Single Women and the 'Inadvertent Second Shift'


Juggling a career and raising children is, without a doubt, a truly impressive feat. However, as Ayana Byrd argues in Marie Claire, juggling a career and being childless comes with challenges of its own — namely, that employers assume that you don’t really have any valid external demands on your time. This, Byrd claims, puts an “undue burden” on single women, who are expected to “bat cleanup for their married-with-kids coworkers.”

It’s a compelling point: our culture does extend myriad benefits extended to married couples. When our culture looks at single people, on the other hand, it kind of shrugs and goes “meh, sorry not sorry.” Social scientist Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., has coined a term for it: “singlism.” Under singlism, married couples get “discounts on car insurance [and] preferential treatment in the housing market,” whereas singles are treated “as second-class citizens.” But does this extend to the office?

According to multiple single women, it does. In the words of corporate lawyer Mary Mathis, “No one has ever directly said this to me, but when late nights or extra projects come up, it’s clear the thinking is, She’s single, she has time to do this.” Another single career woman, Tanya Kelly, says that she’s denied vacation the week after Christmas every year because some other employee needs to be home with her children that week. “After giving 110 percent all year, why can’t I spend time with my family?” she asks. As DePaulo puts it:

[Employers tend to assume that] single people don’t have lives. No life means no need for balance — when, of course, everyone has important obligations, whether it’s a class, exercise, caring for an elderly family member, or taking a vacation.

This is not to say that it’s intrinsically unfair that mothers are granted more lenience when it comes to getting holidays off, not being expected to put in huge amounts of overtime, being permitted to leave early when the need arises, etc. Caring for children really is a “second shift” — being in charge of the life of a small human being is a vast responsibility, and it can be hugely difficult to manage. It’s beyond important that employers be sensitive to this. However, women without children shouldn’t be expected to put their personal lives on hold whenever something work-related comes up.

The point is that it can be more difficult for single women to find a healthy career-life balance. Since employers are more sympathetic to the time needs of working mothers, single women aren’t as adept at advocating for their need to maintain boundaries around their “inadvertent second shift,” as Byrd terms it. They need to learn, though, because everyone deserves an enriching life outside of work — even if they aren’t raising a family.

According to career consultant Liz Ryan, the best way to cultivate a fulfilling personal life is to “build the muscle to say no” at the office. Her advice? “If your coworkers are leaving early because of their kids’ soccer games, get your own ‘soccer game’ — like a class that requires you to leave at a certain time every week.” And don’t blow it off every week because your boss wants you to put in extra hours. There’s no shame in turning down extra work obligations in order to do you.

“The Single Girl’s Second Shift” [Marie Claire]

Image via JoeBakal/Shutterstock.

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