A few years ago, one of my colleagues complained that she would never get to take maternity leave.
It's not that she had an interest in having children. But perhaps seeing yet another one of her colleagues get a goodbye cake before embarking on parental leave left her feeling frustrated that she would never redeem this perk. While I told her that caring for a new baby is no holiday, I understood that employees who take parental leave the team with an additional workload – a lose-lose proposition for this particular employee.
The exchange led me to examine my own prejudices against the child-free, as many people without children prefer to be called. As a parent, perhaps I felt more sympathetic to an employee struggling with a sick child at home. Then again, I'm also a dog lover and a request to take Fido to the vet would likely not generate the same response.
Workplaces increasingly tout their family-friendly approaches but does this place too much of a burden on those without children, who are expected to pick up the slack? Bolstering that premise, a recent survey by Red Magazine in the United Kingdom found that a whopping 40 per cent of non-parents feel they work harder than their colleagues with children.
While surveys like this risk provoking an us-versus-them mentality, it's important to examine the expectations our business culture places on the growing number of women and men who decide to take a pass on parenting. As of 2010, one in five American women ended her childbearing years without having a child, compared with one in 10 in the 1970s, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank. Childlessness remains most common among the highly educated.
Coming from a career in human resources, Aimee Fahey, now a recruiting consultant and career coach based in Portland, Ore., said she has seen preferential treatment offered to parents in a variety of industries, cities and company sizes.
"Employees with kids often get preference when it comes to flexible schedules, greater understanding when it comes to having to leave early and come in late, and the unspoken acceptance of kid-related events being more important than anything that non-parents are doing," said Ms. Fahey, who does not have children.
Ms. Fahey also noted certain expectations – that everyone contribute to baby shower gifts, that company picnics be family-oriented, and that companies market themselves as having 'family-friendly' policies rather than 'employee-friendly' policies.
Ms. Fahey recalls being offered a position in a small office where her primary colleague was allowed to work from home half the time to accommodate her kids' school schedules, yet she was told that she would have to work exclusively from the office.
"It was blatant discrimination against me and I rejected the job offer," she said. "They didn't bat an eyelash and I remember them bragging in the interview process about being female-owned. Funny, I guess they were only female friendly if you were called 'mom' by someone," she quipped.
"The bottom line is, parental status should not be allowed to dictate how you're treated in the workplace, the expectations for work output, or the amount of flexibility allowed to do one's job," Ms. Fahey said.
Piper Hoffman, a New York-based writer and attorney who deals with employment policies, agrees that non-parents receive less flexibility than parents in many workplaces. Ms. Hoffman, who does not have children, said that some employers are less willing to allow non-parents to work from home or adopt a flex-time schedule, and they also show a lower tolerance for unannounced absences – even in cases of emergency.
However, many workplaces simply don't offer enough flexibility to their employees over all, and that does hurt many parents who work outside the home, Ms. Hoffman notes.
"Employers structure workplaces around assumptions that employees are married and have spouses who are always home. It is hardly news that this is not how families work," said Ms. Hoffman, who added that this perception unnecessarily burdens people who do not have someone staying home full-time.
The ideal solution to level the playing field would be to reconsider the amount of face time required by a company – regardless of whether you are a parent, Ms. Hoffman said.
Leigh Naturkach, a manager of violence-prevention programs at Canadian Women's Foundation in Toronto, counts herself lucky that her workplace respects her child-free status and offers lots of flexibility so its employees can manage their personal issues – whether they are parents or not.
But she does worry that the topic can be polarizing, and would prefer to frame the discussion differently. Instead of asking "who has it harder?" workplaces need to examine the unique challenges that face both parents and those without kids.
"They [parents and non-parents] both face unique challenges and by not pitting one against the other, it could help to create more understanding and respect from all perspectives."
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org