At a family gathering last year a male relative made the comment that if women wait too long and put their career first then they won’t have a family, because, he believes, ‘women can’t have it all’. This comment really annoyed me on many levels but mostly because it hinges on the belief that every successful, career woman who is single and/or childless has put having a family on hold to pursue her career or that every successful mom has given up a promising career. Both statements are clearly ridiculous and something that would never be said of men. In my case working hard at my job is not a substitute for getting married and having a family, rather it is because I do not have a family that I work hard and place a high degree of importance on furthering my career, if I had a family then things would probably look different. But at no point have I ever forgone a relationship to pursue my career and frankly I do not know too many women who have, in fact I cannot think of a single one.
I do know, however, far too many single women who have put their careers on hold, and settled for lower positions and not pursued promotion. This can be for many reasons; sometimes because they lack confidence in their ability at work, other times because they do not want possible husbands to find them too intimidating and even because they are waiting around for Mr Right at which point they will stop working and have children. Sadly, when single women deprioritize their careers in pursuit of love they, more likely than not, end up broke and alone, rather than just alone.
Work is not something that is only important for generating income and supporting a family, work, as Victor Frankl discusses in his wonderful book Man’s Search for Meaning, is one of the ways that we find meaning in life. In the Bible work existed before the fall and it was something good. It was only after we left the Garden of Eden that work became fruitless toil, hard and discouraging. But we were made to work, in the most positive and redemptive sense of the word. (For more about work and faith check out this great resource from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, they also have wonderful events and short courses for Christians in the workplace).
Being a single person in today’s workplace however is not always an easy thing. Bella Depaulo, whose work I have discussed before, makes some great arguments about the discrimination that working singles in the USA face. She gives examples of not being able to take to leave to care for a parent, or for a relative or even for a close friend. Not being able to have time to take a pet to the vet, in the same way that a mother or father would be able to take their child to the doctor. Now I am not saying that a pet is more important than a child, although I would argue a pet is a lot easier than a child, but when you are single, without a family, your pet is your family as much as child would be. In addition to this single people are often expected to work longer hours, to take less leave and to be more flexible about doing overtime or working shifts. While married people or couples with families are told things like: ‘you must take care of your family’, ‘you need work life balance to have time with your spouse and/or family’; single people are basically given the message that because you have no family means you can work 24/7, because, by definition, you do not have a life.
In the corporate world single people in leadership positions are rare and even rarer still is the single woman without kids. I remember being asked to be a speaker at a women’s leadership conference to discover that I was literally the only woman who was not married with children. Inevitably, as seems to always happen at women in leadership events, the conversation turns to work/life balance, maternity leave, and how to cope when you are a working mother with children. The assumption that every working woman over a certain age is a mother, is pervasive, and when you are not a mother can leave you feeling quite shut out of the conversation, which is essentially what happened to me. It turned out that these women were not so much interested in women in leadership but in how married women with kids can be successful leaders. The implicit message was that single women without kids need not apply.
We read a lot about diversity in the workplace but when people write about or discuss diversity they are usually thinking in terms of gender, race or sexuality. It is encouraging that more recently we see discussions around diversity in terms of age, but what is never discussed is diversity with regards to marital or family status. If we defined diversity in terms of marital status we would find surprisingly little diversity in the leadership teams at many workplaces. For example all 25 of the female CEOs currently on the fortune 500 list have children and they all either married or divorced, (including the first openly gay female CEO on the list, Beth Ford). There is not a single, childless woman among them and they have far more in common with each other than different, and actually more in common with the males on the list as well who are also all largely married with children.
There is it seems a double barrier to single women who want to enter the boardroom. Firstly, they are women and the higher we go in their careers the fewer women there are and the harder it is for us to succeed without the help of a mentor/champion (male or female). Secondly, if a woman does make it to the top she needs to have a family to somehow ‘normalize’, ‘humanize’ or ‘feminize’ her. Theresa May, the outgoing prime minister of the UK, is married but does not have any children. When she was running for leadership critics asked how could she run the country and take care of it’s citizens if she doesn’t haven’t children, something never asked of a male candidate! In contrast the Prime Minister of New Zealand, complete with husband and new born baby, is revered as soft, kind and humane. A role model for other women to emulate. Just like Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Myer or many of other female CEOs who make much of the the fact that they are also mothers. A woman it seems can be in leadership but only if she has evidence of being able to fulfil her biological imperative of having a child, one way or another.
In my role as the Executive Director of an organization I am only too aware of the scarcity of single people in leadership positions. In the city where I work I do not have any counterparts, at similar levels, who are single, all of them, men and women alike, are married with children. In addition because I am single it has been hard for me to exercise boundaries with my Board of Directors who assume that without a spouse or children in my house I am able and willing to talk shop 24/7, which I am not. When I wanted to improve my leadership skills I searched for books to read on singles in leadership positions. Not only were there no books solely for singles I struggled to find any that even mentioned singles. Every single book talk about leadership and how to lead etc. was written in the context of the leader being married with a family (too often a man). This was especially true in Christian leadership books. However there was one notable exception, that I recommend to all my friends and colleagues, which is Pete Scazzero’s book The Emotionally Healthy Leader. In this book he actually speaks to single leaders separately from married ones and I think it is one of the best books for Christian singles in leadership positions.
It is not only singles in leadership positions though that need support, all singles in the workplace need to be supported, valued and be seen as having equally important and vital lives to their married colleagues. In addition, single women need to think about how we can develop our careers, how to not put our lives on hold while we wait and trust God for our husband. In this waiting for marriage we need to be careful that we do not devalue our own careers, interests and hobbies just because they do not include children and a spouse.
As Christians we are exhorted to work and as I mentioned before work in the Bible is redemptive, we were made for work and in eternity we will work together with our Creator and Father. Work is good for the soul. However we are also exhorted to rest on the Sabbath. We are to ensure that we spend at least one day a week taking time out to relax, to go to church to spend time with God, and, I would argue, remembering who He is and what He has done for us. As such at work we need to be careful that we do not take on every additional extra task or do extra hours just because we are not married, or do not have kids. Yes we should help our colleagues as much as we can but not to the detriment of our lives or health or work. We need to set clear boundaries that say, my life is as important as everyone else’s.
I see too many single people who work so hard but seem to be going nowhere because despite working a lot they are doing so many things for others that are not their responsibility. I also see single people at work acting selfishly as if they are an island and have no need of others and treat every interaction as a transaction. These people live for the weekend and seem to spend very little time as team players or thinking long-term about their careers. In between these two extremes I believe we can find a healthy and God ordained medium for work in which we both serve our companies and colleagues while affirming and celebrating our own lives.
In the Bible Paul serves as a great role model for the single, working believer. Paul made sure that everywhere he went he helped out and he also worked to support himself. He did not want to be a burden on those around him, but at the same time he also felt that all believers should help those who were in need. Paul, it seems from his letters, was a tireless worker who was always on the go and who rarely rested, in fact you could be forgiven, reading Paul’s letters, for thinking that the Sabbath was a thing of the past.
Paul also models healthy relationships for the single believer, despite being single he cultivated and valued his close friendships. He also interacted and had friends who were both married and single. Paul did not solely spend his time with singles or married but visited all believers and mentored and supported both groups equally.
Jesus of course serves as the ultimate role model for the single at work. In contrast to Paul, who worked almost without rest and had fall outs with his friends from time to time (as he was fully human like us!), Jesus shows us the importance of work and rest. It is from our Saviour that we see the need for regular times of prayer and regular time alone with the Father. We can see just how important it is to take time out from our work and step back from it all. But at the same time as He prioritized rest, Jesus also put people first and took care of their needs. Even when He was tired, He thought about others and met their needs. But as a leader we can see that He was also firm and uncompromising about what matters. He rebuked gently when needed and He also spent time with His people one to one as well as in groups.
Jesus and Paul show us that as singles we can lead ministries, we can lead teams, we can define agendas and we can be someone who people look to and seek out for advice and counsel. We are not immature somehow because we are single, no we are as mature in our faith and work as we have allowed and worked on ourselves to be (with the help of the Holy Spirit of course). The more we press into God, read our Bible and spend time with the Holy Spirit then the more our faith and maturity as believers grow. The more this grows then the better we can do at work, the wiser we become and the more we will model healthy lifestyles and work practices to those around us.
As single people in the work place, and especially single women, I would encourage you to seek promotion, to work for advancement, to rise as high as God will take you in your profession, whatever that may be. Do not be afraid of success or responsibility or that this will somehow make you too intimidating for men. I can promise you that you will only intimidate the wrong guy, not the right one. I really feel so sad when I talk to single women who are not pursuing their career wholeheartedly. Women who are languishing in jobs that just aren’t working for them, or who spend too much time lamenting their singleness and not enough time being committed to their work. Women who treat their careers as back up plans.
As singles committed to Christ, all of us, both men and women, should strive to be the best at what we do. The Bible, in Colossians 3, says we should work as unto the Lord, giving all of our efforts to him. When we fail to give our all to our work, and rather hold back, trying to make ourselves more acceptable to the opposite sex, or not wanting to invest too much, then we are not honoring the gifts that God has given each one of us. Given that there are so many single people in the work force I often wonder why there are not more singles in leadership positions? I sometimes think it is because we are afraid that we can’t handle it, or that it will be too much.
My dream, that I have stated in earlier posts, is that as all of us single people would feel confident and affirmed in our identity in Christ so that we would be people that others envy (in a healthy way). We should be the most successful people in our work, the most compassionate and the most in touch with our teams and the people we lead. Our employers should find us to be the most committed, loyal and dependable employees they have, but they should also view as well rounded people who have hobbies and interests and pursuits outside of work. As we are unencumbered by family we are blessed that we can make choices about our lives and just do them, whether it be to pursue a new job, to spend our holiday reading on the beach or to go and serve on a short-term mission trip. We also have time to upgrade our skills, to take courses and to be lifelong learners. There is literally no excuse for us not to be the best in our chosen profession, whatever that may be.
Most of all though we have the love of God in our lives, we have His support, His care, His wisdom and He will make us successful. The story of Joseph is a story of a man whose (difficult) rise to success was as a single, without any family support, as a stranger in a foreign country. While Joseph was in prison the Bible says that the Lord was with Joseph and he was a successful man and so it came to be. But first came the awareness of who Joseph was to God and who God was to Joseph. The same is true for us today, the Lord is with us and we are successful, but we need to know who we are in Christ (loved, cherished, chosen, planned for) and who God is to us (our deliverer, our strong tower, our biggest supporter). Marriage does not make us more successful, having children does not make our lives more valuable, no we are successful, valuable and loved as we are, because we are children of the Most High God.
This week at work, do not be ashamed of your singleness, do not put your career on hold thinking that will help you find Mr. Right, or hesitate to apply for a promotion because you doubt your abilities, no stand tall, work hard and remember that God is with you and he wants you to prosper in all things, even as your soul prospers.
I am praying for that everyone of you reading this would be a light in your workplace that draws your colleagues to Christ and the love He has for each of them and that you would be the most successful person there, God bless you today!