Working mothers face a disproportionate amount of discrimination in the workplace.
For many women, having a child will be an enormous financial blow because of the ‘motherhood penalty’ – which leads to systematic disadvantages in pay, perceived competence and even career prospects.
Mothers face an uphill battle in the workplace and a significant pay gap. In fact, it is costing them $16,000 a year in lost wages, according to an analysis of Census data by the National Women’s Law Center in 2018. Parents working part-time – the majority of whom are women, who juggle work with childcare – also have a significantly lower chance of being promoted.
Working mothers also experience disadvantages in getting hired, too. Cornell University researchers conducted a study in which they sent fake CVs to hundreds of employers, and they found that mothers were half as likely to be called back by prospective employers. Those who do get hired experience bias – if they talk about their children at work, they risk being seen as distracted or disinterested in their jobs.
It’s clear that working mothers face significant hurdles in the workplace. But what about women who don’t have children – by choice or otherwise?
In recent years, employers have begun to embrace the idea of a work-life balance – often by introducing “family-friendly” policies which allow working parents to work flexible hours, work from home or take time off when they need to. While undoubtedly necessary, however, these policies often ignore the fact that women without children need a better balance between their working and personal lives too.
Recent research from York University’s School of Human Resources Management found that employees without children may miss out when it comes to work-life balance policies. The study, led by Galina Boiarintseva, found that workers without kids often feel less welcome to attend to non-work aspects of their lives than co-workers who are parents.
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Because of this, they are less likely to ask for flexible working or to work from home. Employees without children were also felt awkward about asking to leave on time at the end of the day.
The problem, Boiarintseva concluded, is that work-life balance policies are out-of-date with current social trends – and the fact that fewer working couples are having children.
“Despite the increasing diversity in family structure and personal responsibilities of employees, most organisations’ work-life balance policies cater to the needs of employees with children, while inadvertently paying less attention to the work-life balance needs of those without,” she wrote.
“Any policy that is offered in the workplace has to apply to everyone regardless of whether they’re married or whether they have children.”
Studies into the growth of the flexible working movement have shown that women without children feel excluded by such schemes. A survey of 25,000 workers by Opportunity Now found that two-thirds of childless women aged between 28 and 40 felt they were expected to work longer hours than colleagues with children.
“The survey responses show an uneasy tension between women who don’t have children and those who do – two thirds of non-parents feel they are expected to work longer hours than those with children – while at the same time there’s a widespread view that those who work flexibly will progress less quickly than their peers, even if their contribution is similar,” said Helena Morrissey, chairperson of Opportunity Now.
She added: “These findings suggest that flexible working isn’t working. One group feels resentment, the other feels less valued. Overcoming this tension is entirely possible – but companies need to measure output, not hours worked and radically reassess working practices.”
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One of the key issues is stigma levelled at women without children, who are often unfairly assumed to have chosen an ‘easier’ life free of responsibility. To find out how this impacted workers, researchers at the London School of Economics surveyed managers and professionals without children.
“Individuals who lived alone without children felt that their organisations and colleagues assumed they could work longer hours, as they did not have as many demands on their time outside of work as parents do,” the researchers concluded. “On the contrary, they spoke of specific types of time demand – often as a result of their solo‐living status.
“These included having sole responsibility for the household and the need to invest time and energy in friendships and developing intimate relationships (which was hard when long hours and mobility demands were common).”
Flexible working and policies which promote a better work-life balance are essential, but it’s crucial that they benefit all employees. Moreover, addressing the imbalance works for both employees and employers. In an age of rising burnout, mental health problems and disengagement with work, ensuring workers can balance all aspects of their lives is important.
And making sure employees are happy and healthy is far more likely to boost morale, engagement and productivity for businesses.