Are Singles Discriminated Against In The Workplace?

When Simone Allen began a demanding job as a litigation solicitor at a large law firm a year ago, the 32-year-old packed her after-work calendar to ensure she wouldn’t spend every night at the office: guitar lessons on Monday, Pilates on Friday, and a healthy mix of dates and nights out with friends in between. In a matter of weeks, however, her classes fell by the wayside. She couldn’t get out of the office in time. And dating? Not in months.

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Instead, she finds herself spending most nights poring over cases — and wondering why she’s one of only a handful working such intense overtime at her office. There are more than 100 lawyers on staff at her firm, but fewer than five are single and without kids and, overwhelmingly, they’re the ones juggling the extra load.

“My co-workers with families make a point of getting home by dinnertime,” says Allen, who often works through the weekends. “But even if they stay late, their families will still be there. If I have to cancel a date for work, that guy won’t be around the next night. I imagined I’d be married by now, but I’m honestly working too hard to find the person I’d want to marry.”

It’s the newest form of workplace discrimination: single women who carry an undue burden at the office, expected to do more than their married-with-kids co-workers. In her best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, makes a strong case for women committing fully to their careers, but this kind of non-optional “leaning in” is not what she had in mind. Instead, it’s an inequity simmering under the surface in many corporate cultures, says social scientist Dr Bella DePaulo, author of Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It.

According to DePaulo, “singlism” reflects the myriad ways our culture rewards married couples, from better restaurant tables to preferential treatment in the housing market, while treating singles as second-class citizens — and it’s on the rise in the office. Or at least, that’s the perception.

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While businesses are increasingly sensitive to helping parents manage their time, they still assume, says DePaulo, that “single people don’t have lives. No life means no need for balance—when, of course, everyone has important obligations – whether it’s a class, exercise, caring for an elderly family member, or taking a holiday.”

Corporate lawyer Mary Mathis says she worries that her life 10 years from now will look exactly as it does now: “My co-worker with kids leaves early twice a week, but I work from 9 to 7 in the office every day, another hour at home, and throughout the weekend,” says the 30-year-old. “No one has ever directly said this to me, but when late nights or extra projects come up, it’s clear the thinking is, ‘She’s single, she has time to do this’.”

So how can you find that elusive “balance” — booking that amazing trip to Cambodia or taking on the added responsibility of the puppy you’ve been wanting — if you can barely step away from your desk?

Treating employees the same across the board also makes good business sense, says Fair Work Ombudsman, Natalie James — especially since estimates predict almost one quarter of Australian women currently in their reproductive years will never have children. “There are a range of business benefits associated with flexible working opportunities, such as [helping with] retaining skilled staff and attracting new employees, decreasing absenteeism and reducing staff turnover, improving staff morale, and demonstrating to staff they are valued by the business,” she says.

In the US, Silicon Valley behemoths like Apple, Google, and LinkedIn are quietly offering workers more leeway – theoretically, at least - in how they spend part of the working week, in order to encourage creativity and boost morale without affecting productivity. In Australia, companies such as Telstra and Woolworths have both been named by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WEGA) as flexible workplaces, and companies like Stockland, a Sydney-based property development firm, offer the option of working from home, job-sharing, personal volunteering leave and a flexible schedule. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2.4 million Australians work at least some hours at home, and 32 per cent of them work only or mainly at home.

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, all employees have the right to approach their employer and negotiate flexible working conditions. Whether those conditions are granted, however, is another matter.

“Parents have a built-in, compelling story,” says human resources manager Alice Winston. “If you tell a manager, ‘I was here from 9 to 5, and I have to leave because that’s my arrangement with my nanny’, that’s the person who gets to go home.”

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Dianne Baxter got so fed up with that double standard that the 40-year-old banker finally brought the issue to her human resources team. “At first I took it in my stride when my colleagues would expect me to work on Saturday because someone’s daughter had a ballet performance and they assumed I had nothing to do—but then asking me to switch became an all-the-time occurrence, and it reached a tipping point,” she says.

After talking with senior management, Baxter and her other childless colleagues who’d been called on to fill the gap asked HR to hold an “intervention”. Confronting the parents involved “a lot of uncomfortable shifting and a lack of eye contact”, says Baxter, but in the end, she won out when HR required the same schedule of everyone.

In Baxter’s case, it worked to call in HR, but in many instances, you might be the person who needs to create—and enforce—your own boundaries. Says career consultant Liz Ryan, a former Fortune 500 HR executive: “If your co-workers are leaving early because of their kids’ soccer games, get your own ‘soccer game’—like a class that requires you to leave at a certain time every week,” she says. Be prepared to show that your work won’t suffer, and “find a trusted senior ally, one without kids,” advises Hewlett. “She can help you frame the conversation with your boss.” Mary Smith, a 26-year-old public relations executive who used to work marathon 12-hour days while coworkers with families left the office earlier, says that her new boss appreciates that Smith leaves early once a week for a religious-studies class and uses her lunch break to hit the gym. Her boss’s response: “I should work out myself!”

“No one respects the people who are slaves to the job,” says Ryan. They’re often setting themselves up for more work and fewer accolades. “Build the muscle to say no. Men realise that it’s not about getting a gold star; women are raised to think that saying yes makes you a good girl.”

Setting boundaries around your inadvertent second shift will take some getting used to, sure. But as the payoffs roll in (more free time, less stress, and a greater sense of well-being) the best reward won’t be that you’re no longer feeling taken advantage of—but that you never lose sight of the meaningful life you also have outside the office.

‘You’ve got a life? Really?’

Libby, 27, public servant: “No one at work has ever explicitly said I need to work longer hours than my colleagues with kids, but many of the parents I work with with are only available certain days or before a certain time, and the work that they’re doing is more complicated and requires more time than they have. I’m given whatever they can’t finish because I can be relied upon to stay back late.

I like having work that challenges me, but a lot of it is much further above my pay grade than I should be asked to do, and I’ve felt really demoralised about doing so many extra hours without any remuneration. I end up spending all day doing work that should be handled by my higher-paid colleagues, and my standard duties don't even get looked at until after 5. I avoid making plans during the week because I know I might have to cancel at the last minute. You feel like, unless your outside commitments are family-related, then you don’t have any choice but to stay back. People will often say ‘Go home, you can do this later,’ but it’s an empty offer when they still expect the work to be on their desk by Monday.

The flipside is that I’ve been upskilled so much that I’ve now been given an opportunity to act in a higher position and get paid for it. Two years ago, that opportunity would have gone to my colleague. I’ve been struggling with it because I feel like I’ve earned it but I also feel like she’s missing out simply because she can’t be around as much - she has two children. It’s a double-edged sword, and one that unfairly seems to affect far more women than men.”

Isabella, 31, management consultant: “A few years into management consulting, I realised I was never at home and never saw my husband because I was working at least 14 hours a day. On top of that, I was constantly afraid of being posted to another city for work – something that my colleagues with kids didn’t have to worry about. When I mentioned I hadn’t seen my husband enough or couldn’t take a posting in Perth because of my own home commitments, the attitude was, ‘Suck it up’.

On one project, I worked with a woman who had recently come back from maternity leave. She left the office every day at 3pm, while I worked through the nights and over the weekend. Directors try to help people with kids because they know it’s a hard industry but inevitably, that extra work falls on everyone else. When I told the manager on the project that the hours were a complete invasion into my life, he told me I had ‘excess capacity’ – that's management-speak for, ‘You don’t have kids, and therefore a life’. Apparently the only reason a person might want to do anything outside of work, is if they have children.”

It’s not just at work...

Outside the workplace, people can also make assumptions about women without children and the relative value of their “spare” time. Two single women recall personal examples:

Marian, 36, clinical psychologist: ‘My mother and stepfather live about two and a half hours’ drive away. He was having an operation, on a weekday, and my mother asked me if I could pick him up afterwards and drive him back.

On that particular day I had a lot of clients booked, so I would have had to cancel them all. At the end of the conversation, almost as an afterthought, I asked if she’d tried my sister. Mum said, ‘Oh, I didn’t want to bother her with it. She’s busy with Holly.’ Holly is my niece. She’s 16!

Mum doesn’t say anything but I always feel she’s disappointed I can’t spring into action when required. It’s like, what else would I have going on?’

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Pia, 29, lawyer: ‘The baby son of my one of my closest friends was being christened. For the celebration afterwards, the mum asked each guest to ‘bring a plate’, which I was happy to do. It was only on the big day, when I was standing around and chatting to another guest, that I discovered my friend had only asked the people without kids to contribute because they had “more time”. So, in my friend’s book, it was totally fine to ask me, who generally works 70 + hours a week, to rustle up finger sandwiches but she couldn’t ask any of the other mums, many of whom were on maternity leave, to find a window in their schedule to buy a packet of biscuits. It was maddening and really hurtful.
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