In this, the third installment of our Work-Life balance series, I consider how some childfree say they benefit from the predominant narrative that in the balance of work and life, “life” means “children.”
Is it all bad news for the childfree?
Like so many others that I’ve interviewed in my research on the childfree, Brittany, a legal secretary in her early 50’s, said that one drawback of being childfree is that the lawyers she works with feel more free to co-opt her time, and they do so more often than with fellow legal secretaries who have kids. At the same time, Brittany acknowledges that the perception that she is more available and more willing to work long hours may have helped her find work in the past. She shared,
As a legal secretary, my bosses really liked that I was childfree because I didn’t have to run home and they didn’t have to worry that I had to rush home for kids. I guess that made me more available and made it easier when it came to finding a job.
Brittany frames employers’ perception of her as more available as a benefit, and it may well have facilitated her job search. Yet it should be noted that hiring or not hiring a person on the basis of parenthood status, while not an explicitly protected category under Federal law, is questionable at best and probably legally actionable.
Apparently the shadiness of making workplace decisions on the basis of (non)parenthood is lost on some employers. Take, for example, what Mandy, an engineer in her mid 30’s, shared with me:
My boss was pretty happy when he found out I was childfree! He knew I wouldn’t have to leave work in the middle of the day, that scheduling would be easier, and very easily I can just be gone tomorrow if I have to be. In terms of traveling for work and that sort of thing. His reaction, I would call it glee. He was like, “Oh really?!” He says, “Oh geez, that’s great!” He was definitely pleased.
Jennifer, an underwriter in her mid 30’s, notes that her status as childfree has been viewed positively by male managers. She said,
I think that there are definitely advantages of being childfree at work, especially around men because when I’ve had a male manager, I’ve never had to give them the “Oh, my kid is sick, I can’t come in” excuse. Or ,”I can’t work late because I have a kid.” Or, “I can’t do this because I have a kid.” I’ve always been very up front that I don’t have those things holding me back at home, so if I’m needed at work, I will be there.
The preference for childfree workers over parents may even extend beyond management to colleagues. Christina, a lab tech in her early 30’s, said this,
I have coworkers who have children at work and I think in some ways they view me as more responsible because I don’t have kids. You know, they can ask me to do something without worrying that I won’t be able to stay late if they need me to.
Indeed, childfree people sometimes benefit, in the short term at least, from the impression their employers have that they are more committed to their jobs than parents.
A Gendered Difference
It is notable that the childfree workers who told me they sometimes benefit from the impression that they’re more available to employers are all women. As Stephanie, an IT executive in her early 30’s, told me,
When I look across my company, the women who are in power don’t have children. The men who are in power have children, but the women don’t and I think that speaks more than anything else.
Whether she knows it or not, Stephanie has identified a pattern social scientists find in workplaces. When it comes to parenthood, working women who opt in are penalized while working fathers are rewarded. One study by researchers at Cornell University found that working mothers are perceived to be less competent than non-mothers and that their recommended starting salaries are lower. Study authors also found in an audit of employers that mothers are discriminated against but fathers are not.
Other research finds similar patterns. Sociologist Michelle Budig found that when men have children, their earnings increase by 6 percent while women face a 4 percent decrease in pay for each child they have. Before we go suggesting that mothers are somehow to blame for these patterns, it should be noted that these patterns persist even after taking into account hours worked, work experience, educational background, and partners’ incomes.
What drives these patterns is the cultural perception that parenthood makes women flaky and men responsible. These perceptions come from outdated and empirically unfounded presumptions about women’s “natural” inclination toward parenthood. They harm parents and the childfree alike and they make equality and fairness at work harder to attain.
A better way toward work-life balance for all
As a childfree person who has struggled with how to express my own need and right to work-life balance to colleagues and managers, I think that we ultimately do ourselves a disservice by encouraging employer perceptions that we’re more committed to work.
Rather than touting ourselves as more committed, or encouraging assumptions that we are or should be so, we would be better served by pushing for better work-life balance policies and practices for all employees. Challenging – and changing – wrong impressions of who we are and what we bring to the table means challenging all stereotypes, including those that might benefit some of us on occasion.
In the end, we all lose out when we assume that childfree people will pick up the slack at work because they don’t have kids waiting to be picked up at school or taken to soccer practice. Parents lose social capital and credibility in the workplace, the childfree lose the chance to enjoy life outside of work, and employers lose the benefits of a happy, healthy, and productive workforce.