Are Women Without Children Discriminated Against at Work?

© elnariz / Adobe Stock

Stressed woman at work

© elnariz / Adobe Stock

AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
June 15, 2024 at 11:32PM UTC
We know that working mothers are too-often subjected to discrimination, from the “motherhood penalty” to the assumption that women with children are less interested in advancement opportunities. 
In fact, Cornell researchers conducted a study in which they sent fake résumés to hundreds of employers, and they found that mothers were half as likely to be called back by prospective employers. Moreover, a recent study found that, while men’s salaries increased more than six percent when they had children, women’s decreased four percent for each child they had.
But what about women who don’t have children, by choice or otherwise? Outside of the usual biases working women face, are there any prejudices that manifest around childlessness, especially as women age?

Childless women are discriminated against in the workplace

Lydia Brown, 30, owns Chicago-based nanny placement agency Chicago Collegiate Nannies, where she manages client relations. The agency specializes in placing college-educated nannies with busy, professional families. Many of her clients assume she has children of her own, but she doesn’t. And it’s an assumption she encounters several times a week. 
“It seems to be a fallacy in this industry that all women who own and operate childcare agencies must have children of their own,” Brown said. “In fact, I am asked this question several times per week during client calls and the question never fails to catch me off guard. Worse, when my answer is given — ‘No, I do not have children of my own’ — I find myself wondering if my 17+ years of childcare experience (including nannying, teaching and working as a camp counselor) are being effectively discounted.” 
Many of Brown’s friends, who also own agencies around the country, report experiencing the same kind of discrimination, Brown added.
“What I find most fascinating is that many of my clients are first-time parents and had not previously had any experience with children outside of their own,” she says. “However, once they have had said child, that now becomes a qualifier. I do not necessarily feel that my agency loses business when I admit to clients that I do not have my own children, but it is certainly an interesting experience.”
Brown said she would like to have children some day; it just hasn’t happened yet because she hasn’t yet met the right person or been in a place to start a family. Running her company consumes a lot of her time and energy, and she plans to open a new Boston location later this year, so she’s been kept busy with work. 
“Staying this dedicated to something while it is in the building phase means allowing other facets of your life to take a backburner — like dating,” she said.
Of course, discrimination against childless working women doesn’t only happen in the childcare industry. Jessa*, 36, is an editorial director for a large media company that houses several online publications. She oversees the editorial content across all brands and, therefore, often works late nights.
“The news cycle is 24/7 these days,” she explained. “My job doesn’t stop when I go home. I’m constantly checking the sites and answering emails throughout the night. I’ve no time for a family right now and, I’m frankly not sure I want one. I couldn’t fathom taking on children — not anytime soon, anyway.”
And yet, Jessa says her colleagues always joke about when she and her fiancé will start a family. One co-worker even told her that “time’s a’tickin,’” she recalled.
“I suspect that some of my younger colleagues want my job, and perhaps that’s why they’re pushing for me to take a maternity leave,” Jessa explained, noting that it oftentimes feels like she’s being pushed out of her position. “But, even if that’s not the case, I think the jokes are getting pretty old. My fiancé and I are happy with our life together, and we’d both like to just focus on our careers and our own relationship for right now. If we decide we want to have children and can’t for age-related complications by then, we’re open to adoption. But we’re not even thinking about that right now.” 

Why are so many women delaying and abstaining from motherhood?

Like Lydia and Jessa, a lot of women these days are delaying motherhood or choosing to abstain from it altogether. A new analysis of U.S. Census Data from the Pew Research Center shows that more women are starting families compared to 10 years ago, but they're doing so at a later age. 
Ultimately, women are opting out of having children or choosing to delay pregnancy for a gamut of reasons — and a woman’s decision (or preventative circumstances) to not have children should have no bearings on her professional life.
And yet, it sometimes seems to.
"I think there is definately a discrepancy in the support that people get to have good work-life balance depending on whether they have children or not, regardless of whether they are male or female," says Helen Read, a 28-year-old civil engineer who says work-life balance was a "dirty word" in her industry until a few years ago. Then, a woman CEO initiated improved maternity and paternity options — but since her departure, Read says progress has "halted," and part-time working arrangements are one area where this is particularly evident.
"Part and parcel of this work is living away from home, so flexible working is pointless unless it results in a four-day week, because you're not surrounded by your usual friends to spend time with anyway," she explained. "But also, you must provide a reason to get part-time working arrangements, such as caring responsibilities. People forget that single people have people they care about outside of the traditional relative structure, and they are often more likely to work late when the parents are leaving early to collect the kids from school."

Read says that parents also seem to get "first dibs" at holidays during peak season — irrespective of whether her single coworkers have plans.

"I would like there to be more support," she says. "In this kind of lifestyle it can be quite lonely, as you can't persuade your friends to move for you like you might with a spouse, which takes a toll on people's mental health."
Alaia Williams, a business systems strategist and organizer, agrees. It was a lack of flexibility in some of her last roles that lead her to going back to working for herself.
"I found that parents were granted more flexibility and support — they could adjust their work hours and some could even work from home occasionally while no one else at the company was afforded the same opportunity," she said. "I likened it to when I worked at a startup a few years back. We worked long hours, but people who smoked took at least half a dozen breaks per day — yet anyone else who did such a thing was seen as a slacker. I think policies employers put in place should apply to anyone working at the company. Not everyone can have children and not everyone wants to. And, for some, it just hasn't happened yet. Your family status shouldn't determine the treatment and experience you have at work."
Williams adds that, while she's all for parents having the flexibility to be actively involved in their kids lives, she thinks non-parents should have that work flexibility, too. 
Amy Blackstone, a 45-year-old non-mother and professor in sociology and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine, says that she doesn't feel supported at her job with regards to work/life balance. But she also doesn't feel that mothers (or fathers, or non-fathers) receive the support they need either.
"All employees — whether they are parents or not — deserve work/life balance, and most employers could do a better job of encouraging and supporting it," she says. "One easy solution is paid time off policies that do not weigh the relative merit of the wide variety of reasons that employees might need time away from work. We must also re-think what we mean by 'family.' This term is not limited to people who are parents or who have children at home."

Ultimately, work-life balance is so important to all employees, regardless of whether or not they have children.

Nonetheless, many people still consider the decision to forgo parenthood altogether as both abnormal and “morally wrong,” according to research from Indiana University-Purdue University. The findings, published in “Sex Roles: A Journal of Research,” show that most people still view parenthood as a moral imperative for men and women. Childless men and women in the study were consistently viewed as being less personally fulfilled than those who had two children, which is likely due to the fact that the participants reported significantly greater feelings of moral outrage — anger, disgust and disapproval ― toward the voluntarily childless people. 
Likewise, other research suggests that childless women are expected to do more at work and are excused less often. A study conducted by PwC of 25,000 workers, for example, found that two thirds of childless women aged 28 to 40 years old felt that they were expected to work longer hours and were expected to be more readily available during late night shifts and on the weekends.
As Melanie Notkin, author of “Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness”, puts it: “It’s rare that childless workers are thought to have a life outside of work, so ‘what’s to balance?’ some may think.”
Victoria* worked at a fast-growing, tech startup as a recruiter, tasked with taking the office from four to 100 in just over a year. She says she really, truly loved her job and everyone she worked with, and she even often bragged about the culture of the organization. But, on top of meeting with business leaders to discuss hiring initiatives and set strategies, as well as meeting with prospective employees and community members outside of the organization, she also found herself asked to take on a lot more than the working parents in her company.
"What I found was that many times, we would host office-wide happy hours and events, or be asked to join in on evening community events, and the expectation was that I would attend," Victoria says, noting she was the only member of her large team without children. "My manager went as far to say, on one occasion, that I was passed up for a formal promotion because my counterpart 'had a family to provide for,' and my teammates and manager would often ask for me to cover for them during holidays, back-to-school time, etc. as they had family priorities."
Victoria adds that if there was anything outside of standard work hours, there was always the expectation (or perhaps hope) that she could cover it. Her direct manager would also come to her for same-day or next-day turnaround projects that he wouldn't be able to deliver on due to family obligations. Though she generally didn't mind it, as it gave her a ton of exposure to the business, her efforts often went unrecognized as her own, despite the sacrifices that she would make to get the projects delivered. 
"Working parents, not specific to women, were often 'off-the-hook,' for lack of a better word, outside of work hours to allow them to spend time with their families," she says. "I think the bigger theme was that, if you don't have kids, you somehow don't have 'family' or obligations outside of the office to tend to."

How can companies do better?

So, how do we ensure that all people — regardless of their parenthood status — feel like they have access to and support in the pursuit of work-life balance? It starts with employers setting the proper example, from the top down. Many employers are already striving to do this, including Chris Locke's, who works as VP of marketing and development at the Ayn Rand Institute. As a childless woman, the 49 year old used to feel met with an inordinate number of demands at work compared to coworkers with children, but says she's seen as a positive shift take place.
"I used to think that (parents) used to get far more concessions on the job than childless women," says Locke. "In fact, I know they did because I had to stay late and put in extra hours to get the work done that others couldn’t do. But my current employer believes in bringing balance to the workplace for everyone, whether we’re working mothers or childless women with other external responsibilities. At the end of the day, my CEO is aware that life doesn’t begin and end within the confines of the office building, and for that, I’m extremely grateful."
While it's not always possible to leave work at work between that 9-to-5 window, it's vital that workplaces are at least trying to figure out strategies to delegate that extra work fairly, instead of putting more on the shoulders of childless women by default.

What's your no. 1 piece of advice on managing bias at work? Leave your answer in the comments to help other FGB’ers.

AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at by night.

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