balance question” seems to hover over women workers in particular like a dark cloud. Women are pitted against each other for how we live our lives and it’s all too easy to understand why we feel defensive about our choices.
This is a waste of time and a distraction.
Instead, Blackstone argues, non-parents and parents should be working together so that our commitments outside of work are respected, no matter what. For this to happen, we cannot judge someone’s commitment to work based on their family status, but we also can’t judge the importance of someone’s life outside of work if it does not include children.
5. Make it clear to employees that your company embraces a broad definition of “family.”
You may think that everyone understands nowadays that family no longer means a mom, a dad. and 2.5 kids. That is simply not so: When it comes to talking about families and family-friendly policies, we’re still stuck in a mindset that assumes that parents are heterosexual and all adults —women especially — want to have children.
Our society needs to recognize all reproductive choices are sacrosanct. Along with that, our society needs to recognize the different forms of families: single parents raising children alone, single parents raising children collaboratively, grandparents or aunts or uncles raising children, non-biological chosen family and of course, child-free women or child-free couples.
If folks dig a little deeper into their own biases, they will find that the pressures they put on women are unreasonable. They will find, too, that a child-free woman likely has a network of other family members and friends that are meaningful to her.
6. Prioritize affordable, widely-available childcare.
How will a society that prioritizes affordable, widely-available childcare benefit child-free women?
Well, at present, childcare is an enormous cost and a source of time and attention. Many parents scramble to drop off or pick up their kids from costly childcare locations on time, and they can find themselves stuck without other options when a child is sick. Mothers are often the parents that are expected, or assumed to want to, drop everything to attend to their kid.
One of the divisions that can crop up between women who have children and women who don’t is the assumption that the latter is more committed to their work. This is not true, of course, but the tensions of the childcare issue are not helping this assumption. Making quality childcare more affordable and more widely available can only help parents, but women especially.
Much structural change needs to take place in order to be more equitable for mothers who work. But we can’t disregard how child-free women are affected by current societal norms as well.
Jessica Wakeman is a journalist who focuses on women’s social, cultural and political issues. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Bust, Bustle, Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Cut, The New York Times and numerous other publications. You can read her work here.