National Single Parents Day 2023: Reflecting on Single Parents & Employment

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Dr Laura Radcliffe

How can we attract, support, and retain single parents in the workplace?  

National Single Parents Day is observed on March 21st every year, recognising single parents’ hard work and dedication in our society. Single-parent households are common across OECD countries, constituting around one in four families in the UK and USA, most of which are headed by women. Although single parenthood is often a temporary state in the life course of many people, it can permanently alter single parents’ career trajectories. This is something we need to improve as a society.  

Research highlights how single parents are likely to experience greater challenges managing competing work and family requirements due to the lack of another adult within the household. This means they face additional pressures due to being the sole/main breadwinners while simultaneously being predominantly responsible for hands-on caregiving. They also lack the support systems available to couples, such as the ability to divide household chores and responsibilities, engage in childcare turn-taking, or the availability of a dual income.  

Furthermore, societal attitudes towards single mothers often perpetuate negative stereotypes and stigmatization, leading to additional pressures involved in navigating a devalued social identity. Society has often portrayed single parents as a problem because they don’t fit the traditional family model, as uncommitted employees, or as people who receive benefits and drain society’s resources. These harmful stereotypes still exist today, despite more single parents being in the UK workforce than ever before. Unfortunately, these attitudes also ignore the extra challenges that single parents often face in relation to employment.  

My research with single mothers, published in the British Journal of Management, shows that the experience and internalisation of stigma often result in still further additional work striving to avoid association with stigmatized stereotypes. They do this by striving to go the extra mile to prove they are exceptional parents and employees and can do it all independently without needing support. There is, therefore, additional pressure involved in navigating a stigmatised family identity, which further exacerbates work-family conflict, and negatively impacts well-being.  

Our research has revealed that paid employment is highly valued by single mothers, as it plays a crucial role in maintaining a positive self-image. Moreover, our findings indicate that single mothers are highly motivated to progress in their careers when they have access to extensive flexible working arrangements, encouragement, and support for career development. These factors empower single mothers to strive towards career advancement and success.  

However, where this is not the case, single mothers are likely to end up working below their skill levels, which has negative implications for individual well-being, but also for organisations and society. Yet, even for those single mothers who do progress at work, this still comes at a cost due to frequently unsustainable workloads and expectations of work primacy, leading to frequent work-family conflicts and exhaustion. Therefore, current incommensurate work and family ideals, alongside workplace cultures of overwork, always come at a particular cost to single parents.  

In conclusion, single parents face unique challenges and pressures in managing competing role requirements, making meeting the expectations of paid employment particularly challenging. However, they often strive to progress at work despite these challenges. As we celebrate National Single Parents Day, let us take a moment to appreciate and recognise the hard work of single parents in facing and overcoming unique challenges in navigating work, family, and stigma.  

Let us consider how we, as a society, as employers, or as line managers, can help challenge stigmatised stereotypes of single parents and support them in managing exacerbated work-family conflict practically. Such support might include flexible work arrangements, access to affordable childcare, and efforts to shift cultural attitudes towards single parents. By acknowledging and addressing these challenges, we can help single parents to achieve sustainable employment and progression, as well as a better work–life balance and improved well-being, and in doing so, create a more equitable society for all.  

Radcliffe, L., Cassell, C., & Malik, F. (2022). Providing, performing and protecting: the importance of work identities in negotiating conflicting work–family ideals as a single mother. British Journal of Management, 33(2), 890-905.  

Schaefer, A., Gatrell, C., & Radcliffe, L. (2020). Lone parents and blended families: Advocating flexible working to support families in transition. In Flexible Work (pp. 196-212). Routledge.