The Reality of Being Childfree in the Workplace

Our workplaces are gradually becoming more inclusive, and as someone whose work is defined by people, our increased ability to bring our full selves to work is important to me. But while inclusivity has become the buzzword in workplace culture, this target is still a long way from being reached.

Take the very personal decision of whether or not to have children. Statistics about the negative repercussions of parenthood (especially motherhood) on your career have been widely reported, and many companies are particularly alert to the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for working parents. But non-parents also face their own forms of disadvantage and bias in the workplace. And they’re starting to voice their frustration louder than ever.

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A recent New York Times article on the pushback tech companies received for granting parents extra leave during the pandemic and the conversations that ensued shows that this is a subject which too easily escalates into a no-win situation. This kind of petty slinging match is not only pointless, it can be extremely damaging, as it takes the focus away from where change needs to happen in order to ensure equality, fairness and inclusivity – at a policy and culture level.

A growing group

The rights of working parents are an important focal point of corporate policy. Despite lagging behind Europe in terms of leave and support offered to parents, many US companies are striving to facilitate a healthy work/parenting balance. However, one presumably unintended side-effect of focusing the conversation on parents is that it omits the voices and discounts the needs and experiences of childfree employees.

This is a growing group: in the US, more than 71 percent of adults live without children under their roof. As people are becoming parents later, or not at all, the demographic of our workplaces is shifting. And it’s time to address the disharmony created when parents and non-parents are treated differently by employers in terms of the key ways the work relationship is defined: time and money.

How societal norms hurt us

The growing childfree-by-choice segment is clearly tired of being overlooked and undervalued. And yet, little has changed at a societal or organizational level to accommodate their needs. Why is that?

In our society, the consistent message is that if you opt not to have children, your life is less meaningful. To become a parent is the norm, and anything else is a deviation from that norm. In a study conducted by Dr. Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, participants reported significantly greater feelings of moral outrage ― including anger, disgust and disapproval ― towards voluntarily childfree people. At the same time, childfree people were consistently viewed as being less personally fulfilled than those with children. According to Dr. Ashburn-Nardo, perceiving childfree people as less fulfilled acts as a way of “punishing” them for violating what’s often considered to be both a social norm and a moral imperative.

It’s not so surprising. When people go against the cultural norm, they often face backlash for defying the unwritten (and yet oh so powerful) social contract. Not adhering to society’s norms comes at a price. No wonder many childfree people have found themselves afraid to speak up about their desires and needs in the workplace. Until now.

The pendulum has swung too far

As a senior HR professional working for an exceptionally forward-thinking company, I am proud to have helped implement policies that support parents in terms of flexible schedules as well as childcare and parental leave. One hallmark of the company I work for is our award-winning childcare facility, located in the building next to where I usually work, and I’m a huge proponent of this and other measures to make life as a parent easier, more fulfilling and more balanced. We’re starting to see more of these kinds of measures being implemented to support parents across the board – which I’m all for. But how are childfree people being included and valued in their workplace? Which policies are in place to ensure their needs are met?

A senior lawyer working in the Bay Area told me how, prior to the pandemic, the parents of small children would file out at between 5 and 5:15 each day to collect their children from childcare and head home, while childfree colleagues stayed at their desks until the work was, well, done. “I know many parents also log on later in the evening, but if they’ve missed an important call or haven’t had time to read the latest documents we’ve received, it falls to me and my childfree colleagues to pick up the slack. There’s a disparity in expectation as to when the working day ends and what gets done during it. I’m given the message that my non-work life is less important – sometimes explicitly.”

If we are bringing our full selves to work, where does that leave those who don’t have children, but do have beloved pets? Or family members or friends for whose care they are responsible? Or non-work passions? A friend in Salt Lake City is a former competitive skier, and the topic of being childfree came up during a recent conversation. “Honestly, I’m starting to resent the fact that my colleagues who are parents are free to take slabs of time off to look after sick kids or log off early to attend recitals. The thing is, I fully support the fact that they can – being a present parent is so important. But sometimes I wonder why I’m not allowed to take a couple of extra days each year to ski, or spend time with my 97-year-old grandfather? Whenever I suggest this to HR they literally laugh.”

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It’s as if the working parent pendulum has swung right past the needs of a significant part of the workforce—people without children who, yes, also have a life that sometimes necessitates leaving early. We need to be facilitating healthy lives, balance and inclusivity for all employees – allowing everyone to work effectively, efficiently and purposefully and then get out and spend precious time on other aspects of life.

Navigating employee needs in a pandemic

In the wake of COVID-19, many parents have added homeschooling to their repertoire, as well as increased caregiving responsibilities with extra-curricular activities and social gatherings abruptly halted. Families are under unprecedented stress. In response, a significant number of companies, including my current employer, have put in place thoughtful, often substantial support for working parents to better enable them to meet all their responsibilities.

But the assumption that only parents are struggling is outright false: everyone needs support. All of us are struggling with unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and fear and have been doing so for months now. And let’s be honest – even pre-pandemic, life was stressful enough for everyone.

Recently, a friend and HR exec told me that after a recent meeting about changes to increase flexibility for working parents during the pandemic, she was emailed by a childfree colleague with a simple question: “What about me?” My friend ended up having a lengthy conversation with this colleague about the challenges she was facing during the pandemic: an elderly mom who lives on the other side of the country, a brother who’d been laid off, her boyfriend being based in Sydney, and her own loneliness. This conversation startled my friend. As she put it, “truthfully, I hadn’t even worried about her – I just assumed everyone without kids was fine. I was wrong.”

Awareness of the disparity between the expectations on parents and childfree employees, and the compensation (financial or otherwise) they receive, has been heightened through Covid-19. Understandably, it’s touching nerves. However, the antagonistic, ‘us versus them’ narrative described in the New York Times article on the backlash against the provision of extra leave to parents is totally unhelpful. In her CNN opinion piece, Jill Filipovic articulately sets out how these companies are pitting parents and childfree employees against each other, rather than supporting parents and childfree employees through an incredibly difficult phase of their careers and their lives.

We need to work much harder to ensure that these kinds of rifts and squabbles do not occur: they cause unnecessary resentment, polarized thinking, and potentially destroy healthy, harmonious working relationships and environments.

A path forward

Employees and leaders alike need to take active steps to make sure inclusivity is a day-to-day fact of how we lead our work lives, not a distant, hollow target. Workplaces can be a forum for learning and growth that contributes to important societal shifts – together, we can change the corporate culture so that it embraces, not undermines, our individuality. 

Especially as working from home is now an indefinite reality for many, employees need to be having conversations with their team leader to get clear on what they need and the support they are looking for. Leaders need to make sure that team members are given the opportunity to be heard, and that their requests are genuinely listened to and accommodated. And companies need to ensure culture keeps pace with policy: for example, allowing unlimited vacation days without building in a framework to make vacations truly feasible misses the point entirely.

Here are some starting points for discussion on both policy and culture:

  • Equal maternity and paternity leave, paid for up to 6 months (with another optional 6 months of unpaid leave).
  • Paid sabbatical leave for all childfree employees structured such that it’s equal to the maternity/paternity leave provided to parents.
  • Assess company culture for opportunities to make working hours and conditions more flexible for all employees to live balanced, fulfilling lives (71% of employees say they’d quit their job if another company offered them flexible scheduling).
  • Ensure culture aligns with flexible, livable policies: put an end to casual comments like “oh, working a half-day?” when someone leaves at 5pm, or overlooking someone for promotion simply because they’ve taken the full allowance for paternity leave, or used a couple of weeks of sick leave due to exhaustion recently.
  • Embody open, transparent communication – when changing policy that applies one group, for example, don’t do it on the sly, and don’t drop it unannounced or unexplained: set out its necessity and implications for the whole company openly, and be clear about how everyone will benefit from the change, even if indirectly.

Leveling the playing field—for good

2020 has been marked by uncertainty and turbulence. None of us know exactly how the future will play out. Amid the significant disruption to our ‘normal’ lives, I see a unique opportunity for honest, compassionate dialogue that helps us reassess and shift organizational policy and culture towards real inclusivity in the workplace.

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Obviously, there’s more that needs to be done to create a fully inclusive workplace – and this will continue to shift as humanity and our working lives evolve. Here’s one place companies can start to make change, right now: ensure childfree employees are respected equally alongside parents.  


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