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By Christine Ro
Working parents are juggling a lot. But when non-parents have to work harder to compensate, tensions can arise.
Leo Ramirez’s passion job is editing Grubby Cat, a cat-care website. But his main job is very different: coordinating inspections for a crane company in Florida, US. It’s there that he sometimes feels frustrated as a 47-year-old employee without children.
“It’s a very family-oriented workplace,” he explains, with frequent social events like employee picnics and parties. These are supposed to be fun occasions, but they can be dispiriting for him. “My co-workers will make me feel guilted – unintentionally I am sure – into staying [at work] those days later than everyone else… while everyone else has that ‘excuse’ to be unable to make it in because they have families and kids to prepare with.”
Ramirez reports that his colleagues say things like, “come on Leo, you know if you had kids or anything we would let you take the extra time you needed”. Yet when Ramirez and his lifelong best friend married earlier this year, his managers wouldn’t let him leave two hours early for last-minute wedding prep on the Friday before the wedding.
Ramirez is sympathetic to parents’ needs: “Me having to get my teeth worked on is never going to be as important as someone’s kid being hurt, I completely understand that.” He’s even happy to work on holidays so that his colleagues with kids can have uninterrupted family time at Christmas and Thanksgiving, for instance. But it can rankle that “I have been asked to pick up the ‘supervisor on call’ responsibility for others on multiple weekends when it should have been their turn to do so”.
Many employees without kids have similar stories. They understand that it can be incredibly challenging for their colleagues to juggle paid work, parenting and other responsibilities – particularly during a global pandemic, and especially in places without strong governmental support for parents. But they don’t want to be taken for granted. Ultimately, it’s up to employers to ensure balanced workloads and respect for everyone’s work-life balance, so that resentment doesn’t fester among people based on their parenting status.
More child-free adults, but not necessarily more respect
In many countries, the share of people without kids is growing. In England and Wales, for instance, women who turned 45 in 2018 were twice as likely not to have children as their mothers’ generation (19% vs. 9%). There’s a similar pattern in the US. (It’s hard to come by comparable data for low-income countries, where most research has focused on involuntary infertility rather than choosing to be child-free.)
Non-parents may find themselves working awkward shifts or logging more overtime because of perceptions about the value of their commitments (Credit: Getty)
Despite their growing numbers, and the obvious advantage of having more time to devote to their careers, people without children still feel they face certain barriers at work. Some report being promoted more slowly or denied raises because their managers think that only working parents needed extra money.
Flexible work policies have often been applied to parents first, such as the UK’s right to request permanent flexible work. “Historically, all of these provisions were for parents and carers initially. And some people don’t know that that’s changed,” says Krystal Wilkinson, a lecturer on human resources management at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, who focuses on family and wellbeing at work, and has researched employees who live alone. This unfamiliarity with the law can make non-parents reluctant to request flexibility or other changes at work.
Like Ramirez, many non-parents may be expected to work awkward shifts and holidays, travel more, log overtime and change work locations, because of the assumption that they have fewer important personal commitments. A recent discrimination lawsuit that was dismissed in August highlighted these issues. When a UK-based lawyer declined to relocate to her company’s Swiss head office, due to personal reasons, her manager responded, “What personal reasons? You are not married, you don’t have children and you do not have a boyfriend.”
Managers like this may be demanding toward non-parents but understanding toward parents, if they respect that working parents might have to leave work early to pick up the kids from school, or take time off when they can’t arrange childcare. But still, “the work has to be done. Someone’s got to pick it up”, says Wilkinson.
The implicit bias is that child-related reasons for being unavailable are more valid – Rachel
Sometimes this expectation is explicit. But other times the messaging and shifting of workloads are more subtle. “It wasn’t even sometimes that they were explicitly asked to do it,” Wilkinson says of some of her solo-living interviewees. “It was like, ‘Well, somebody’s got to lock up the shop at the pharmacy at the end of the day, and she’s got the girl, so I just end up doing it’.”
The hidden pressures on non-parents working with parents
The smaller things can often take a toll on non-parents, who are often treated as if their hobbies, relationships and responsibilities are trivial, compared to being a parent. This can lead many employees without kids to hide or feel ashamed about their lives outside work – despite many women without children, especially, using their time outside work to volunteer or care for others. Even simple comments presuming that most people have families can sting, making non-parents feel invisible.
Rachel, a 33-year-old creative director in Barcelona who doesn’t have kids, works for a remote ad agency where she feels non-parents have generally been expected to make themselves more available. “The workload imbalance was most obvious in our team’s availability and personal hours. I noticed subtle biases, like meetings ending on time for a parent to pick up their child from school but going over when a childless employee had an obligation,” explains Rachel, whose surname is being withheld for professional concerns. “The implicit bias is that child-related reasons for being unavailable are more valid.”
One irony is that expecting non-parents to work long and late inhibits them from forming families, if that’s what they want. Wilkinson calls this “really, really problematic, especially for the people that were living alone but didn’t want to be living alone, and were trying to develop relationships, because that’s the stuff that gets in the way of being able to go on a date or to be developing partnerships”. It’s also hard on people undergoing complex fertility treatments, who might need flexibility for these but feel that their managers wouldn’t understand.
One result of slights both big and small may be “family-friendly backlash”, or indignation at the perceived unfairness of workplace policies that favour parents. During the pandemic this backlash has been especially evident at tech companies like Facebook, where employees have been tussling over policies such as generous leave for parents, and sometimes even naming-and-shaming working parents they believe are underperforming. But across sectors, people have been getting angrier about the parent/non-parent divide.
Listening to those without kids
It can be challenging for employers to mediate between the different perceptions of fairness that come up between parents and non-parents. One option is to remove the pressure on staff to justify their need for time off. That’s why Rachel’s ad agency decided to remove explanations from employees’ out-of-office messages. She explains, “If you need to be offline from 3pm to 4pm, great! It shouldn’t matter if it’s to take your kid to the doctor or yourself to a dinner party.”
Rowan Aust, a media researcher at the University of Huddersfield, UK, as well as co-director of Share My Telly Job (SMTJ), provides a counterpoint to this from her experience of the TV production industry, which demands long hours and short notice. Aust believes in “leaving loudly”: employees of all genders feeling comfortable leaving work at a reasonable hour without hiding their parenting status or, say, their exercise routines.
“It should be up to employers to provide an environment where people can leave and go to a yoga class,” says Aust – for example, with managers setting the tone from the top. “It has to be allowed through the company culture… it shouldn’t really be down to individuals.” Aust also points to the need for collective action to challenge unfairness, whether that’s freelancers sharing rates or staff unionising.
I have been asked to pick up the ‘supervisor on call’ responsibility for others on multiple weekends when it should have been their turn to do so – Leo Ramirez
Good managers don’t overwork their staff, whatever their family circumstances. They find alternatives to piling the work onto solo-living employees. “During the pandemic, there were organisations that have realised that the workload of everyone is going to go up,” points out Wilkinson. “So can we get more resources in? Can we get more bodies in? Or strip away any non-essential/non-urgent work?”
“The tension is between non-parents and their employer,” she emphasises – not between non-parents and parents. “Consistently, in all my research, it’s not been the case that childless employees resent parental colleagues, they don’t think that parents deserve any less. They just think that their own psychological contract with the organisation is the issue.”
It may sound simplistic, but just listening properly is the beginning of everything. “This group are not being thought about,” Wilkinson says of workers without children, who are often grateful just to be asked about their experiences. As child-free cat-lover Ramirez comments, “It’s nice to vent about this for once without the fear of clashing with my co-workers about it.”
“Maybe you can’t accommodate everything that they want, but kind of accommodate what you can and think about it and give them a reason if you can’t,” Wilkinson says of non-parents’ desire to be heard. “It’s about communications at the end of the day – and at the end, there seeming to be a fair process.”