Growing The Inclusion Pie

My guest for this conversation was Jody Day. We first met on LinkedIn when I posted about parenting and caring and what organisations should consider in terms of inclusion for parents and families and those with caring responsibilities. Jody replied on chat messenger, asking me, ‘What about those people in the organisation who are non-parents?’

It was a good reminder that I’m on a learning curve myself, even as a Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, where I regularly talk to many senior people in HR and different organisations.

Jody is the British founder of Gateway Women, a global friendship support and advocacy network for childless women with a social reach of about 2 million people. It was founded in the UK in 2011 and is headquartered in Ireland now. She’s the author of what many professionals consider to be the go-to book on the topic Living the Life Unexpected: How to find hope, meaning, and a fulfilling future without children.

Chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 women in 2013 and awarded the UK Digital Woman of the Year in 2021, Jody is a global thought leader on female involuntary childlessness. She’s a psychotherapist, a TEDx speaker, a social entrepreneur, a founder and former board member of Aging Well Without Children, and a former social innovation fellow at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Often referred to as the voice of the childless generation, Jody is also an ambassador for the World Childless Week. She now lives in Ireland with her second husband, his mother and their dog, where she’s writing a novel that features a childless heroine. Jody also nurtures the emerging Gateway Elder Women Project for Conscious Childless Elder Women.

Jody and I have had some thought-provoking follow-up conversations, and I have certainly learned a lot from her. I am pretty sure that readers will learn a lot too. We started with me asking her to let us know a bit more about the number of people impacted by this topic.

Jody said, ‘Absolutely. But before I do that, I’d like to say thank you, Toby, for having me on the show and modelling that flexibility to engage with me, really un-defensively about the topic. We’ve had good conversations, and it’s a great way to model your profession. As a psychotherapist, I’m honestly very impressed with that.

The numbers of people involved often come as a bit of a shock, even if you’re in this category, because we’re missing from public view, so we often don’t know how big our numbers are. I’ve got three different sources. A very recent study, called the Noon Research Study, was done by Noon, an organisation headed by Eleanor Mills. This is a specific study of ABC1 women aged 45 to 60 in the UK. It found that nearly a third of professional women have no children.

According to the Office for National Statistics, approximately one in five women aged forty-five and over in the UK have no children. Now, early data coming out of the ONS, which was all over the press, show that 50% of women in the UK aged thirty have not yet had their first child.

This is double the figure for their parents’ generation. The average mother’s age of first birth in the UK is thirty. The UK would appear to be on track to go to one in three women who are non-parents by mid-life, which is the same as in Germany and Japan. We are looking at a massive rise in these numbers coming up.

There are other data that’s interesting but will sidetrack us a bit. I recently did a TED Talk about being single and childless, and I came across this UN data, which was about the number of women married or in a union. I reversed it to get the numbers who weren’t married or in a union, and what we’re seeing is that over the last decade of my work, I’ve seen many, many more women within Gateway Women who are childless due to not having a willing or suitable partner during their fertile years, and the data would seem to match this.

The number of women who are single in the UK has increased from 9% to 35% in that age group since 1970, and actually, there are similar huge increases across all categories, and actually to be both single and childless or child-free in the workplace is also an issue, but we can talk a bit about that later, and I just wanted to mention that Manchester Metropolitan University has a study which came out this year called, Complex Fertility Journeys and Employment. And the principal investigator, Dr Crystal Wilkinson, who I worked with, has pulled out an extraordinary quote which is.

“While many organisations now recognise that DEI-based needs to attend to pregnancy, maternity and parenting leave issues for their employees. There is evidence that traditional inequalities are being perpetuated in terms of wider fertility concerns. Where organisations have started to recognise the social impacts of new fertility technologies, organisational policy and HR responses are often not sufficiently nuanced to be helpful. Particular gaps appear in support for line managers and for those whose complex fertility journeys end without children.”

There’s been quite a lot of noise recently, and it’s needed, around supporting fertility journeys. But once again, it’s rather like the conversation I had with you. What’s in the shadow of that? What’s not being thought about? And that’s where our conversation comes in.’

I’ve been working with a client recently where we’ve been talking about what they should be doing to support working parents in their organisation. But we weren’t talking about what’s the impact on those who are not parents or have caring responsibilities. I know that in the language that Jody uses, she often talks about non-parenthood rather than childless or child-free. I asked Jody, ‘Can you just tell us a little bit more about those labels and the distinctions?’

‘I choose non-parents because it’s more neutral. Childless is generally taken to be those who wanted to parent, and it hasn’t been possible for, well, I list 50 reasons in my book, and there are many, many more.

Child-free those who’ve chosen not to parent. And there is an idea that is a binary, but it’s much more of a spectrum. And research has shown actually the reasons for being childless or child-free in research actually overlap by 60%.

It is a spectrum. Whereas I think non-parents, although there are differences in the internal journey if you go through a grief journey to accept your childlessness, rather than it being a personal choice, actually in the workplace, many of these structural issues that impact you will be the same and a lot of the supports and adjustments that need to be made may be broadly similar. So, I prefer non-parents because it’s describing a category rather than a sort of the subjective nature of someone’s experience.’

I like the term non-parents as well. When I was working for Deloitte, I was looking at our parental policies and the language that we were using. We were saying that policy should not say mothers and fathers, for example, or maternity or paternity leave. Instead, it should be parental leave. Recognising that people who do have families come in all shapes and sizes, heterosexual couples, same-sex couples, etcetera. So, talking about non-parenthood is good because it balances it out. You’ve got parents and non-parents.

‘I think it’s important because it also slightly professionalises it. It moves it away from the personal and into a social and employment category, which I think can take some of the heat out of the conversation as well.’

Jody mentions pronatalism a lot in her work. I wondered if she would tell me a bit more about what is meant by this “ism”, as I haven’t really come across that one before.

‘It’s like asking a fish, “How’s the water?” and the fish will say, “Well, what’s water?” By which I mean pronatalism is the water our society swims in. We start to learn about it very, very early in life. And what it means at its core is that it’s a valuation system between parents and non-parents. Basically, someone who has had children, biological children in particular, will be seen as an adult of more value and as a more fully realised grown-up human being than someone who does not.

It’s not to say that parents don’t have value because they do, but it’s a valuation system between parents and non-parents. It’s the idea that you put “as a mother” in front of a statement and suddenly it has more moral authority, even if it’s about washing powder, than if you don’t. No one says “as a childless woman” that’s a kind of a lean-back statement. People are like, “Whoa, where’s she going now?” But the same statement by a mother might be more of a lean-in.

So, there is an unconscious cultural evaluation of parenthood. It’s so entrenched in our society because it’s about making sure that people have children make sure that mothers have worth, so they go ahead and do it. It seems natural because it’s so embedded. So, pronatalism basically means pro-birth. Nothing wrong with that, except when it becomes a negative valuation system.’

Jody has done a fantastic TED Talk, which is called The Lost Tribe of Childless Women. I’d recommend watching your TED Talk to anyone reading this.

When I talk about bias, what we’re really talking about is preferences in favour of or against something. We all have biases. It’s very natural how our brains are designed through social conditioning. Now Jody has explained pronatalism to me, I can understand how that bias has occurred.

Jody has also said before that women without children in the workplace are the biggest diversity issue that HR hasn’t heard of. So, I asked Jody what she thinks is going on with this issue that’s impacting such a huge number of people but is still not being discussed in the workplace?

‘Well, number one, pronatalism makes non-parents invisible to us in our environments, as you’ve said it was to you, Toby. It’s almost an unconscious bias mechanism. Not only do we not need to think about non-parents, but we also don’t even need to think about not thinking about them. We’re just completely invisible.

There’s something called disenfranchised grief, which can describe the grief of childlessness being invisible in society. This is for people who had wanted to be parents, and it hadn’t been possible. Now they experience a form of grief, which is called disenfranchised grief. It’s basically living with a loss that society dismisses. There is a kind of societal idea that people who don’t have children who wanted to, just get over it, that can’t be grief, you didn’t lose anything. Really, what are you wallowing in? There’s no recognition that if you wanted children, not having them is a living loss that goes right across the course of your life and impacts all your relationships and identity.

It’s not like you’re ever going to completely get over it because you’re always going to be childless. You’re not going to be a mother or a father. You are not going to be a grandfather and father. When you die, your line dies with you. It is an extraordinary existential, social and identity loss if you wanted to parent. That is also dismissed by society, hence dismissed in the workplace. Sometimes when I talk to people in HR, they say, “Childlessness? That’s a thing? Oh really, why do we need to care about that?”

There’s something else going on, which is my own theory of looking at it. Human beings, as far as we know, are the only sentient species that are aware of their own mortality. But we don’t wake over it up every morning thinking about it. We have a mechanism which allows us to get on with daily life without thinking about death all the time for most of us. But I think that childlessness, and that includes all non-parents, in a way has a whiff of death attached to it because it is that thing that it’s the end of the line.

I think there is an unconscious mechanism where childlessness goes into that same place as the part of our unconscious that allows us not to think about our own deaths all the time. It sort of has a way of being pushed out of mind that is quite extraordinary when you consider the numbers. There are social mechanisms, social norms and unconscious mechanisms at play.

I think it’s important that if someone is reading this and is feeling. “Gosh, I can’t believe I never thought about this” then it shows we are trying to break through an enormous societal, internal and external barrier here.’

It’s interesting because whilst I’ve been listening to Jody. I’ve actually realised that I’m a non-parent. It’s weird how we’ve had a few conversations before we sat down to have this conversation together, and it hadn’t really struck me as such because I’m a non-parent because I’m gay, and I’m in a relationship with my partner, and we don’t want children. It’s a conscious decision.

What Jody said about that loss – I was doing my will recently and sitting down with the financial advisor. Basically, he was doing the family tree, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t have any children to pass things on to.’

That was quite a realisation at the time that the system is set up to ask who your offspring are.

Jody agreed, ‘I remember when I did my will. I was sitting in my solicitor’s office. She gave me this form, and it had about three pages pre-printed for children and grandchildren and things like that, and I was so shocked. It was just presumed that I could fill three pages with my descendants.’

That’s an example of how very often inequality is systemically baked into processes and policies and procedures and things like that, rather than providing some alternative options or suggestions on those forms. I asked Jody what resources would she recommend for HR and diversity teams to access to address their biases around non-parents in the workplace and why they need to be holding that in mind?

‘I’ve done two TED Talks. Do watch them. One is 18 minutes; the other is 13 minutes, so you can get a lot of information in that time. My book is a good resource if you want to go deeper into the lived experience of childlessness rather than non-parenthood. But there’s an organisation that I’m involved with now called The New Legacy Institute, which is coming out of California. It’s got a weekly radio show addressing the intersectionality of this issue because non-parenthood is a category that includes so many people and touches so many lives in so many ways.

Christine, who’s the founder of the New Legacy Institute, is aiming to look at that in the radio show that she has every week. I’m very proud that I’m going to be one of the first members of their advisory panel. I would say check out the New Legacy Institute and explore their work.

There’s a great podcast called The Full Stop podcast. Just Google that on any podcast platform. It is three childless people, including one man. Men are incredibly underrepresented in the childless, child-free space because the pronatalist assumption that all women will have children is much more dominant, but the fact is, is that men who wanted to be parents and that hasn’t worked out also experienced grief. Men have been socially conditioned not to experience their grief. So, they actually disenfranchised their own grief.

There’s also my lecture on disenfranchised grief. If you go to York University, Grief. A study of human emotional experience, you’ll find my lecture, and you’ll also find a full transcript of that on my website too.’

I was just thinking about my own personal situation because I was born with a rare genetic neuromuscular disability. I think growing up with that kind of condition there’s often this expectation on people in society and within the medical profession that disabled people can’t become parents. Because as a disabled person, you have to be cared for. And then I didn’t come out as gay until I was 29. I was thinking to myself, ‘Well, as a gay man, I don’t really want to have a family. That’s my choice.’

Now I’ve just started this new genetic treatment for my condition where I have to take medicine every day. One of the first things that my doctor said was that they think that the drug could impact things like sperm count. We had to have a conversation about whether I wanted to become a father, which in a way, was quite refreshing because no doctor had asked me if I wanted to be a father until I was 40. And if I did want to be, whether I wanted to put sperm on ice.

I really liked what Jody was saying about the intersectionality of this topic as well. And now my brain’s buzzing. I’m speaking from a disability and sexuality perspective. But if we look at things like race and ethnicity and cultures around the world, I suppose there are different cultural norms of parenthood in different places around the world. This is such a big topic.

If we were able to give people in HR or diversity teams ideas on how to make the workplace inclusive for non-parents, I asked Jody where they could start?

‘Okay, one of my ideas is that with the protected characteristic of pregnancy, and maternity, I would invite them to expand their concept of that protected characteristic to one of what is called reproductive identity. This is something we all will have, a reproductive identity. It comes from Aurélie Athan, a 2020 paper, Reproductive Identity: An Emerging Concept published in the American Psychologist journal. It’s an important cognitive step to open our minds to the idea that whether you have children or not, whether you want children or not, whether you’re able to have them or not, you have a reproductive identity.

I think that could start to maybe help to loosen some of the cognitive frameworks that may be preventing us from engaging with this topic. World Childless Week, as you said, I’m an ambassador for World Childless Week. It happens in the third week of September every year. It has an amazing public-facing website with stories and contributions from members of the public. Each day of the week has a different topic. It would be great if that could be included on organisational resources, awareness days, and intranets, just to start to bring that conversation into the workplace.

Offer HR diversity and line managers unconscious bias training around pronatalist prejudice to help them understand the issues facing non-parents in the workplace. This is a huge issue within the whole field. And the unconscious bias field is also unconsciously biased – it hasn’t recognised this at all. But within that, I think it’s important to remember that some of the people who may be struggling with these issues may well be the HR and line managers themselves. They may be managing complex fertility journeys, parenthood journeys, maternity journeys, and parenting journeys when they themselves are unsupported with their personal situation. I think we need to think about what we’re asking line managers and HR people to manage unsupported in their own situation. So that could be a really good first step to start. In a way it’s, putting those goggles on and seeing the world through the eyes of someone who is a non-parent and asking, “How would that sit with me?”

It’s happening now that some organisations are becoming fertility friendly. I gave a talk called the “F word at work” with an organisation called Fertility Matters at Work, talking about childlessness in the workplace. Because one of the things that is not really out there as public knowledge is the most likely outcome of IVF is childlessness; it’s a 70% chance of failure or higher if you’re older, yet what happens to those people in the workplace? Of course, then there are many non-parents who’ve never had fertility treatment, who maybe didn’t want children and many other complex issues as well.

We hear about the miracle babies, but we’re not seeing how that’s impacting those in the workplace who might have wanted children themselves. When I ask my members what they would like to happen, the number one answer that always comes up is to award holiday allocations on an equitable basis between those with and without children, including Christmas. Non-parents have lives and families too and should not be discriminated against on this basis. This causes so much resentment. It’s like, “Oh, you don’t need to have Christmas off. You don’t have kids.”

It’s like, I get first dibs on that, and it’s like, “Well, that’s lovely, but parenting and having a family was a choice, and I don’t see why I should be discriminated against for your choice,” you know? It’s a hot-popping issue, but it needs to be addressed.

And this is another big one that my members would love, “To make all maternity supportive activities, such as collections for baby showers, maternity leave parties, bringing a new baby to work visits opt-in and anonymous.” Now, this could be very simple. It could be, but if someone is planning to bring their new baby into work whilst they’re still on maternity leave, they make an appointment with HR, they have a meeting room for it, and everyone knows about it. Anyone who wants to go and meet the baby can go and meet the baby. There is no shame to those people who are unable to do so or aren’t interested in doing so, and they’re not seen as kind of weird or cold or selfish or weirdos, but, you know, imagine if you’re sort of grieving a miscarriage and someone just forces a baby into your face once you’re at the desk.

It’s not about taking away any joy or any inclusion from parents. It’s about thinking how other people in the workplace might be impacted by that, and to make both possible.’

All of this is fantastic advice that I will certainly be sharing with my clients. My takeaway is quite simple. Whenever I’m talking to a client about parents and family policies, it is to just say, “Well, what about non-parents?”

I did a survey recently with a client, and we found out that quite a high proportion of their staff were parents. And we were having a conversation about that number being higher than we thought and what we should be doing to support those parents, but we weren’t talking about the people who were non-parents. I think for balance, we need to make sure that we’re talking about both in the same conversation. Like Jodie was saying, sense-check against those policies by asking, ourselves, ‘Are the written or informal, unwritten norms around things like taking time off over Christmas or taking time off over the summer and is it fair and equitable between parents and non-parents?’

Before I could let Jody go, I asked for her thoughts on what inclusive growth means to her?

‘I think for me, inclusive growth, thinking of the changing demographics of our society as birth rates drop and are projected to continue to drop, more and more employees in the workplace will be non-parents, especially millennials and Gen-Z. They will expect and demand equitable treatment regardless of their reproductive identity. In my experience, and we talked about this before, when a new category begins to emerge in the diversity field, there can be a kind of resource poverty mentality that gets activated in those whose needs are already and often imperfectly being addressed, and I’m thinking of parents in the workplace.

For example, parents who are often under-supported in the workplace, as are those going through fertility treatments or experiencing a complex path to parenthood and may be fearful that attention on non-parents will mean less support for them, especially as pronatalism fully supports this inequitable point of view and is embedded in our social structure, so fully it appears natural. But for me, inclusive growth means building alliances with parents in the workplace to reassure them that it’s not about them having a smaller piece of the pie. It’s about growing the pie bigger so that everyone can have a piece.’

If this is an issue that impacts you personally, Jody suggests you might want to follow her on Instagram, which is Gateway Women or come to the website to join the Gateway Women Community and look at the many resources on there.

From a professional point of view, with the proviso that there may be an intersection between the professional and the personal for some people, Jody recommends following her on LinkedIn.

Growing The Inclusion Pie - Mildon