While a lot has been written about the significant motherhood bias women face in the workplace, little has been discussed about the challenges faced by childfree women. By the time I was in college, I knew that having children would not be my path; it wasn’t something I wanted to do 1000% with my heart and soul, and I felt that’s what it would take for me to be a good parent. When I began working, I thought being childfree would benefit my career, as I could focus my energy on my work, but soon discovered, it was more complicated.
Childfree Life: By Chance or By Choice
Historically, a woman's reason for being childfree has invited different kinds of stigma writes Anne Lora Scagliusi in Vanity Fair. The childless, who are unable to have children, but want them, tend to be met with pity — and sometimes, shamefully, a sense that they are somehow “less than.” Those who choose to remain child-free invite an even less sympathetic response, and are often characterized as self-centered and individualistic.
But how does being childfree play out in the office? Turns out there is research to back up what I was feeling at work all those years ago and how I was being viewed as a leader while moving up the ladder. In Stephanie McCluskey’s 2018 thesis, Childfree Women: Navigating Perceptions and Developing a Leadership Identity, she explains: “childfree women seeking acceptance and credibility as leaders are challenged by societal perceptions for three reasons:
Stereotypical views exist of women as mothers and nurturers, which are not the traditional male-oriented leadership traits.
When women do display traditional leadership traits, they experience backlash for not prescribing to the female gender role.
Because childfree women reject the role of motherhood, they are not seen as possessing the communal characteristics (i.e. loving, sensitive, and warm) that may make them more likable as leaders."
What is most pervasive and consistent . . . is a general negativity assigned to the childfree status - more selfish and immature –– when compared to involuntarily childless women and mothers.”
Intrigued by this information, I decided to survey childfree women in the hospitality industry to understand their experiences, and received over 20 anonymous responses. What I learned from these women was: there are a variety of ways women arrive at the decision to be childfree as well as how being childfree impacts these women’s careers, the workload they face, and their relationships with work colleagues.
There are a variety of ways women arrive at the decision to be childfree as well as how being childfree impacts these women’s careers, the workload they face, and their relationships with work colleagues.
Deciding to be Childfree: a Growing Trend
In recent years, there has been a notable surge in adults, especially women, choosing not to have children. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center Survey, this trend is on the rise, with many citing personal preference over medical reasons. Take a look on TikTok to see how the #DINKS (Double Income, No Kids) lifestyle is trending, and in our survey, 38% of the women indicated they always knew they didn’t want to have children. I recently saw this quote in the novel Daisy Jones & The Six, which nails it:
I always knew kids weren’t in the cards for me. I think it’s a feeling you get. I think you have it in your heart or you don’t. And you can’t put it in your heart if it’s not there. And you can’t pull it out of your heart if it is. –– Daisy Jones and the Six
Interestingly, 33% decided over time not to become parents, and 29% embraced a childfree life for various other reasons, including career focus, alternative life directions, and finding fulfillment in non-traditional ways.
Career Impact: Good and Bad
The good news: over 65% of surveyed childfree women believed that their choice positively impacted their careers. They cited advantages like heightened work focus, unmatched flexibility, the ability to relocate and the freedom to explore roles that they might not have considered otherwise. As one woman shared, it allowed her “time to focus on work, travel a lot and advance my career. I could work late nights and travel at a moment’s notice.” One woman said being childfree allowed her to “stay out late for after-work get-togethers,” and “attend more work trips and conferences, thus allowing me to meet more people in my industry which has led to new opportunities.”
One woman was told she didn’t need to make as much money as the male colleagues who reported to her “because I didn’t have a family to support.”
Approximately 6% of respondents reported that their decision negatively impacted their careers, with one woman even receiving unequal pay due to her childfree status.
Impact on Workload: Project Overload
One particularly harsh downside to being childfree is the assumption that these women are perpetually available for additional work. In fact, nearly 47% of respondents felt they were unfairly burdened with extra projects because they lacked family commitments.
Several respondents felt working parents have a “get out of jail free” card when it comes to their extra commitments.
Several respondents felt working parents have a “get out of jail free” card when it comes to their extra commitments. One person observed there is a different perspective on working parents’ work/life balance, with parents receiving support in a way that’s different from other employees, particularly when it came to “advice on balancing time.” This person said she was often “kept behind in the office and even on remote calls much later than colleagues with children, and there was always an underlying suggestion it was because I didn’t have to pick up kids or feed them.” In the words of one woman, “As if not having children somehow made me a workhorse with no life of my own.” Another woman shared being sent to “Shanghai for five weeks because I was single with no children, and nobody else was considered to go.” I sure hope it ended being a great adventure that furthered her career!
A respondent compared two different experiences: “the perception is my job should be my primary focus, and I should be available 24/7. But I’ve worked in other environments where I was respected by all, but that had to do with the company culture.” Company culture came up frequently when childfree women cited positive support for their other interests, including attending classes, volunteering, and taking care of sick pets.
“As if not having children somehow made me a workhorse with no life of my own.”
Working Relationships: Judgments and Misconceptions
The most significant number of comments in our survey revolved around the impact of being childfree on working relationships. While most respondents didn't feel their colleagues treated them either negatively or positively due to their childfree status, many experienced judgment, unsolicited advice, and feelings of exclusion from conversations about colleagues' children.
Women brought up judgment several times – from parents, who pitied them because in “their minds, I don’t know what I’m missing” or that “they think I’m cold.” One woman will never forget a male colleague stating “taking care of your children is the most important job . . . placing a higher value on women with children, and those of us without children were less.” Another experienced a similar sentiment and “used a few choice words and notes that my time was just as valuable regardless of what I chose to do with it.”
It's a phase, you'll change your mind.
Others experienced being told “it’s a phase, you’ll change your mind.” One person shared the following experience: “I once had a male coworker (a couple years younger than me) tell me that I'd change my mind, which was infuriating! It made me wonder if all my male colleagues were waiting for me to have a baby and leave. No one ever called me selfish to my face, but I've often wondered if they think that about me.”
Bridging the Chasm Between Those With Children and Without
A number of respondents found it more challenging to relate and bond with others who had children. One woman shared her colleagues “seemed to think it was weird that I didn’t want children . . . I did feel very left out of conversations with colleagues (those interim things that happen before/after meetings officially start). I felt like people saw me as ‘cold’ because I didn’t want to raise little humans.”
Perhaps to counteract this potential reaction, a few women from the survey shared they lean more into their empathy, express compassion for parents, and mentor and coach others. Another woman’s strategy is to “casually talk about [her] relationships . . . so people understand you are empathetic and not just a cold-hearted bitch.”
Being More Private
Another woman indicated that while being childfree didn’t hinder her progress, it made her less willing to share her personal life as much with colleagues. The reactions she received were “curiosity mainly - you could tell people want to know why - but it’s none of their business, and quite frankly irrelevant in a work discussion. It made me shut down any personal conversations, so I was seen as keeping personal things close to the [vest] – ‘You’re a very private person’ is something I heard a lot!”
Tiring of False Assumptions + Finding Childfree Community
Another common experience was hearing tired parents assuming “it must be nice not to have to go home and take care of the kids,” to others saying the childfree women “didn’t understand the challenges people with children [face] while trying to balance their workplace responsibilities.” To balance these issues, some women cited relationships with other childfree women as a source of positive support.
Despite well-documented motherhood bias in the workplace, when it comes to how being childfree affects women at work, unfortunately it seems women get judged either way. Sexism is still ingrained.
After reading about other women’s childfree experiences and reflecting on mine, I came up with a few key takeaways:
If you decide not to have children, find your community: there are other women who have decided to be childfree, who can offer support and camaraderie.
When talking with a woman who does not have children, whether by chance or by choice, bear in mind this sensitive issue is deeply personal, and her decision has likely been thoughtfully vetted. Ensure your reaction doesn’t convey judgment or impose your own values or priorities on her choices.
For further reading and watching on the topic:
Lan Elliott has been in the hospitality industry for 25+ years as a hotel real estate & transactions executive, including roles at Host Hotels & Resorts, W Hotels, and IHG. Her volunteer work currently includes Co-Chair of Castell@College, an AHLA Foundation Project; Board Member, Principal, and Interview Host for DEI Advisors; and member of the Executive Advisory Board at University of Denver’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management.