Unconscious Bias against Single People in the Workplace: Are You Guilty?
Are single people treated as second-class citizens in the workplace? What about singles being paid less, or having to pick up the slack for their married colleagues? Osato Evbuomwan weighs in on this thorny issue.
I read my annual compensation statement line by line, and stopped where it said ‘Family Size: 1’. I was going on an international assignment for two years to a foreign country where I had no friends or family. And while I was looking forward to the experience, I was also afraid because I was going to be alone, without my family — the family that my compensation statement had so conveniently reduced to a size of 1, simply because I was not married.
There are many ways that single employees in the workplace experience bias. Much of this is unseen, and for the most part, unconscious.
Apparently, the international assignment policy only recognised legal partners and children as family. So as an unmarried, childless employee, I automatically had no family, and this was the basis for some of the benefits that came with the role — it determined the size of the apartment I was entitled to, the size of the rental car I could get, whether or not I could have my family relocate with me (which I could not, because technically, I did not have one) and a few other things. It did not take into account that I had aging parents for whom I was almost solely responsible, a long-term partner who, though not legally a spouse, certainly felt like one, and a sibling with whom I had lived for over a decade. This was my family. These were the people who cared about me, who were closest to me, who were my support system and who depended on me in a lot of ways. But the policy did not account for them.
Apart from organisational policies, there are many other ways that single employees in the workplace experience bias. Much of this is unseen, and for the most part, unconscious. For example, I was once asked by a male colleague why I should get a raise, because as far as he was concerned, I had no need for the extra money as a single woman. It made me wonder if those who had control over what I got paid had the same views, and whether salary decisions were subconsciously made through that filter.
On other occasions, I have had extra work thrown my way because it was assumed that I could work longer and later hours. Even more disturbing is the fact that single employees often have to pick up the slack for their married colleagues, because there is an erroneous belief that they have more time on their hands or that the relationships and attachments that they have are less important than those of their married colleagues.
It is also easier for a married person to take time off to care for a sick spouse or child than for a single person to take time off to care for a sick partner or sibling. The latter is more likely to be questioned and to receive less sympathy from colleagues and employers alike. Moreover, a single person will be expected to travel for work at the drop of a hat, notwithstanding any family responsibilities they may have or whether they are able to make adequate arrangements to cover for the time that they are gone.
Similarly, vacation time for married coworkers tends to be prioritised over that of single employees. I remember applying for 4 weeks of leave once because I was burnt out, had not taken any extended time off all year, and had accumulated leave days. My line manager only approved 2 weeks and suggested that I take Fridays off for the following 3 months because she could not afford for me to be gone that long. And yet, when my married colleague applied for the same amount of time, her request was approved because she had young children to care for, school was on holiday, and of course, I would be there to cover for her.
It is important to acknowledge that single employees also have a life outside of work, with responsibilities and similar emotional, psychological and financial needs.
As a single woman in the workplace, especially within a society that respects and values marriage, I am also unconsciously, and maybe even unintentionally, treated with a little less respect. But there are times when I am overtly subjected to bias. For instance, the men at work speak differently to married women — with more deference, and more respect for their boundaries. I, on the other hand, have to fend off unwanted expectations of laxity in my own personal boundaries, sometimes ending up at the receiving end of unnecessary ridicule because I choose to assert myself and insist on the same level of respect.
When it comes to assessing the quality of work, a single woman who is underperforming is more likely to be perceived as being unreliable, while underperformance in her married counterpart may be excused due to child care responsibilities. The fact that single women are often relied on the most to take care of aging parents and others who need help seems to be lost on many people.
Organisations have gone to great lengths to make the workplace more conducive and enabling for working mums, married women and expectant mums alike, and while this is laudable, it is important to acknowledge that single employees also have a life outside of work, with responsibilities and similar emotional, psychological and financial needs. Like every other person, they need time off work and space to connect with the important people in their lives; they should not have to always work longer hours, and they deserve to have the option of access to their family if they have to relocate for work.
In my case, I had to negotiate quarterly trips home so that I could check on my parents and spend some quality time with my partner. Alas, the move took its toll on the relationship and I eventually lost a key part of my support system, which in turn affected my mental health, which then began to affect my productivity at work. So even though I was not married, I still experienced the same challenges that a married person would have if they had to be away from their family. Being single and without any financial support from a significant other, I did not have the courage to request extended time off to go and ‘recover’ because I could not risk losing my job.
We have to recognise that in many ways, single people are more vulnerable. They do not have the luxury of sharing household expenses if they live alone. They cannot choose not to work because they do not have a working spouse to depend on. When workplace rewards are tied to being married or having children — for example, tuition for kids or couples-based healthcare benefits — they miss out on this. This may create feelings of dissatisfaction and a sense of unfairness because there aren’t a lot of workplace rewards for singletons. I’m a woman, and it’s bad enough that I have to be subjected to unconscious bias related to gender, race and ethnicity. I shouldn’t also have to deal with unfair treatment just because I am single.
The Flip Side: The ‘singles bias’ in the workplace applies to both men and women. However, does it manifest in the same way for each gender? Is being single more beneficial in the workplace for men than it is for women? Or vice versa? We should tune in more closely to our workplaces, and ensure that we are making them equally welcoming and fair for everyone, regardless of their marital or family status.
Osato Evbuomwan is a member of The Room and a Senior Marketing Manager at Unilever who is passionate about serving the African consumer. Creator of “The Talking Circle”, she is on a quest to cultivate a brave and safe space for conversations that challenge taboos and change mindsets.