Childless women are still seen as somewhat “unnatural” in contemporary society, despite a growing number of women opting to remain child-free.
As little girls, we are given baby dolls for Christmas presents. From our early twenties, the question we are often asked is not “will you have children?”, but “when will you have children?”. From the very beginning women are conditioned to motherhood. Despite an increasingly large number of women breaking away from this expectation, childless women still face significant discrimination.
A 2014 study by Deakin University found that childless women felt stereotyped as “child-hating, career-focused and selfish“. It suggested that overall, society tends to measure a woman’s worth via her status as a mother – but when did the word “woman” become synonymous with “mother”? When did parenting become an obligation rather than an option?
The same research from Deakin also found:
- 33% of childless women feel excluded from community activities; and
- 21% of childless women feel excluded from health and medical services.
That’s a significant social gap that needs to be addressed.
Dr Melissa Graham, Deakin health and social development researcher, said this about the results,
“We still have a long way to go in Australia before being a woman with no children is viewed publicly as an acceptable life path.”
In the corporate and political worlds a similar trend applies. While social development has pushed workplaces towards being more flexible to accommodate the needs of working mothers (including maternity leave and flexible working hours), childless women in the same jobs have been somewhat left behind.
One major factor affecting this trend is the law; it is legally justified for a new mother to take maternity leave, yet non-child related milestones, personal ambitions, and sometimes even family emergencies, are not “satisfactory” reasons for a childless woman to take leave under the law. This means businesses are less motivated and aware that new policies may need to be implemented.
The public discrimination of childless women is yet another driver of this social gap. Don’t worry about a woman’s credentials, work ethic or drive for innovation – if she doesn’t have children, she must be an inferior being – or so politicians and the media like to tell us.
During the UK election, Theresa May’s opponent, Andrea Leadsom, argued she would make a better leader because she is a mother and therefore has a “real stake” in the future of the nation.
Tabloid magazines have also previously focused on May’s shoe choice, describing her as “a shoe fanatic” and an “ice queen”. This stems from her childless status; it is both rampant sexism and undue discrimination against her as a childless woman. Likewise when NSW MP Gladys Berejiklian became the New South Wales Premier earlier this year, she was questioned about her childless status within fifteen minutes of being in office. This sequence of events is uncomfortably similar to Mark Latham’s attack on Julia Gillard, where he questioned her ability to empathise because she has no children.
Just a casual reminder that empathy is a human trait. It’s not one exclusively tied to motherhood, or women in general.
Conversely, since Malcolm Turnbull won Australia’s most recent federal election, there has been no media coverage of his choice of shoe, nor his ability as a father.
In light of the Deakin study, it is important strategies are developed that bridge the gap between how mothers and childless women are viewed by society. With an increasing number of women choosing to place their careers at the forefront of their lives, we as a society need to recognise that a woman’s worth is not determined by her desire or ability to have children.