The new minority status at work: single woman without children

Ashley Milne-Tyte | November 23, 2011 | Comments (7)

Eating dinner at a wedding recently, I felt like I was wearing my very own invisibility cloak. I was sitting at a table with three couples. I was good friends with one pair, but on the other side of me sat a woman I’d never met and her husband. For most of the meal she spoke past me, focusing on my friends (they all have little daughters), advising them on the merits of hitting up Disney World before the ‘princess stage’ is over.

At first I felt this was normal – she had parenthood in common with them, after all, while I don’t have kids. Still, I consider myself a fairly interesting, decent human being, and a good conversationalist. As the evening went on, I couldn’t help thinking of my fellow guest as a stand-in for society as a whole. I was solo in a situation where it’s far more usual to encounter other couples.  When you don’t fit into a familiar box, society isn’t sure what to do with you. So it ignores you.

I never used to think about being single as equivalent to minority status, but at 41 that’s essentially what it is. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, less than 14 percent of women between 40 and 44 are single in the sense of never having married, though the number is higher when you include those who are divorced or separated.

I don’t believe single, 40-plus men experience the world quite the way I do. There’s far more pressure from society for women to act a certain way and fill certain roles – namely, wife and mother.  If she’s neither of those things a woman is sometimes pitied, or just regarded as odd.  I’ve certainly started to feel my lack of ‘normality’ as I’ve got older, including at the office. You become increasingly conscious of how out of step you are with colleagues as the years go by and they marry and procreate, and you drink more and more toasts out of plastic cups at lunch and attend more baby showers.

Bella DePaulo, a psychology professor and author of books including ‘Singlism’ and ‘Singled Out’, says society has a raging case of  ‘matrimania’, the worship of all things marriage-related. She believes singles discrimination is prevalent, including at work.

“There is some disadvantageous treatment written right into the law,” in the U.S., she says. “You can work side by side with a married person and when the married person dies they can leave their social security to their spouse. When a single person without children dies, it goes back into the system.” Health insurance has built-in inequalities too. Married people, or in some workplaces, those with domestic partners, can put the spouse or partner on their healthcare plan at a reduced rate, but “single people have nothing comparable,” DePaulo says, in that they can’t add a close adult family member or friend to their plan.

Then there’s the assumption by some bosses or co-workers that you don’t have a life. I haven’t experienced this so far, but DePaulo points out studies have shown single employees often feel pressure to work during popular holiday periods, or simply to put in longer hours and take on more intense, travel-heavy projects, because they don’t have a spouse or kids. A recent Huffington Post story about single women echoes those findings with a depressing tale of one single, non-mother’s experience in the workplace at the hands of her married-with-kids female boss.

Some colleagues probably don’t even realize they’re making assumptions. Take this comment from late 2008, uttered by former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. President Obama had nominated then Arizona governor Janet Napolitano as Homeland Security secretary. A microphone picked up Rendell saying Napolitano would be great for the role, “Because for that job you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect – she can devote literally 19, 20 hours a day to it.”

Thanks Ed.

Some in the media called him on it, and Rendell subsequently claimed he worked crazy hours and ‘had no life’ either, but those words still make my heart sink, confirming the stereotype that single people have nothing better to do than work all the time.

And don’t even get me started on cats.

Tags: childfree, childless, , marriage, minority,

Category: Family 2.0

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Comments (7)

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  1. vertigovid says:

    I totally agree with this article! A female co-worker of mine was planning a dinner party recently and said to me “I’d love to invite you but I can’t. I wouldn’t know how to seat you at the dinner table – you being single would throw off my even numbered place settings & seats.” Can you believe this is still happening in this millennium?!

  2. Heather says:

    I find it interesting that you are noticing discrepancies between women and women with children. Unfortunately, the goal of women “making it” was to do what men do–and most men do not tend to the children — they worked crazy hours. That is why single women without children are doing that.

    What you would notice though if you were married/unmarried with children is how much business expects you to keep up with people without children. That is a real and greater problem as there are few part-time/flex-time options for people raising children.

    As far as policy goes though, when I read our company policy that pregnancy is considered a “disability” it stung because that was a powerful time of transition for me. At a time when women are either having to dump their child off to another caregiver at 3 months or discouraged from using their womb altogether, the issues we should be concerned with should not pit moms against non-moms. It’s about families (you may have to leave work one day to tend to a parent). The entire system is out of wack and we need to unite under the similarities and instead of poking at the divisions. That would help us all.

    By the way, the social security benefits should go back to the system. The money paying your SS will be from the pay check of a worker you did not produce, raise, care or pay for (okay, maybe you contributed to the school system as a property owner, but…). In fact the mom who did that work is likely to be entitled to far less money than you. Why? Because the mom had to take less pay and opportunities to care for the child. I don’t know where you live but around here, businesses are quite comfortable dumping a pregnant woman/new mom off their payroll. The family protections in this country are abysmal because it’s people without children making policy. They tend to feel slighted or that things are unfair so people with kids really get the shaft.

    I recommend “The Price of Motherhood” by Ann Crittendon on discussing this matter further. It does a great job of discussing the setbacks that having kids actually places on women’s progress.

  3. Heather,
    Thanks for your comment. I don’t doubt some mothers are up against discrimination, although perhaps less so here in NYC than other parts of the country. I wasn’t trying to pit mothers against non-mothers, I only wanted to make the point that being single in a family-oriented society can be a weird experience. And several studies have been done on singles’ experiences in the workplace. The system in the US is out of whack for everyone, for sure.

    To another of your points, it seems to me given that the vast majority of adults do have children, it’s unlikely that the childless are making policy (nearly all politicians go on about family values). But of course I don’t know which individuals have been responsible for which policies over the years.

  4. Michele says:

    Thank you for this article! I’m childless by choice, and while I have had a committed partner for the past few years, I was single into my forties. [And the fact that we have decided not to get married is a source of complete frustration for some of my friends and all of my family.] Being single didn’t make me unhappy. I preferred it to some of the relationships I’d had. What made me unhappy was the constant feeling that in the game of musical chairs, I hadn’t sat down and this just BUGGED people.

    It was always apparent that my coupled friends looked at me as ‘off.’ They asked me questions like, “Would you have had children if you had met the right man before it was too late?’ and “You could meet someone into your 60′s! My [aunt, stepmother, third cousin] did on [a cruise, online dating site, singles club meeting].” They encouraged me to ‘try harder, and not be so picky.’ Don’t get me wrong, I adore my boyfriend and I’m delighted we’re sharing a life together and a permanent commitment. But I had a life before him, too. And if we hadn’t met, I’d still be a happy and creative human being. He’s the cherry on top, he’s not the sundae.

    Don’t get me started on the childfree vs. parents. This society is also baby-crazy, and I’m kind of staggered by it at times.

  5. christine says:

    Although I can appreciate how you feel, maybe it wasn’t the other couples icnoring you. Maybe you let your own insecurities get the best of you. Next time try adding a comment and/or redirecting the conversation.

  6. says:

    that I was quite happy being sligne as are many of my sligne girlfriends my age, and I’m not really sure I actually want to get married. I pointed out that if I was so desperate to find someone I’d actually be going out and doing so. Maybe I’ll find someone and maybe I won’t, but I can’ honestly say that for the first time in my life I’m really happy with me, and I wasn’t always that way, even when I was in relationships. I find that women are happy being alone, but we are constantly told we’re not or we shouldn’t be.

  7. says:

    I am happy in my life in most ways but in my personal life, I would like to find a great guy to share my life with. Am I aedperste no. Am I making efforts to find one sure. I’d like to have the intimacy that comes with a healthy relationship. I’d like to have someone to share the daily workload of taking care of a home. I’d like to have a father for my child. I’d like to have a second income. I’d like to have someone to grow old with and it is painful for me that I haven’t found someone. I am human. I get lonely. But most of the time I’m happy, it’s not the focus of my life and having waited for a great guy all these years, why would I settle or become aedperste now. If anything, I’m more selective now. I have more invested in myself and my life. I’m going to be a mom and have to think of that child, too, and what would be best for her certainly not some guy who I marry because I’d rather not be alone.