Childlessness – the unspoken workplace inclusion issue

Childless Not By Choice (CNBC)

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