Tulsa World
March 7, 2004


Will work for one

A story published today in the Tulsa World reviews a new study about the perceptions and treatment of singles in the workplace.

The majority of working singles said they aren't treated as fairly as their married-with-children co-workers, according to a study from the University of Tulsa.

"But only 20 percent of (singles) were angry and mad about it," said Wendy Casper, TU assistant professor of psychology. "We got the sense that there were differences, but no one was really upset about it . . . They weren't ready to go to the picket line over it."

With more women in the workplace, employers are more family-friendly, meaning many provide perks like maternity leave, flexible work schedules and child-care options.

But almost forgotten until recently are singles, who make up 42 percent of America's workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This knowledge is putting to sleep the office buzzword, "family-friendly," and awakening the term, "work-life policy," said Tom Coleman, executive director of the American Association of Single People, which is leading a political campaign to make America's workplace more single-friendly.

"The majority of companies now have work-life programs and policies that say 'We understand all employees have lives outside of the workplace, and we want to help them deal with that regardless of their marital status."

More hours

The TU study is "groundbreaking," Coleman said in a phone conversation from Glendale, Calif. It's one of the first and only to specifically study singles at work.

When Casper began the research almost two years ago, she told the Tulsa World then "we don't really look at singles because they don't have a family in the sense of a spouse and a child.

"We don't really think they have issues outside of work, things in their life that may conflict with work or a need to balance the personal and professional life."

Results from the first phase of the study, which interviewed 37 singles without children 18 and younger living at home, showed 62 percent felt they were treated differently from workers with spouses.

A common discrimination singles reported is a double standard for work expectations.

"Single workers were expected to put in longer hours, volunteer for additional work and assume work activities that are not expected of those with spouses and children," the study said.

The inconsistency was reported by both men and women of all ages.

One 33-year-old, never-married woman interviewed said: "It is assumed that if someone needs to stay late, that since I don't have a husband and children, that I can stay late because other accountants have to go pick up their children at day care or they have husbands to attend to."

Some said they felt left out at company functions because only spouses and children of employees were allowed to attend.

Doug Rodgers, a 49-year-old in the janitorial field who's currently out of work, said in an interview with the World that as a single man he's careful around married women.

"You have to keep a distance," he said. You're just being friendly, but "they might think you are making a move on them or you're making a pass at them until you build up trust."

Rodgers said he's also been expected to work holidays or longer hours because he's single.

Responsibilities outside work

Some singles (35 percent) said married people at work don't consider the singles' responsibilities outside of work were as important.

But the truth is, many singles in the study had obligations besides work.

About 65 percent were providing some kind of financial help and 24 percent gave direct care to friends and family members. Another 57 percent had pets to take care of at home, the study said.

One single woman said her boss gave her a hard time about leaving to take her aging mother to a friend's funeral.

A 35-year-old, never-married man said his boss knowingly made him late to a volunteer job as a tutor. Another single woman was angry that she had to use a vacation day instead of bereavement time when her dog died.

"It's not the case that (single people) are footloose and fancy-free with no responsibilities," Casper said. "They do have many responsibilities."

"They think I have nothing else to do," said a 57-year-old divorced man. "They think I can take off any time I want. I tend to resent these remarks."

But that man was the minority. Many singles reported inequities at work, the study said, but only 22 percent of singles "reported anger or resentment about this."

Casper wondered if single people are just so accustomed to feeling discrimination that they don't pay it much attention. They might feel this is just the way it is, she hypothesized.

Coleman agreed.

"I'm not surprised by the failure of people to complain about it," Coleman said. "It's been with us so long, and it's so embedded into the culture that single people themselves are not viewing it as discriminatory."

What they didn't say

Coleman was surprised that no singles in the study mentioned discrimination in work-provided health benefits and compensation. Some employers, he said, offer health benefits to spouses of children or employees for no or little extra charge.

"This is a form of pay, and I find it amazing that single people do not see this without being prompted," he said. "It's so taken for granted that single people are not seeing this as discrimination."

Single people usually can't get health benefits for aging parents or sick siblings that might be living with them, he said.

Coleman said the study is small but mirrors many complaints made to the singles' association he runs.

Casper admitted the research is somewhat limited with only 37 people interviewed. She and a team from the university have begun work on a second phase in which married people and employers are asked about their perception of single people at work.

She also wants to see if the discrimination many singles perceive affects their job performance, work ethic and attitude.

The scene for working singles has already somewhat improved since this study first began, Casper said.

"Employers are starting to understand the need for family-friendly policies," Casper said. "The change is starting to happen, but we haven't quite reached a full understanding of what family diversity is."

To participate in the study's next stage or for more information about it, contact Wendy Casper by phone at 631-3774 or via e-mail at wendy-casper@utulsa.edu.