Childlessness – the unspoken workplace inclusion issue

Michael Hughes, National Structural Auditor at Boral
Empty photo frame. Photo/Unsplash

As our workplaces become more inclusive, there is still a very large group of people who are finding it hard to put their hand up and say something very difficult.  Hopefully, once you have finished reading this blog you will know what that something is - and who those people are.

Let’s start by reflecting: have you ever noticed that one person who silently excuses themselves when the office personnel are fussing around a newly announced mum-to-be?  Chances are, that person is also the same one that works at Christmas when everyone is enjoying ‘family time’.  They will most likely be the person who tries their utmost to avoid the family photo wall as they start their day.  They could even be that ‘weird woman’ who sits by herself, limiting her interactions to the point of being a hermit in her own workplace. 

But there is a very high possibility that this woman, these people, are childless - and not by choice (CNBC).

This is not limited to just those who wanted to be mothers, but those, like me, who wanted to be fathers as well. Men, in fact, hide CNBC much deeper, and if you’re not tuned in to the issue then you won’t see the signs when you roll out gender equality initiatives, such as parental leave policies and flexible work.

I know because of past experience; my wife worked for a large and well-known department store, and they knew only too well our struggles with trying to become parents. Whilst all the employees who were parents were able to have flexibility in their roster, my wife ended up with all the undesirable shifts and weekend work. My wife told me: “I didn’t get flexibility and felt coerced into accepting the worse shifts. I felt like I wasn’t important.  Not only did I need to manage the grief of childlessness, but it also felt like it was being used against me.”

As the workplace evolves around the Covid-19 Pandemic, working from home and online meetings are becoming another source of exclusion for CNBC personnel.  The CNBC person will often look to work as a way of contributing, of building their self-worth and as a distraction from their grief. Online meetings can reinforce exclusion when the talk turns to children and when, post-pandemic, children are brought to meetings.

In this case I, not my wife, had the bad experience; not only did I feel excluded from the conversation, but I felt ‘less real’ because I didn’t have a child to bring along to the meeting. I felt my self-worth plummet.

Beyond this personal experience, research is also showing that the childless will be the ones that will have greater caring responsibilities long-term, as it will be assumed they will have more time, and so can be the primary care giver when their own parents need support in their old age. 

Currently, whilst there are many mechanisms in the workplace for those expanding their families, there are fewer mechanisms for those trying to maintain their families of origin. That added but unrecognised burden can have a devastating effect on an employee’s mental health.

Ultimately, the conundrum for the CNBC employee is: how do I get support at work, when all the issues I struggle with are points for celebration for everyone else, and raising them may put me at risk of being perceived as bitter?

Here are a few suggestions for employers that I have gathered from my experience and my network of colleagues from around the globe.

  • Organisations need to recognise childlessness as a workplace inclusion issue and the inequalities that exist. This involves recognising the privilege of those with children and rebalancing this privilege.  Include a childless representative in Diversity/inclusion committees who can influence needs in the workplace.
  • Education is key, so educate the various levels of the organisation to understand the key issues. This is especially important for supervisors and management, who must enhance their leadership skills and become better able to react to non-inclusive behaviour around CNBC employees.
  • Allow for family and child-related celebrations to be had away from the open-plan work environment, at a specific time in the lunch room or a spare meeting room. This gives those who find it hard to attend an ‘easier’ way out.
  • Create equality in rostering and workload that does not favour those with children over the childless.
  • Announce in advance online meetings that may have children present, giving choice to attend the meeting or not without penalty.
  • Move those family photo walls to a more discreet place.
  • Finally, develop more equal extended leave and caring policies, not only for those expanding their new family, but for those who are maintaining their family of origin, or dealing with family that may be at the end of life.

More resources:

Future Flex

Engaging Men


At last - squaring up to an important and emotive inclusion and diversity issue that remains unaddressed. My memories remain of painting on a smile as I had to breathe deep and make the speeches wishing colleagues well on their maternity leave; of finding an excuse to leave the room when they popped in to work to show off their babies. I can’t tell you the last time my husband didn’t cover Christmas on-call. Then there’s the kids on Zoom calls, the family fun days, the designated company role models who are congratulated for having a career and children…… And silently, secretly, the mums and dads in waiting who are just hoping beyond hope, or who have suffered another loss, or who know it can never be just have to swallow this stuff over and over and over again.
Posted by: Vicky H on
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to begin the conversation for the childless in the workplace.
Posted by: Michael Hughes on
I have been a midwife for well over 20 years now. Having children wasn't really something I had considered until I met my husband. But once we decided we would start a family the thought around experiencing for myself what it was like wouldn't turn off anymore. We tried for several years until we started IVF and I had never made a secret out of trying at my workplace. Midwives talk about this stuff all day long after all. But the jokes and well-meaning advice became harder and harder to cope with while watching colleagues give birth to their much wanted babies. Baby showers, first birthdays, babies at work Christmas parties - it became too much to cope with. Lunch at work is something I think twice about nowadays and the feeling of exclusion is acute when everyone present talks about their children during lunch. I often quickly eat and leave as I have nothing to contribute and the feelings of loss and sadness creep up. Add to that helping women breastfeed, change nappies, bath and settle their babies and being called in when baby is finally asleep and looking particularly sweet in their bassinet - the amount of times I have had to politely excuse myself from a room to run into the toilet crying, sobbing, I can't even count anymore. During the worst times of trying and several years following unsuccessful IVF cycles being asked "How many children do you have?" became a punch in the gut that would take my breath away and bring me close to losing it at work so many times. I still consider my answer nowadays but the grief doesn't catch me anymore as much as it used to. I have been judged for not having children "How can you be a good midwife when you haven't done it for yourself!" was one of the statements I have had to deal with. Another one was "Good choice, it's really gross feeling the baby move inside.." (that was after another traumatic and unsuccessful round of IVF when I would have done everything to feel a baby move inside me). CNBC is incredibly hard in a world that places so much value in family and raising children, but in a profession that is dedicated to reproductive health, pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period it is truly extraordinarily difficult and deserves more recognition.
Posted by: Susanne on
Thank you Michael Hughes for this beautiful piece and the Diversity Council Australia for raising this significant inclusion issue. It articulates what so many of us experience and the way we are silenced, consistently excluded and triggered as workplace cultures are often emotionally unsafe for us. For so many during lockdowns, the zoom work meetings have found us in the domestic spaces of families as conversations are dominated by parenting, children come into the screen, backgrounds filled by toys and domestic family life etc, whilst so many of us silently struggled with childlessness grief and isolation. Consider this. A parent has had broken sleep due to children waking in the night. A childless person has broken sleep due to processing childlessness grief as they transition to permanent involuntary childlessness. Who has the emotional safety to mention this to their supervisor or at the lunch table? Who has their support needs accommodated, and who is excluded, silenced, shamed, alone? How does it feel for that person when they are casually asked if they have kids, why not, have they thought of adoption, aren't they lucky, being a parent isn't all it's cracked up to be, they will never know love or statements starting with "as a parent...". Not to mention the workplaces where our professional skills are evaluated in the light of our parenting status. In workplaces, when I was asked if i had kids, i would answer no, or sometimes sadly no. The true answer was that i wanted to be a mother my whole life and always assumed it would happen. After 10 years of fertility treatment, 12 children conceived and lost, the long term stress and grief led to stress leave and then leaving full time employment. Psychologists who i sought for help told me how lucky i was not to be a mum as i'd dodged a bullet. I'm now self employed as a counsellor supporting involuntary childless women, as workplace cultures were too emotionally unsafe. I remember standing in the hallway between classes, receiving the news of my latest failed IVF as a celebration of the arrival of a staff members new baby was happening inside. There was no one who felt emotionally safe to confide in, so i dealt with it silently, alone. Australia has quite pronatalist workplace cultures where it is assumed that everyone is a parent and if they're not, it's by choice. The involuntary childless are expected to suck it up and not make everyone else feel uncomfortable. But there can be bias in decision making, rostering, allocation of resources, and in the other ways. Assumptions can be made about us, that we're not fully realised adults because we don't have kids or not invited to social events because we don't have kids. The social and meeting spaces can be emotionally unsafe. There are so many stories of exclusion and the unintentional triggers for grief and trauma. How can we raise awareness of our experiences and make workplaces more inclusive? Watch this space, as this is a workplace diversity issue that we are going to hear a lot more about. Well done Michael and Diversity Council of Australia for raising this significant issue. Kind regards Sarah The Empty Cradle
Move the family photo walls to a more 'discrete' place - but where? Why should people hide their joy? Every single person has some sort of tragedy or trauma in their lives. We cannot keep putting cotton wool around ourselves for fear of offending or upsetting anyone. Be sensitive and compassionate, yes. But censoring, no. I am CNBC, and yes, it's painful. But I would never want any colleague to feel they were upsetting / offending me for expressing their joy. Because I want to share it, even if it hurts.
Posted by: Vanya on
Thank you for writing this blog about organisations recognising what it means to be inclusive with regards CNBC. I also would like to highlight that people who don’t have children by choice experience issues with inclusiveness in the workplace too and recognising all reasons a person does not have kids is a more genuine inclusive approach. It’s a misconception that people without kids by their own choice don’t experience exclusion, unpleasant feelings, unwanted awkward experiences and unwelcome judgement by others at the workplace. I agree with organisations considering how to be inclusive of workers that are CNBC and agree more can be done to support people in this situation - it’s beyond tough and emotional for Men, women, and non gender labeled people alike. By excluding other types of non-parenting employee needs/considerations this could be seen/felt as exclusion as well. This article is a great catalyst for discussion on this topic. In a WIL symposium I attended this year, one of the key take aways was celebrating/acknowledging otherness, and this is an opportunity apply this takeaway and look broader at how organisations approach the work environment considering all non-parenting employees. Let’s keep talking about this, and keep highlighting the issues that many might be worried to speak up about. Thanks for offering a platform to discuss this.
Posted by: Jay Jay on
Such an important article on an issue I have never seen acknowledged before. Thankyou.
Posted by: Kylie S on
Thank you Michael & Vickie for sharing your experiences and opening up the conversation for workplaces to genuinely consider changing the narrative of pronatalism and ensure inclusion of employees who don't have children. I look forward to talking about this in my workplace with the D&I team.
Thank you so much for this article. I have struggled so much in the work place. The parents can leave at 4pm and those without children have to stay as if we all left at 4pm in the NHS it would fold. The WhatsApp posts on the work group of fun family tea time activities while I am still at work are hard to see. It’s never acknowledged how those CNBC cover the maternity leaves when no extra staff are provided as back fill and how this adds to work stress but it’s never our turn to have maternity or paternity leave. I too recognise the comments posted above about hiding how I feel at work and the added stress that brings. Sharing these experiences here is so helpful and knowing we are a sizeable but usually silent group in solidarity with each other
Posted by: Annie H on
Great thought provoking article and well worthy of conversation. So frequently those who have children are allowed the choice of hours, they benefit from a variety of workplace benefits (some of those monetary bonuses) and are included in the majority, leaving the CNBC and also CBC excluded.
Posted by: Claire on
Thankyou for this insightful article which gives me a way to articulate things. As someone who has just sat through a day of 'gender equity workplace international womens day', where gender bias was solely discussed in terms of 'motherhood bias' - raising children and having a career, celebrating women was only done in terms of motherhood. I've never felt more excluded, alone and unworthy. I concur with the attitude CNBC receive in terms of leave requests, rostering, social activites and water cooler chats. i've become more and more isolated from my colleagues as it seems the sole lens by which social conversations are had in my workplace.
Posted by: Rebekah on

Join the conversation

* Required information