The 40-hour work week was designed for men who had a wife at home to maintain the household and raise children.
As women started to enter the workforce, it became quickly apparent that not everyone can work full-time hours, and over the years more progressive workplaces led the way with flexible working hours, remote working arrangements, and part-time contracts designed to help employees manage work and home life responsibilities.
But how has this played out for the increasing numbers of women who have chosen a child-free life?
Emerging research suggests child-free women face expectations to work longer hours and have lower priority for taking leave over holiday periods than parents of children who are home from school.
Yvette Montano of Liquid HR explained that this bias is often a result of deeply entrenched societal values.
“Many people hold family in a high regard, and it is widely known as a valid reason to be absent,” she said, reflecting that other important parts of people’s lives, like mental health, pets, or friendships, are not always granted the same validity.
“While managers may recognise these as reasons for leave, it is generally easier when it is to do with family, and children in particular,” she said.
“There are less questions asked, and people are more empathetic. It is acceptable for parents to leave work on short notice to attend to a child, while other personal priorities that may arise are expected to be planned for in advance or taken care of after office hours.”
Subtle devaluation of child-free women’s work
Have you ever heard a busy working parent say that they come to work “as a holiday” from parenting?
While it’s usually said in jest as a way of venting, you don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface of these seemingly innocuous comments to uncover the subtext: regardless of what a woman does for work, her primary and most important role is in the home, raising children.
Raising kids while working is undoubtedly hard, yet comments like this imply that the work they do at home is harder or more valuable than what happens in the workplace, reinforcing the patriarchal idea that a woman’s main and most important role is as a wife or mother, and that anything else is secondary.
Child-free employees expected to ‘pick up the slack’
Montano said child-free workers often face higher expectations and pressures when it comes to workplace performance.
“Anyone without a child is often expected to pick up the remaining work when a parent is called out due to personal matters,” said Montano.
“Someone else in the workplace needs to pick up that work so it is understandable, however it is going to be those who are in the office and are not absent due to their own family situations.
“Children can be unpredictable and cause parents to need more time off than someone who is child-free, so it stands to reason that child-free people end up picking up the slack when needed.”
While this is a natural part of working in a team, if this becomes a pattern and is not recognised or appreciated, it may start to take a toll on the wellbeing and job satisfaction of those who are child-free.
Impacts on psychosocial wellbeing for child-free
Child-free women should not be forced to choose between a stable paycheck and a healthy work-life balance, or consistently be overworked because their wellbeing is not taken as seriously as the role of being a mother.
The idea that having children is the only valid reason for needing workplace flexibility is an unfair and narrow view of what makes women’s lives meaningful.
Leaving work on time to attend an evening class, meet up with friends, or work on a side hustle, are as valid as the school pick up.
Child-free women shouldn’t always have last priority for annual leave during the holidays, as they may have cherished traditions of their own.
The assumption that a child-free or unmarried woman in the workplace doesn’t have important activities or relationships in their lives that deserve their time and energy marginalises not only child-free people, but also those who are childless by circumstance, single, separated, asexual, in non-traditional relationships, or don’t feel comfortable sharing the intimate details of their personal lives that require them to adjust their working arrangements.
Working towards a more equal workplace
We spend significant time with our colleagues, and policies that are biased or inequitably applied may cause tension between women in the workplace if it impacts their career and home life.
The idea of scarcity or competition for equal workplace rights can cause unnecessary tension between colleagues, and ultimately distract women from the common goal of being empowered to pursue the life they choose.
If you feel like you may be experiencing discrimination in the workplace for being child-free, Montano suggests starting by understanding your minimum entitlements in your current role.
“This includes the right to request flexible working arrangements, and it doesn’t have to be following the birth of a child,” she said.
“If you have a valid reason, you can discuss this with your workplace and hopefully come to an agreement. If your workplace does not hold the same values as you, then it might be time to look at the market.”
While we obviously have a long way to go to until we reach a fully inclusive workplace, including levelling the inequality faced by working women, companies can start by making change now to ensure that child-free employees are respected equally and receive the same entitlements as their parent counterparts.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 24, 2021, but has since been updated to include new content.