Many child-free women are silently sick of picking up ‘the mum slack’ because the mothers they work with arrive late or leave early to do the school run. Is this a selfish complaint, or fair enough? In part one, Sarah Lang talks to child-free women about this and in part two, she hears from mothers at work.
At Capsule, we’ve written a lot of stories about women at work. We’ve noticed that many of these topics are very much intertwined: pushing back against hustle culture, why perpetual striving might not make us happier, working-mum guilt, letting go of perfectionism, battling burnout, juggling work with the mental load and SO many more.
Then we got to wondering about what working women really want. As in, what do we actually want – rather than what are we ‘meant’ to want. Also, are there things that we don’t yet know we want, but might realise we want if we find out more? Are there more things we could ask our employers for? And what changes might we want to see in the workplace?
Kirsty*, 38, works in a legal firm in Auckland. A colleague who does the same job gets the same pay. “But she gets to work at 9.30 and leaves at 2:30 to do the school run. She’s like ‘bye!’ and I’m like ‘oh great, I have to finish that piece of work myself’, which is particularly annoying when we have a deadline. She often disappears to take one of her kids to an appointment. I know it sounds awful but I’m sick of picking up the mum slack.”
‘My choice not to have kids shouldn’t mean I effectively pay a tax by working more hours for the same pay!’
Kirsty works at least 45 hours a week. “Yet I’m paid the same as someone who works less than 40 hours. My choice not to have kids shouldn’t mean I effectively pay a tax by working more hours for the same pay! And I have responsibilities outside work too, particularly looking after my ageing parents.”
“I don’t mean to sound selfish. Like, I get that raising children is important and all. But it’s not fair that I’m overworked and burning out because of this.”
Would Kirsty bring up her concerns with her colleague or their manager? “Shit no. I’d be sure to offend somebody and what I say might get back to other colleagues who would take offence.”
The ‘Mum Slack’
Kirsty’s not the only one using the term ‘picking up the mum slack’, or expressing similar sentiments in different words. Yes, this is a hot-potato topic, but we shouldn’t shy away from it because many women feel it affects their working lives. Part Two of this story will cover what working mothers’ opinions are. But for Part One, let’s hear from childfree women.
Many childfree women are slightly, or very, annoyed when their female colleagues get in after 9am, or leave at 2.30pm, to do the school run – and ask or expect their child-free colleagues to, for instance, finish a piece of work, or sub in for them in a meeting. They point out that they have lives and responsibilities outside work too, and don’t get rewards or concessions for their extra work. Maya* says “I didn’t resent mums but I DID resent the spoken expectation that I would work overtime for free because I had no dependents”.
Lily* has heard sentiments like this. “My friend casually said that her friend hates working with mums because they drop everything and walk out the door, leaving everyone else to pick up their slack.”
Dana*, a communications officer, is sick of her female colleague “slacking off” by getting to work around 9.30am and leaving at 2:30pm. “How is that fair?” Dana says. “Because I chose not to have kids, I should have to do extra work, with no extra compensation or recognition? Also why can’t my colleague put her kids into after-school care at least a couple of days a week?”
The childfree women I canvassed feel, without exception, that they can’t talk openly about the issue, particularly in the workplace. There’s a real fear of offending mothers and others. Jane*, a marketing executive who says she’s “picked up the mum slack” for a colleague for years without recognition or extra pay, has never mentioned her frustrations to anyone except her family. Why? “Because I could be seen as self-centred at best and a trouble-maker at worst.”
A Place For Childfree People To Speak Up
Christchurch-based content creator Danni Duncan has created an online space for childfree people, and for people contemplating that choice, on her social media. In an Instagram post, speaking to the camera, she says: “I think that parents are being prioritised over childfree people in the workplace and it needs to stop. I do not think it is just a myth when childfree people say that they are expected to pick up extra hours and extra work because parents are having time off for whatever reason.”
“I also don’t think it’s fair that they’re denied leave in favour of parents getting it because they need to be with their families. I unfortunately think this continues to be a grey area where childfree people are experiencing discrimination and it’s actually illegal. A childfree person or childless person should not be penalised because they don’t have children.”
One of her followers commented “This! I posted a meme that said ‘my next job I am going to pretend to have kids so I can leave early and come in late’ and people with kids attacked me and I lost a friend over it. All telling me it’s so hard you don’t understand. Um yes I do, which is why I chose not to have them. I’m unsure why the rest of us have to make sacrifices for decisions they made and can’t handle. This one really gets me goin!”
Do Businesses Undervalue The Time Of Single People?
Social psychologist Dr Bella DePaulo has written books about singledom including Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It (singlism being discrimination against and negative perception of single people). She’s also written the article “Single Workers Aren’t There To Pick Up The Slack For Their Married Bosses And Colleagues.”
Dr DePaulo writes that “too often, employers believe that single, childless people are emotionally untethered and financially untroubled, which means they ought to be free to stay late, travel on weekends, show up on holidays, and take whatever vacation slots married employees haven’t already claimed – all of which puts singles in a highly unfair (not to mention undesirable) position. It’s time that employers stopped taking advantage of single employees – and started recognizing the truth about their lives. Single people have important ties to friends, family, and community.”
The BBC story “How to say no at work when you don’t have kids” has the subtitle: ‘Despite a boom in flexible working, many singles say they’re still picking up the slack from colleagues with families”.
The journalist Maddy Savage writes that “During research for his book Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University, interviewed hundreds of single people in Europe and America and discovered ‘there was widespread perception that singles became the workhorses in corporate offices. I met countless workers who complained that their managers viewed them as always available for late-night and weekend assignments, because they didn’t have children or spouses’.”
Many people say that it’s more often single women, not single men, who are expected to pick up extra work, with women finding it harder to say no. And extra work at this busy time of the year can be particularly taxing.
A Possible Solution
In an article called “We need to talk about the bias against child-free employees”, senior HR professional Lauren Serota writes that “too often this conversation pits parents against nonparents, but that’s damaging to both groups – and misses the larger problem”. Indeed. So how could we address this without pitting women against each other?
While Lauren has helped implement important policies that support parents, she also asks “how are child-free people being included and valued in their workplace? Which policies are in place to ensure their needs are met?”.
Some of her suggestions include:
- Paid sabbatical leave for all child-free employees, structured such that it’s equal to the leave provided to parents
- Make working hours and conditions more flexible for all employees to live balanced, fulfilling lives
- Ensure culture aligns with flexible, liveable policies: Put an end to casual comments like “Oh, working a half day?” when someone leaves [for the day]
- Embody open, transparent communication: When changing policy that applies to one group [parents, or the childfree], for example, don’t do it on the sly, and don’t drop it unannounced or unexplained
“Here’s one place companies can start to make change, right now,” Lauren writes. “Ensure child-free employees are respected equally alongside parents.”
Part two will cover the working mother side of this topic. Want to send us your feedback? Email [email protected]