I’ve got no problem with talking about my life and what matters to me – but why must my status as a parent (or not) be the first question I’m asked?
I went to a networking event the other day. My usual opener at sessions like this tends to be about people’s line of work, and what’s brought them to the meeting. So I was a little taken aback when the first question I was asked by someone was “Do you have any children?”.
Why? I wasn’t there to talk about my family, my pets, my car or my house. None of these things define me, and they certainly aren’t the main reason I’m there – so why open the conversation at a professional networking event with a question about whether I’m a parent?
The thing is, it’s a thread that has run through my entire career. I’ve worked in HR for 23 years, and I have encountered this apparently all-defining factor for all that time. From interviews to business network meetings, whether or not I’m a parent has played a role in my work and the expectations people have of me. And NOT being a parent has had a significant impact on that.
It’s an emotive subject. People who have children feel very strongly about guarding their time with them, and I get that. What I don’t get – and what I feel very strongly about – is why my time is somehow less important, and why, as a woman, it seems to be something that defines me in the workplace far more than it defines men.
The Value of My Time
As the only childless person in the office spaces I’ve worked in, time and again it has fallen to me to do the evening and weekend training sessions. I’ve been the one covering the whole team’s calls and messages after 3pm, because everyone else has left for the school run. I’m the one providing all the cover during Christmas and New Year.
Everyone has the right to flexible working to fit their job around their lives. It’s my job to make sure people are able to request this, and to help businesses understand how to support their staff in managing it. Worklife balance is vital for happy staff and a productive workforce, and I’ll always fight for flexible working, and making it work for everyone.
What I do have a problem with is the assumption that I don’t need the same considerations and accommodations, simply because I don’t have children. It’s this automatic attitude – and it’s mainly towards women – that needs to change. And businesses have to be aware of the needs and priorities of those who don’t have children, just as much as those who do – and the potentially disproportionate impact on the rest of the team.
Women in the Workplace
I have been asked at nearly every interview (by an HR professional!) whether I have children; I’m the last one to be consulted about time off in the summer holidays; I’ve been given the roles with the most travel demands; all because I don’t have caring responsibilities, and frankly, this just doesn’t happen to men. My husband has never once been asked at an interview whether he has children, and very rarely in similar professional settings.
These questions are asked of me, and these resourcing decisions are made, simply because I’m a woman. I don’t believe a man’s family is ever a consideration for management when they allocate travel and training outside normal office hours; but women are asked about whether they are mothers at interviews all the time, and decisions can be made on that basis alone – even if the woman has given them no reason to think her job will be impacted by motherhood.
As roles change and responsibilities shift, it’s not always the woman who takes the majority of childcare responsibility in a relationship. Perhaps we should give parents the credit to arrange responsibilities between them; and perhaps when a woman turns up for a job, we should assume she is able to meet its requirements in the same way as a man, regardless of whether or not she has children. It’s fair to all of us – the parents and the child-free.
The Thoughtless Follow-Up…
But what really gets me when I’m asked if I have children is the thoughtless follow-up. “Oh, you don’t? Why’s that then?”
I cannot believe that the people who ask this have really thought through what they’re saying. This question may seem innocuous, but is actually deeply personal, and there can be some very sensitive stories behind the topic. Perhaps the person has suffered a miscarriage, or many of them. Perhaps they’ve had years of failed fertility treatment. Perhaps they have never found the right partner to have children with. Perhaps they have simply made a choice not to have them, for a host of their own good reasons.
All of these are very personal and private circumstances, and every single one of them is none of anyone’s business. So why ask the question in the first place? It seems to give the person asking it the right to know quite intimate details about me and my experiences.
A Better Leading Question
I get that people want to establish common ground when they meet, but I’m so very tired of this question. The answer has defined my experience of the workplace, against my will, for far too long. I don’t mind talking about my life and what matters to me, or even letting you know that I don’t have children – but why must it be the first question? Privacy and dignity are so important, but this question still seems, quite oddly, to be fair game. So how about leading with a simple “How are you?”, and letting the conversation flow from there?