November 4th, 2007
If you’ve spent any amount of time on this blog, you know that I’m a champion of unmarried singles and couples being treated the same as their married counterparts. Sometimes I even publish some writing on the topic. That’s why I was thrilled when Bella DePaulo wrote an entire book on the subject: Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, which is essentially a myth-busting, consciousness-raising, totally unapologetic take on singlehood. In honor of the book’s recent paperback release, I asked Bella a few questions about the unbalanced treatment of single people in the workforce. Here’s what she had to say.
Q. Can you give us some stats on how single workers are treated differently by their employers and colleagues?
A. The most important differences are in salary and benefits. Single men are paid less than married men — probably about 26 percent less — even when the single and married men have done the same job at the same level of competence for the same number of years. Now consider health care plans. In many workplaces, a married worker can put a spouse on a health care plan at a discounted rate. That can amount to a very substantial financial benefit. But the single worker cannot add someone important in their life, such as a parent, sibling, or friend, and no other worker can add the single person to their plan.
Readers of Singled Out e-mail me all the time with their workplace woes. What singles complain about most often are the expectations that they should be able to cover the holidays and the travel that no one else wants and to stay late when others go home — the assumption is that since they are single, they don’t have a life, so why shouldn’t they cover for everyone else? The other part of that issue is that when single people explain why they need to take time off, their reasons are dismissed as not good enough. So, for example, a single person can get “the look” for wanting to take some time to help an ailing friend, but their married colleague gets a pass to leave early to meet their spouse for dinner.
Q. What do you think are the biggest myths about single women in the workplace, both childfree and moms?
A. I think that childfree single women are seen as having nothing important in their lives — no important people and no important pursuits. Single mothers are seen as “at risk” for leaving the workplace on short notice to tend to their child, or not showing up on days when their child is sick. In some workplaces, colleagues and bosses look askance at single mothers, and maybe even their children. Fortunately, though, not all workplaces are like that.
Q. Do you see a difference in how single men vs. single women are treated at work by management and their co-workers?
A. In terms of salary, the data show that single men have it worse — most studies show they are paid less than comparable married male colleagues. For women, there is not much consistency from study to study.
In the culture at large, single women seem to be targets of what I call “matrimania” more than men are. Matrimania is the over-the-top hype about marriage and weddings and brides that saturates our culture. You can see it coming down especially forcefully on women by the number of bridal magazines on the shelves, unmatched by an equal number of guides for grooms. You can see it on the “reality” TV shows, in which dozens of bachelorettes vie for the attention of just one bachelor far more often that a truckload of bachelors all compete for the one bachelorette.
I think some of that special pressure on single women seeps into the workplace. I have been taken, though, by the number of single men who have told me their stories of being belittled and dismissed by colleagues. Some of the teasing they describe sounds especially nasty. One man told me about his colleagues who would bring in stories about social science findings showing that married people live longer or are happier (all grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong, as I show in Singled Out), and taunt him with them.
Q. What can singles do about those “lost” workplace rights or benefits?
A. I do think that singles should do what they can to get their issues on the table. Laws and policies can be changed, and awareness can be raised about insensitive and inappropriate workplace behaviors. I have to add a warning about this, though: Colleagues and bosses often react very badly to these topics and the people who raise them. That’s true even (or maybe especially) when the single person is clearly on the side of the angels. Lots of people in today’s society like to think of themselves as open-minded, fair, and non-prejudicial. When a single colleague points out a way in which the workplace has been unfair to singles, the people perpetrating that unfairness can suddenly feel very defensive. Their first reaction can be to lash out at the single person, rather than standing back and saying, “Wow, I never thought of that. I’m sorry. I won’t do that again.”
So another way singles can get these issues addressed is by supporting relevant advocacy groups. For example, the Alternatives to Marriage Project is very good at taking on issues involving all unmarried people (coupled and single).
When singles contact me with their workplace stories of cloddish colleagues or bosses, I often offer to send those clods a copy of Singled Out from Amazon, with no note attached. I think the insensitive ones would reconsider their behavior if they would read it. But I also warn the single worker that this is risky, because if the recipient of the book suspects that the single worker was involved, it will only make the colleagues or bosses even harder to deal with.
There are some small things that should be a bit easier to do. I actually have no problem covering for a colleague, whether married or single, as long as it is reciprocal. So when someone asks you, say something like: “Sure, I’d be happy to. I know there are times when I’ll need to leave early, and I’m sure you will do the same for me.” Then ask, when that time comes.
I also think that workplace policies should be fair for all workers. So, for example, all workers should have to cover holidays an equal number of times. And when workers have a certain number of days off, they should not have to account for what they are doing with their days off, or justify the days they want to take. That doesn’t mean that company needs are unimportant — of course they’re important — but the personal lives of single workers are also just as important as the personal lives of married workers and should be subject to no greater scrutiny.
Q. Do you see the rift of understanding about lifestyle choices and workplace inequities between singles and marrieds becoming greater or closing up the more these issues get discussed in the media and public eye?
A. I think that at first, the issue will be very hot. People on both sides will feel offended and misunderstood. It is funny that you raise this question, because just recently, I got a fascinating e-mail from a reader of Singled Out. He told me that he put together a carefully prepared audiovisual presentation on the ways in which family-friendly workplaces can be unfair to single people. One of the people in the audience stormed up to the podium, unplugged the equipment, grabbed his papers and threw them up in the air, then marched out of the room! So I think there is going to be some of that sort of thing happening, though perhaps not always so dramatically. Eventually, though, as the topic gets discussed more often online and in the mainstream media, we’ll probably be able to have more thoughtful and calmer discussions. The thing is, I’ve never heard single people say that they want more than what married colleagues get; they just want to be treated fairly. If other people can stop and hear that message, it should be hard to object to. In theory.
Q. In addition to your book, are there are organizations working for policy/workplace change and other resources you recommend singles check out?
A. My current favorite is the Alternatives to Marriage Project. There’s another group that works under the title, Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision For All Our Families and Relationships. Their point is that even if same-sex marriage were made legal everywhere, there would still be many uncoupled people shut out of the 1,138 federal benefits and protections given to people who are legally married. As the subtitle indicates, this is a group that believes in the significance of all of our close relationships, not just our conjugal ones.