‘Child-free or not child-free, that is the question…’
Working mums have often claimed to have been discriminated against at work, and indeed frequently have been. But a current hot topic in the press is asking if women who don’t have children are selfish, yet also if they get a harder time at work that those who do? The question we as HR professionals should also be asking is if the latter is the case, what can we do about it?
As a career woman who has chosen to remain child-free, this is a topic close to my heart both personally and professionally, and I’ve been asked to comment on it in the media at both levels recently (such as in this Daily mail article, and as a guest on breakfast TV ).
The myriad of legislation in this ‘working parents’ area can make it a legal minefield, and employers are often extremely twitchy about potential claims. As a result, some bend over backwards to accommodate the needs of parents, often at the expense of those with neither kids nor the legal protection. A survey has shown that women who, whether by choice or circumstance, are not mums, often feel that they are at a detriment in the workplace compared to their child-rearing counterparts. For example, having to cover colleagues who have time off under ‘family friendly’ policies, being bottom of the list for choosing holiday dates, lack of flexible working options etc.
Working mums often claim to have, in effect, a second full-time job at home, and therefore need that work-life balance. Fair enough – I certainly wouldn’t dispute this, or the importance of those family-friendly policies to enable them to be an active part of the labour force.
However, work-life balance is important to women who don’t have kids too - we do still have a life, and may want to fill the time outside of work with stuff other than shopping and having our nails done. E.g. Social activities, travel, study, voluntary activities, hobbies and interests (and that’s just me!) Not to mention caring responsibilities for other dependents – I can just about manage to look after a cat, never mind elderly parents etc. One of the reasons I chose to become self-employed was so that I could manage my own time more effectively and fit in everything I want to do in life – not easy with a 9-5 job.
So I do fully appreciate the plight of working non-mums who aren’t entitled to the same flexibility and support of their non-working life, and who often feel they are suffering the adverse effects of someone else’s lifestyle choices. However, I also appreciate the needs of an organisation – and while too much flexibility may often be counter-productive to business efficiency, every business needs engaged employees who feel valued for their input as well as their output.
With that in mind then, how can HR help? I would make a few suggestions:
- Diversity awareness training shouldn’t just be limited to protected characteristics and those covered by relevant legislation. Make sure everyone, not just management, is aware of other lifestyle choices and needs that non-parents may have, instead of just assuming that they have nothing better to do that be at work!
- Extend flexible working policies to all staff, not just those who are legally entitled to request it.
- Ensure consistency across the organisation in how people are treated, so that you don’t end up with some managers/departments being more or less accommodating of requests by non-parents than others. Have a company stance and make sure managers all stick to it.
- If, inevitably, some parents’ requests have to take priority for legal reasons, be sure to fully explain the situation so that non-parents understand your position and don’t just feel hard done by.
- Encourage staff to negotiate between themselves for holiday dates, absence cover etc. so that if someone does have to cover a colleague with childcare issues, they feel it is appreciated and that they will have the favour returned at a later date.
It is, as they say, impossible to please all the people all of the time, and with so many conflicting needs (the business, the working parents and the child-free) striking a balance may be tricky. But a bit of consideration can go a long way towards keeping the balance right!
HR, employment law & training consultant for the Not-For-Profit sector
I am a fully qualified HR and training professional with over 18 years’ post-graduate experience. I am a Fellow Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a qualified Specialist Employment Law Paralegal , & a registered...