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We need to talk about the bias against child-free employees

Too often this conversation pits parents against nonparents, but that’s damaging to both groups—and misses the larger problem.

We need to talk about the bias against child-free employees
[Source photos: Daiga Ellaby/Unsplash; Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash; Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash; Paweł Czerwiński]

As a senior HR professional working for an exceptionally forward-thinking company, I am proud to have helped implement policies that support parents in terms of flexible schedules, childcare, and parental leave. One of Patagonia’s hallmarks is our award-winning childcare facility, located in the building next to where I usually work, and I’m a huge proponent of this and other measures to make life as a parent easier and more fulfilling. 

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We’re starting to see more of these kinds of measures being implemented to support parents across the board—especially during the pandemic. I’m all for this. But how are child-free people being included and valued in their workplace? Which policies are in place to ensure their needs are met?

A senior lawyer working in the Bay Area told me how, prior to the pandemic, the parents of small children would file out at between 5 and 5:15 p.m. each day to collect their children from childcare and head home, while child-free colleagues stayed at their desks until the work was, well, done. “I know many parents also log on later in the evening, but if they’ve missed an important call or haven’t had time to read the latest documents we’ve received, it falls to me and my child-free colleagues to pick up the slack,” they told me. “There’s a disparity in expectation as to when the working day ends and what gets done during it. I’m given the message that my nonwork life is less important—sometimes explicitly.”

If we are bringing our full selves to work, where does that leave those who don’t have children, but do have beloved pets? Or family members or friends for whose care they are responsible? Or nonwork passions? 

A friend in Salt Lake City is a former competitive skier, and the topic of being child-free came up during a recent conversation. “Honestly, I’m starting to resent the fact that my colleagues who are parents are free to take slabs of time off to look after sick kids or log off early to attend recitals. The thing is, I fully support the fact that they can—being a present parent is so important. But sometimes I wonder why I’m not allowed to take a couple of extra days each year to ski, or spend time with my 97-year-old grandfather? Whenever I suggest this to HR they literally laugh.”

A growing problem

In the US, more than 71% of adults live without children under their roof. As people are becoming parents later (or not at all), the demographic of our workplaces is shifting. And it’s time to address the disharmony created when parents and nonparents are treated differently by employers in terms of the key ways the work relationship is defined: time and money. 

The growing child-free-by-choice segment is tired of being overlooked and undervalued. And yet, little has changed at a societal or organizational level to accommodate their needs. Why is that?

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In our society, the consistent message is that if you opt not to have children, your life is less meaningful. To become a parent is the norm, and anything else is a deviation from that norm. In a study conducted by Dr. Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, participants reported significantly greater feelings of moral outrage―including anger, disgust, and disapproval―toward voluntarily child-free people. At the same time, child-free people were consistently viewed as being less personally fulfilled than those with children. According to Dr. Ashburn-Nardo, perceiving child-free people as less fulfilled acts as a way of “punishing” them for violating what’s often considered to be both a social norm and a moral imperative.

The recent New York Times article on the pushback tech companies received for granting parents extra leave during the pandemic shows that this is a subject which too easily escalates into a no-win situation. This kind of petty slinging match between parents and nonparents is not only pointless, it can be extremely damaging. It takes the focus away from where change needs to happen in order to ensure equality, fairness, and inclusivity—at a policy and culture level.

Solving the problem: 

We need to be facilitating healthy lives for all employees, allowing everyone to work effectively, efficiently, and purposefully—and then get out and spend precious time on other aspects of life.

With COVID-19, many parents have added homeschooling to their repertoire, as well as increased caregiving responsibilities, as extracurricular activities and gatherings have been abruptly halted. Families are under unprecedented stress. In response, a significant number of companies, (including Patagonia) have put in place thoughtful, often substantial support for working parents to better enable them to meet all their responsibilities.

But the assumption that only parents are struggling is false: Everyone needs support. All of us are struggling with unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, and fear and have been doing so for months now. (And let’s be honest, even pre-pandemic, life was stressful enough for everyone.)

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Recently, a friend and HR exec told me that after a recent meeting about changes to increase flexibility for working parents during the pandemic, she was emailed by a child-free colleague with a simple question: “What about me?” My friend ended up having a lengthy conversation with this colleague about the challenges she was facing during the pandemic: an elderly mom who lives on the other side of the country, a brother who’d been laid off, her boyfriend being based in Sydney, and her own loneliness. This conversation startled my friend. “Truthfully, I hadn’t even worried about her,” she told me. “I just assumed everyone without kids was fine. I was wrong.”

Awareness of the disparity between the expectations on parents and child-free employees, and the compensation (financial or otherwise) they receive, has been heightened through COVID-19. Understandably, it’s touching nerves. However, the antagonistic, “us versus them” narrative described in the New York Times article on the backlash against the provision of extra leave to parents is totally unhelpful. In her CNN opinion piece, Jill Filipovic articulately sets out how these companies are pitting parents and child-free employees against each other, rather than supporting parents and child-free employees through an incredibly difficult phase of their careers and their lives. 

We need to work much harder to ensure that these kinds of rifts and squabbles do not occur: They cause unnecessary resentment, polarized thinking, and potentially destroy harmonious working relationships. 

A path forward

Employees and leaders alike need to take active steps to make sure inclusivity is a day-to-day fact of how we lead our work lives, not a distant, hollow target. Workplaces can be a forum for learning and growth that contributes to important societal shifts. Together, we can change corporate culture so that it embraces—not undermines—our individuality.

Especially as working from home is now an indefinite reality for many, employees need to be having conversations with their leaders to get clear on the support they are looking for. Leaders need to make sure that team members are given the opportunity to be heard, and that their requests are genuinely listened to and accommodated. And companies need to ensure culture keeps pace with policy. For example, allowing unlimited vacation days without building in a framework to make vacations truly feasible misses the point entirely.

Here are some policies and changes companies can implement to ensure a more inclusive culture:

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  • Equal maternity and paternity leave, paid for up to six months (with another optional six months of unpaid leave)
  • Paid sabbatical leave for all child-free employees, structured such that it’s equal to the leave provided to parents
  • Make working hours and conditions more flexible for all employees to live balanced, fulfilling lives (71% of employees say they’d quit their job if another company offered them flexible scheduling.)
  • Ensure culture aligns with flexible, livable policies: Put an end to casual comments like “Oh, working a half day?” when someone leaves at 5 p.m., or overlooking someone for promotion simply because they’ve taken the full allowance for parental leave
  • Embody open, transparent communication: When changing policy that applies to one group, for example, don’t do it on the sly, and don’t drop it unannounced or unexplained.

Leveling the playing field—for good

2020 has been marked by uncertainty and turbulence. None of us know exactly how the future will play out. Amid the significant disruption to our ‘normal’ lives, I see a unique opportunity for honest, compassionate dialogue that helps us reassess and shift organizational policy and culture toward real inclusivity in the workplace.

Obviously, there’s more that needs to be done to create a fully inclusive workplace – and this will continue to shift as humanity and our working lives evolve. Here’s one place companies can start to make change, right now: Ensure child-free employees are respected equally alongside parents.  


Lauren Serota is the head of talent development, performance and people analytics for Patagonia.


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