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These single women say they face a workplace penalty, too

While the ‘motherhood penalty’ is well-documented, single, childless women can face unique barriers, researchers say

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post)
8 min

While it’s well-documented that women with children face a “motherhood penalty” in their careers, researchers are now beginning to study the obstacles facing another group: women who are single and don’t have children.

The pandemic underscored the career challenges of working moms: Millions dropped out of the workforce, and many felt burned out or stalled in their careers while struggling to manage housework, home schooling and child care.

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But sociologists recently found that even early in their careers, well-educated women without families are also disadvantaged because they are more often stereotyped as lacking leadership abilities. These women were often seen as too “masculine” for leadership when the same traits benefited single men. They also lacked the “communal, relational” leadership traits expected of women who were coupled and raising children.

“There’s this very strong narrative that all of gender inequality is based on motherhood, and that is happening and [that] is real, but there’s this other thing that’s happening with gender expectations, regardless of whether you choose to get married or not, and have kids or not,” said Jennifer Merluzzi, a professor at George Washington University’s School of Business and one of the authors of a recent study on the early career advancement of young, single women professionals.

Merluzzi and her co-author, Damon J. Phillips, noted these findings while conducting research following two cohorts of hundreds of MBA students at a top five business school who graduated in 2008 and 2009.

“We stumbled upon this piece that single women who were very good with high analytical skills who could be future CEOs and leaders of companies — [were] seeing this kind of strange penalty,” Merluzzi said.

In general, the various barriers women face in the workplace are well-documented. Studies have found that women in male-dominated workplaces report higher rates of discrimination; that men believe men are better leaders than women; and that women of color in particular face a wider range of microaggressions.

But so far, researchers say, there has been very little research focused exclusively on single women in the workplace and only in the past decade or so. In 2017, researchers found that single female MBA students downplayed their ambition and career goals in front of their classmates, presumably to appear as more palatable spouses. Another 2018 study found that single employees without children might be the least absorbed by work compared with those who had families.

Anecdotally, many women say they can relate to a sense of being penalized for their gender and marital status.

Bobbi Thomason, who teaches applied behavioral science at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School, said that as society is changing and as more women continue to become highly educated and enter the workforce, research should catch up.

“Increasingly, as women are educated and performing in the workforce, we’re seeing more women have kids either by choice on their own or women getting divorced,” Thomason said. “The literature is starting to catch up to the fact that there are more family structures, and the dynamics of those opportunities and restraints need to be better understood.”

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Renee Cohen, who lives in Los Angeles, said she has run into biases against single women throughout her career, first in sports media and then as a financial planner. She said she had an “aha!” moment at 30 after realizing she was in a relationship with a man she did not want to marry and start a family with, even if it meant she’d be better off financially.

“You’re supposed to go to school, you find your husband, you get married, you have kids. That’s what the linear path is,” said Cohen, who is now 43. “Then you get into the corporate setting — there’s all these biases if you have some ambition. It is just so hard for women to advance.”

Cohen also felt that there is more pressure on single women to stay later at work or take on more responsibility, she said: “I’m not going to do more work just because you think that I should just stay in the office until 9 o’clock at night. It doesn’t work.”

Part of the reason she switched to financial planning was to help other women be more empowered when it comes to money. When a colleague asked what kind of clients she wanted, she responded that she wanted to work with people like her — in their 30s and having to manage their own finances.

She remembers him responding: “Why would you want to help single women plan? What needs do they have with money?”

Those types of stereotypes hurt career advancement, according to Merluzzi and Phillips’s research.

In the first of two studies, they created an experiment surveying hundreds of students at one university. The survey asked about two different candidates at an investment bank with the same resume. But one was named Anne and the other was named Tim.

When the two candidates were single, the survey respondents considered Anne to be “too analytical, she didn’t have the skills to become a leader, it was going to block her ability to manage people,” Merluzzi said. “But when the ideal candidate was single Tim, respondents were more likely to favor him for a significant promotion because he’s quantitative. With Tim, this is just the groundwork to be able to be a good leader.”

The second study examined the career progression of two different cohorts of MBA graduates from the same business program. Again, single women with noted analytical skills were the most penalized in terms of advancement into leadership positions.

These women were deemed too “masculine” to advance their careers. The authors concluded that having these skills and being more assertive actually worked against them.

“These women are trying harder and doing more face time and all these things thinking this is going to help, and that’s the precise thing that they’re then being discriminated against by acting too much like a man, because they’re single,” Merluzzi said.

These conclusions surprised Merluzzi, who noted that historically, single women have not been the subject of this kind of research. The awareness that women who are not mothers can also face setbacks because of gendered stereotypes is the first step toward remedying the problem, she said.

Researchers have also noted that women can face compounded penalties career-wise — being discriminated against early in their careers, and then later, too, if they do become mothers.

“At every stage of their life and career, women face barriers to getting into leadership,” said sociologist Marianne Cooper, a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. “The barriers shift around depending on things like their age, race and marital or parental status. But what these barriers share is that compared to men, women just aren’t as readily seen to have what it takes to lead.”

Karen VanHouten, who is in her early 50s and in a leadership role at a tech consulting firm, said she feels unburdened from the scrutiny of her younger years in a male-dominated profession.

But the biases she used to feel were twofold: On the one hand, she said, she felt expectations from co-workers who had children to take on more work because she was perceived as having fewer responsibilities. On the other, she was married for 15 years, and she felt that employers were constantly sizing her up to see if and when she would have children, to decide how much they should invest in her.

“When you’re in a relationship, and in those prime childbearing years, no one obviously will ever say it out loud. But they’re kind of waiting for you to have a kid,” she said. “So I think I feel like my career trajectory was slower during that time, and actually picked up when I got divorced.”

As she put it: “People became more willing to invest in me.”

Now single and never having had kids, VanHouten is the director of a small company where she works remotely in Grand Rapids, Mich. She said she feels less scrutiny about potential motherhood.

GWU’s Merluzzi said that both employers and workers should be more cognizant of the myriad biases facing women workers.

“There should be greater awareness from employers that this is happening, that we’re coding people differently based on whether they’re married or not, and what they’re good at or not and how that maps onto gender expectations,” she said. “And for women to know this, too, and manage these pieces of it.”

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