Being Single in a Married World

This past fall, the Pew Research Center, in association with TIME, conducted a nationwide poll exploring modern marriage and the American family.

Their findings seem to indicate that, in strictly ‘practical terms,’ marriage is not as necessary as it used to be. Whether for reasons of companionship, sex, children or professional success, their report indicates that marriage is no longer a necessity. Interestingly enough, just 14% of the people surveyed felt that getting ahead in a career is easier for a married person, while 24% said it was easier for a single person.

Maybe it’s the organizations in which I’ve worked, or the circles in which I’ve traveled, but I’ve found that in many corporate and organizational settings, the expected norm for women on their way into or already in leadership roles is that they be married (kids not necessary) much more so than their male counterparts. This is not to say I’ve not found extremely successful women leaders who are single, divorced or in a committed (non-marriage) relationship –  I have. But there’s an unacknowledged stigma attached to the female leader who has not ‘settled-down.’

The woman who remains unattached, or, heaven forbid, has various companions, is seen as either overly wed to her career, unable to form a relationship, not able to “do it all” (spouse, house and 2.3 kids), or a tramp. However, the man who is single and may have a different woman on his arm at each corporate event, is still seen as in control, dedicated to his job, charismatic, and, as a bonus, a “ladies-man.” Because let’s face it, there’s still some cache attached to that label.

Single people (male and female) can be happy, fulfilled and content. And snicker all you want, but Sex and the City (the show, not the horrendous movies) did a lot to bolster the confidence of single women everywhere.

But we still live in a couple-focused society.

We get invited to weddings, parties and professional events as “Sally Jones and Guest.” The BIG BOSS comes into town each quarter and invites the local leadership team out to dinner – with their spouse/guest. And the male leader who brings a different companion to each of these quarterly dinners is still viewed more favorably than the female leader who does the same.

I’m reminded of the time when it seemed every female professional/leader who got married hyphenated her name. For some, it was a fervent desire to not accept patriarchal norms and abandon their name and for others it was a matter of self-identity.  Perhaps there was a professional need to proclaim “see – I AM married – thus the hyphenated name which clearly reflects that.”

So, has the need to declare that one is no longer single disappeared? Is singlehood among women leaders or would-be-leaders still a barrier to success?

Or am I the singular person who thinks it is?

Photo credit iStock Photo

About the Author

Robin Schooling

With 25 years of HR Management experience, Robin Schooling, SPHR, has worked in a variety of industries. In 2013, after serving as VPHR with a Louisiana based organization, she left corporate HR to open up Silver Zebras, LLC, an HR Consulting firm. She blogs at HRSchoolhouse and you can follow her on twitter at @RobinSchooling where, on football weekends, you can read all her #whodat tweets.



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Rolet online

It is tough to discover educated males and females on this topic, however you seem like you realize anything you could be talking about! Thanks

George LaRocque

Hi Robin,

Great post. We are 2 years into research about people in the HR profession – and based on your post I think you’ll find our report, coming out in the next week, really interesting. It gets into demographic and psychographic profiles of the HR practitioners and really blows most of the stereotypes out of the water. The initial report (exec summary) is free – so, be sure to watch your twitter feed – or check our website (launching with the report) to grab a copy. Whether you publish this comment or not – I really do think you’ll find value – it was uncanny to read your post – our research is getting at some of what you are asking…I think you’ll appreciate it exactly as we intended it.

Lois Melbourne

I still see the same stigmas attached to males that have not “settled down”. In senior positions the impression of riskier issues could arise if they are not seen in a stable relationship. The same questions are also voiced with a man marries a much younger woman. So I don’t know that it is a female issue. But It is a cultural issue when a senior professional stays single. Both genders raise the question for traditional minded people.

Robin Schooling

Thanks everyone for taking the time to chime in. Chime = wedding bells – get it?)

@Jennifer – I agree that I’ve seen a number of single women in leadership positions but I get the feeling that there’s an undercurrent of “viewing” them differently than a single man. And I always dreaded attending business functions (where spouse/partner was invited) as a “solo” attendee.

@Sarah – you hit the nail on the head. Co-workers or other professional colleagues sometimes just don’t know “what to make of you” if you don’t fit their idea of the “norm.”

Wrong? Sure. But I think it still exists in some settings, geographic regions, industries and organizations.


Robiin, I think being unmarried — or any unconventional or undetermined relationship status — makes people uncomfortable in the workplace. I think it makes people wonder if the woman is there to find their husband, to sleep through their staff, or to create the potential for a sex harassment lawsuit. I am unmarried — but partnered for 10+ years — and I am still astonished by how often I am asked when we are going to get married. And not casually in passing with friendly maternal co-workers — buy our CEO, CFO, and board members. Women can’t leave their sex behind when we come to work, and I believe we have learned that we don’t need to, — but that doesn’t meet that it doesn’t make people squirm if someone doesn’t fit the “norm” for cultural behaviors in relationships, even if the “norms” aren’t become more, but less normal.

Jennifer Payne

Robin, I think you bring up some very interesting points in this post. I’m not sure what I believe about this topic. I don’t know for sure that being a single woman in a primarily married world holds you back from leadership positions; I have seen a fair number of single woman in high places. However, I do think that you are at least looked at slightly differently, and that can be uncomfortable. Often, much of the social side of the business world does tend to revolve around “couples” events, and being the “single woman” there can at times create a feeling of discomfort, of “not belonging” or “not conforming” to the lifestyles of your co-workers. I have even at times been the subject of uncomfortable rumors based on my single status. In fact, you may have just inspired a post of my own!

Thanks for calling this out. Whether or not you believe it, I think there is at least SOMETHING to think about here.


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