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Are Single Women Discriminated Against At Work?

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Your coworker with a 3-year-old leaves at 5:30 every evening, while you stay until 7:30 (at least). You're asked to take a weekend shift or field Saturday conference calls because everyone else on your team has kids they need to spend time with. When an issue needs to be troubleshot after six, you are somehow always the only one available, and it's made clear that your date plans are not a priority.

If this sounds like you, you may be the victim of what a recent Marie Claire article calls "the newest form of workplace discrimination: single women who carry an undue burden at the office, batting cleanup for their married-with-kids coworkers."

The way writer Ayana Byrd describes the phenomenon, as employers have gotten used to working parents leaving at a reasonable hour and not working weekends, they've also gotten used to single staffers, particularly single women, picking up the work that employees with kids won't get to. The result for those single women is no personal life, which limits both their overall well-being and their ability to meet a prospective spouse and have children of their own.

Even if single men face the same dilemma -- the article, titled "The Single Girl's Second Shift," doesn't really go into that -- it's easy to see how single women are especially vulnerable to it. The most popular job for American women as of 2010 is still secretary/administrative assistant, which has been a top ten job for women for the last 50 years. We're historically conditioned to think of female workers as those who support other workers. At the same time, women have just been told resoundingly to "lean in" to their careers -- to be as ambitious as they can, which can very easily translate into saying yes to whatever project is handed to them.

Byrd's piece bears a few overarching messages. One is that employers need to remedy the blatantly unfair practice of assigning some employees more work and longer hours based on their marital status and whether they have kids. Another is that this "second shift" -- an allusion to the title of Arlie Hochschild's watershed 1989 book on how working mothers also do the majority of domestic chores in their households -- is indicative of a workplace culture that no longer believes anyone deserves relaxation or fun for their own sakes. As Kat Stoeffel at The Cut pointed out, the women courageous enough to go on the record in Byrd's article as wanting to work less all said they want time off for self-improvement. The third and pretty explicit message is that women need to say no to the extra work, and while this last directive sounds empowering, parts of it are problematic.

For one thing, saying no to what you're assigned simply isn't possible in some cases, especially in a fragile economy with high unemployment. Some of the recommended strategies for saying no may not be practical either. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center for Talent Innovation, formerly the Center for Work-Life Policy, suggested seeking out a childless senior woman to advise you on how broach the issue with your boss. But what if there is no such person, or what if she never felt like she was in a position to push back, either?

Another issue is the way career consultant Liz Ryan described the second shift to Byrd, as though it's somehow women's fault. "No one respects the people who are slaves to the job," she told Byrd. But when you push back, "Be prepared to show that your work won't suffer," the article advises. Stoeffel at The Cut added that if you don't push back and work longer hours without being paid more, "You're a sucker."

Did you get all of that? Ask not to work as much and make sure you're not seen as someone who works all the time, but produce the same quality and/or amount of work. So the message to stand up for yourself gets transformed into, "Get the same amount done in less time, because no one likes someone who looks like she's trying too hard." That sounds a lot like yet another manifestation of the cultural allergy to female strivers that has affected women across fields, from Anne Hathaway to Kirsten Gillibrand. Why can't we strike a balance wherein it's acceptable for women to be visibly ambitious and hardworking and for both women and men to admit that everyone deserves time to watch Bravo and drink margaritas outside?

We do need increased awareness of unfair demands put on single women at work, and it may be that change will only come when women speak up for themselves and "train" their bosses and coworkers to know that they are not available 24/7. But we also need to be careful not to line the prescription "do less work" with the message to just make it look like you're doing less, which could mean hidden hours working at home and less sleep, and would only make employers think the women they're overloading can take on more.

As Mika Brzezinski pointed out on HuffPost Live at The Huffington Post's Third Metric conference, the last thing women need to hear one more time is, "Make it look easy."