Often when we discuss supporting women in the workplace, the conversation immediately turns to maternity leave and motherhood. But more millennials and Gen Zers are choosing to be child-free by choice. This poses a challenge for employers to be more creative about how they approach supporting women’s ability to achieve and advance in the workplace — beyond simply offering maternity leave and family planning.
Rather than associating women with the gender role of childbirth, we need to be more intentional in creating workplace strategies to support all women — regardless of their background, abilities, age, race, ethnicity, country of origin, native language, economic, marital, or parental status.
Gender equity is something organizations should care about beyond International Women’s Month. So in this episode of Inclusion in Progress, we take a look at how employers can support women at work who are either childless or child-free, especially as these circumstances and choices become more common for professionals from younger generations who are already stepping into our workplaces.
Welcome to the Inclusion in Progress podcast where we give you the ideas, actions and insights to help you build more equity at your workplace and in the world at large. I'm your host, Kay Fabella, international expert on diversity, equity and inclusion, a Filipina American living in Spain and your guide in navigating this DEI journey. Having worked with teams at companies such as Philips, the IMF, Red Hat, PepsiCo and more, I know firsthand that the work of inclusion only works when everyone has a seat at the table. Regardless of your personal entrypoint into this conversation: your race, ethnicity, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, country of origin, or educational background, we all have a role to play in creating inclusion for all and it starts with us having conversations we need to create the change we wish to see. So let's dive into today's episode.
Most of the time, when we discuss supporting women in the workplace, the conversation immediately turns to maternity leave and motherhood. But what about for those women who are childless or child-free by choice.
I’m Kay Fabella and I'm a DEI consultant for remote teams. And I'm your host of the Inclusion in Progress podcast, where you'll get research-backed industry insights into the future of work and practical How To’s for Equity and Inclusion. I also lead a remote team and work with clients across EMEA, APAC and the Americas, which means you'll get a global perspective on how companies are supporting their distributed teams, building workplaces that work for everyone.
In this episode of Inclusion in Progress, we'll be discussing how to support child-free and childless women at work and going beyond maternity leave. So if you like the podcast, make sure you follow us on your favorite podcast app and leave us a review, because it really does help us get this content in front of equity-minded leaders in the workplace like you.
Our episode today is a topic that, if I'm being honest, I've been pretty hesitant to talk about for a while. Now, my team is already very aware of this, but I know that what I'm about to dive into is still considered very taboo. So, here goes… I'm someone who falls into the child-free by choice category, along with my husband and partner. Honestly, the fact that I feel the need to immediately caveat this choice, as one I've shared with my partner, is a knee-jerk reaction. And to give you an insight as to why that is, here are just a few of the most common responses I've heard over the years: things like, “Oh, how old are you? Oh, that's young, you'll definitely change your mind!” or, “Who's going to take care of you when you get older? Aren't you being selfish?” or, “But you don't strike me as a kid hater!” or, “Was your childhood hard? Is that why you don't want kids?”
Now this has happened from everyone from friends to family members, to strangers alike. And, unsurprisingly, most of the responses that you've just listened to are directed at – you guessed it, she's pointing the finger at herself! – me! The woman in the gender-normative relationship. And even though my husband will immediately chime in, to his credit, to say that it's our choice. He's not always by my side when these conversations come up with friends, family members, and strangers. Like many women who've chosen to be child-free by choice, I've learned to take this in stride. In fact – I'll share a funny story – a few years ago, a family friend whose kids I grew up playing with asked me on social media, “Oh, when are we going to see little feet?” To which I eventually uploaded a photo of my cat's feet next to mine with a winking emoji.
Jokes aside, I don't blame anyone who asks my husband and me – but let's be real, mostly me – why we don't want kids. That confusion stems from the fact that we still automatically associate women with motherhood. But we forget that not all women are capable of being mothers. Other times, childbirth and child-rearing are just not available to women, because it's something that's dictated by bodies or circumstances. And I also think it's worth mentioning here that the more marginalized you are – that is, the further you are away from that default our systems and workplaces often assume of being straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied, male human experience – the further you are away from that center, the more likely you are to face challenges that condition your decision to become a parent in the first place.
These days, thankfully, more people are coming out as child-free by choice. I'm going to quickly caveat this now with something we will clarify later in this episode, which is the difference between child-free and childless. And that is a major difference I'll make sure that we circle back to later. But the term child-free has actually existed since the early 1900s. It wasn't until the 1970s that feminists began using it more widely as a way of denoting women who were voluntarily childless as a distinct group. And then they added the suffix of “free” (so childless became child-free) because they wanted to communicate the sense of freedom and lack of obligation felt by those who had voluntarily decided not to have kids.
Today, it's safe to say that we'll be seeing more folks in our workplaces choosing to be child-free, or at least discussing it more openly than ever before, which is why we wanted to talk about it in this episode. A 2021 Pew Research Center study found that 44% of non-parents aged 18 to 49 don't think they will have children, which is up from 37% in 2018. More than half listed their main reason as, “Don't want to have children,” rather than circumstantial factors, such as medical issues or not wanting to raise a child without having a partner. And even though that's US-based – you know uss we're always trying to find other studies – in England and Wales, a 2020 YouGov study suggested that more than half of British 35 to 44 year olds who haven't had kids never plan on doing so.
So this is a tricky topic, as I've said, because I know many women who have chosen to be mothers, and many who haven't. And I'm honored to call both friends and colleagues. And, obviously, we've had some version of this conversation off the mic. So I've heard everything, I've said everything, I've discussed and dissected and had my mind changed, or changed minds on things… And today's conversation, really, I just want to point out is not about pitting parents and non-parents against one another, or questioning each other's life choices or circumstances, or measuring the yardstick of pain on who's had it harder because of those choices or circumstances. But the reality is, although becoming apparent is a very personal decision to make, more Millennials and Gen Zers are choosing to be child-free by choice. And women from these generations are now starting to outnumber Gen Xers and Baby Boomers in the workforce, which poses a challenge for employers to be more creative about how they approach supporting women's ability to achieve and advance in the workplace beyond simply offering maternity leave and family planning, assuming that eventual motherhood is the default for women who entered the workforce.
What it boils down to is this: gender equity isn't something organizations should just care about on March 8th or during International Women’s Month when this episode is coming out in 2023. We know that women are treated differently than men because of their gender, both within and outside of the workplace, across the multiple identities that women hold. In fact, we've actually highlighted just a small range of microaggressions and potential solutions employers can offer women at work in Episode 85: Miscarriage, Menopause & More: Uncovering Real Experiences of Women at Work, and we actually interviewed quite a few of our friends, collaborators, and experts across different experiences of women, so be sure to check that out after this episode. But, in summary, the tailwinds that women face significantly impacts their ability to move up the career ladder, achieve equal pay, contribute their best ideas to organizations, and thrive in their non-work roles and responsibilities, whether they choose to become parents or not.
Rather than associating women with the assigned gender role of childbirth, we need to be more intentional in creating workplace strategies that support all women, regardless of background, abilities, age, race, ethnicity, country of origin, geographic location, native language, economic, marital, or parental status. Now, with that in mind, today we're going to look at how employers can support women at work who are either childless or child-free, especially as these circumstances and choices become more common for younger generations who are stepping into and up in our workplaces.
So let's dive in!
First things first, as promised, what's the difference between women who are child-free by choice and childless? Let's break that down. Over the last decade, we've witnessed an increase in child-free online communities, which include people who have consciously decided never to have children and they, like my partner and me, define themselves as child-free by choice. This is important to distinguish from other adults who don't currently have kids but want them in the future. This is also different from adults who had hoped to have children but were unable to due to fertility challenges, social circumstances, medical issues, or simply not finding a suitable partner at the right time. And these last two groups that I just mentioned, we refer to as childless. So, in a nutshell, being child-free is a choice. Childlessness is circumstantial and not always in one's control.
So why are more women, specifically Millennials and Gen Zers, choosing to be child-free?
A recent Wall Street Journal article found that, within the US at least, American Millennials found that their debt increased by 27% in the wake of the pandemic, at a higher rate than all other generations. As a Millennial myself, I can just walk you through my career story to paint a picture of what our generation is facing. I graduated in 2008, during the global financial crisis. I'm one of the few people I know, my age, who didn't have to go back to school to get a Master's Degree hoping to write it out and who has managed to pay off my student loan debt which, I know, is something that both our British and American listeners can relate to, all too well. For many years, I worked in the gig economy before eventually starting my own business, and I know that continues to be the reality for those I know who are around my age. And, if I didn't live in Spain right now, I wouldn't have access to an affordable public health care system as a business owner. So those are just my circumstances, but that gives you a little bit of a picture of why Millennials are finding ourselves in a little bit more debt than other generations.
But, again, every generation has their struggles, right? And so if we move on to Gen Zers, we also see that they're planning to postpone childbirth, have fewer children, or opt out of parenthood altogether. Now, we know that Gen Z, as we've shared in previous episodes – and actually as we shared in our last two whitepapers, which you can download on our website – that they span a larger range of identities across race, ethnicity, gender identity, and more. And we also know that more Gen Z professionals joining the workforce identify as women. We know that they value mental health support and work-life balance from their employers, and cite factors such as the ongoing climate crisis and the economic situation as key reasons influencing their choice to be non-parents.
But it's one thing to talk about trends in different generations, it's another thing to talk about the personal decision that everybody has to make on their own or with a partner to become a parent in the first place, and it's another thing altogether to remember that Millennials and Gen Zers are very aware that parental responsibilities still fall more heavily on women. It's a conversation I've had many times with folks post-pandemic, both with parents who are struggling to keep up with increased costs of living and with non-parents who are weighing whether or not they want to be child-free for good. So companies will also have to be considerate of these conversations when strategizing gender equity initiatives that support all women at work.
Now let's take a look at the type of workplace discrimination child-free and childless women may experience. While it's well documented that women with children face a so-called “Motherhood Penalty” in their careers – which we've, I'm sure, talked about on the podcast and we've seen many research articles and initiatives on. Researchers are actually only just beginning to study the obstacles facing another group: women who are single and don't have children.
The pandemic underscored the career challenges that working moms faced. We know The Great Breakup, right? We know that millions dropped out of the workforce, we know that many felt burnt out or stalled in their careers while they were trying to juggle housework, homeschooling, childcare.
Honestly, y'all were superheroes! I can't even imagine.
I still remember, to this day, the sound of the kids first coming out of lockdown, which was pretty hardcore here in Spain – it was about 50 days. And those who were parents with kids were let out a week earlier than we were, and it was the first time the kids had been allowed out of the house in over a month. And I just remember the slow chanting of these kids going… “Calle! Calle! Calle! (Street! Street! Street!)” Because they were so excited. And I just thought… Wow, those parents. They had to sit with their kids in these flats for over a month! And… wow! Just hats off to you, really.
So with that said – you know, obviously, anecdotally as I'm sharing now – and the research shows that Motherhood Penalty is very, very well documented. But sociologists recently concluded that, even early in their careers, well-educated women without families are already at a disadvantage because they're stereotyped as “lacking leadership skills.” Women are expected, again based off of gender roles, to have a communal or relational style of leadership that's considered more appropriate for their gender than a leadership style that's perceived as aggressive or bossy or overbearing. There also seems to be a bit more pressure on childless or child-free women to stay later at work or to take on more responsibility than their attached or caregiver counterparts. There’s [an] unwritten expectation from co-workers who have children to expect their single colleagues to accommodate things like unexpected family emergencies or work during the holidays, as child-free or childless women are perceived as having fewer responsibilities.
It's also worth mentioning that employers may constantly size women up to see if and when they might have children, to decide how much the company should invest in them and in their career development. So I'm gonna shout out to my alma mater, George Washington: Jennifer Merluzzi, a professor at GW’s School of Business, conducted a recent study on the early career advancement of young, single childless or child-free women professionals. She and her co-author discovered that women were judged as “too analytical” and “unfit to be leaders”, because they were perceived as being too logical to manage people, or too masculine, and that this type of assertiveness worked against them when trying to get promoted. And these were women who were, again, very qualified, well-educated, and just happened to be single and childless. Compare this to wives and mothers who are evaluated as being “too soft” or “too emotional” to be leaders, because her study found they were perceived as “not being able to objectively manage people”. Her study also found that when single men have the same analytical skills as their women counterparts, they're praised for high leadership potential.
Now, the conclusions about comparing single women versus those who are wives or mothers and the different biases that they faced surprised Merluzzi and her co-author because, historically, single women haven't been the subject of this kind of research. The awareness that women who are not mothers can also face setbacks because of gendered stereotypes is just the first step towards understanding and finding a solution to the problem. Researchers have also noted that women can face compounded penalties career-wise, being discriminated against early in their careers, and then later too – if they do become mothers. So it feels like a Catch-22 – damned if you do, damned if you don't – situation.
So without addressing our gender biases that women have to be parents, both at the systemic level and for us as a society overall, our workplaces will eventually miss out on the opportunity to foster environments where professionally capable women and men can thrive and lead. Whether or not our team members – again, women or men – decide to have families should not condition our perception of their abilities. It all boils down to the ultimate goal of equity work in the first place: providing the psychological safety necessary for individuals to contribute their best ideas which, in turn, helps our teams innovate and moves our companies forward to solve challenges that we face.
So how do you go about making your work environment psychologically safe for child-free or childless women? So here's a really easy one: don't ask a woman about her marital status or parental status without her consent or invitation. Here's what I mean:
A single woman may be single by choice, in a loving relationship, but so closeted, or recently divorced.
A childless woman may be on their third round of IVF or undergoing hormonal replacement therapy.
A woman whose child-free by choice may be actively supporting their aging parent or sibling as a primary caregiver.
It's not the job of any one of those women to share why they don't have a partner or a child, because that place is a stereotyped gender assumption on them that they may not want.
Next, remember, when designing your benefits packages, gender equity programming and strategies, to be able to consider the perspective of child-free or childless women too. As Merluzzi shared with the Washington Post about her study on the biases that single women face in the workplace: “There should be greater awareness from employers that this is happening, that we’re coding people differently based on whether they’re married or not, and what they’re good at or not and how that maps onto gender expectations. And for women to know this, too, and manage these pieces of it.” And while there's absolutely no questioning that working mothers have one of the toughest jobs in the world, they're not the only audience of women professionals that will make up your current and future workforce.
Finally, as this is often a taboo topic that women may feel uncomfortable discussing in the workplace environment in the first place, it helps to bring in a qualified facilitator or speaker, or to simply provide resources in the larger thread around women's initiatives in your organization. Even the simple inclusion of a link to an online community where these conversations are happening, which show women in your organization that they too can feel supported and their choices and decisions without having to disclose them publicly.
Some examples we found include 1.5 million subscriber deep, global childfree subreddit on Reddit, where participants share unsolicited comments or microaggressions that they get from family members and strangers, such as the famous, “Oh, you'll change your mind,” or, “Don't you want a little you?” or debate wide ranging topics related to being child-free, such as expressing your desire to be a non-parent within the LGBTQ community. Another example is We Are Childfree, run by British-born Zoë Noble and her partner James Glazebrook, who are both in their early 40s, and live in Berlin. The group uses photojournalism, podcasts, and meet-ups to celebrate the different ways in which child-free people live fulfilling lives. And, as of now, it's built up 66,000 followers across social media platforms since launching during the pandemic. And, of course, there are other, countless resources you could share with women who are either child-free or childless.
And if you're a woman listening to this who has children, who may have secretly harbored resentment towards your childless co-workers thinking that they have it “easier than you”, just a friendly reminder that the road towards gender equity isn't a game of Oppression Olympics. A white woman's experience isn't a black woman's experience. A disabled person's experience isn't a trans person's experience. A mother's experience isn't a non-parent's experience. But, combined, we're all women aiming for a more equal world for ourselves and those around us. That also applies to the places that women choose to work and share their talents with others. And it's up to employers to create equitable environments to support all the strands of women's experiences, beyond just providing maternity leave.
So there you have it, why more women are choosing to go child-free by choice, and how employers can support women at work who are either childless or child-free as they step into and work their way up the ladder in our workplaces.
Now, at Inclusion in Progress, we've always recognized the need to investigate barriers to psychological safety at the Individual, Behavioral and Organizational levels, while navigating the current reality of our post-pandemic, distributed world. Because we know that identifying how to remove those barriers allows organizations to create a work culture where employees contribute their best ideas without fear of judgment or exclusion, ensuring an engaged, productive, and equitable work environment, no matter where employees choose to work from. We also know that the last three years have been challenging for every organization to navigate, and that it's important to continue providing new resources that set you up for success.
To that end, we're pleased to announce the release of our 2023 Whitepaper on the Future of Work Culture: How to Make Distributed Work Inclusive. You can download a copy on our website at inclusioninprogress.com/learn or, as always, head to the link in the show notes of this episode to grab your copy.
And if you'd like to learn how we can support you with creating inclusive distributed work strategies that support women and men in your workforce in 2023, that will help you increase psychological safety and morale for your current and future teams, email us directly at email@example.com to book a free, no-pressure consultation call with our team.
As always, thank you for listening. Thank you for sharing these episodes with others and we look forward to seeing you next time on Inclusion in Progress!