Your Status as a Single Person Is a Diversity Issue

Although it is rarely recognized as such, unmarried status is a diversity issue.

Posted Jan 28, 2016

[Note from Bella: I first wrote this as a column for Unmarried Equality. Because it was viewed by so many people there, and got picked up by several other publications that were also interested, I wanted to share it here, too.]

DW labs Incorporated/Shutterstock
Source: DW labs Incorporated/Shutterstock

Get married. Have kids. Stay married. That's the script for how adult lives are supposed to unfold. Never mind that in the U.S., the script maps onto the real lives of fewer and fewer people all the time. Nearly half of all adults 18 and older are legally single, and growing numbers will never marry, often by choice. Even with the legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the land, significant numbers of committed couples will keep their commitment but skip the marriage. And of those who do marry, close to half won't stay that way. The kid part of the script has been upended, too: A growing number of single people have kids, and an increasing number of couples do not.

I. The Script That Remains Powerful, Even as Fewer People Actually Follow It

Even as the way we live now has become strikingly diverse—with nuclear family households accounting for an astonishingly low 20 percent (or less) of all households—the power of the script still prevails. Our laws, our politics, our workplaces, and our places of worship all seem to take that outdated script as a given. It is as if we all really were living our lives that way, or should be, or should want to be. That standard life script also dominates the mediaadvertising, academia, and the experiences of our everyday lives.

Thoughtful people attuned to issues of social justice know one of the most consequential implications of the supremacy of the standard life script: It is the overwhelming numbers of laws and policies that benefit and protect only those people who follow it. Those who stray from the valued life path are disadvantaged in all the ways that the advocates for same-sex marriage described so compellingly—and in other ways as well.

But the lesser status of the Americans who do not follow the golden brick road—well over 100 million of them—is not just a legal matter. It is also a diversity issue. There are exquisite sensitivities in the U.S. and elsewhere to all sorts of categories of people who lay claim to consideration in diversity programs. However, the case for those who are not married can be difficult to make.

I was reminded of this when Kevin Markey, a member of the Community of Single People from the U.K., described his unsuccessful attempt to get some recognition for single and unmarried people in his workplace. I'll share his story, then explain why his "Diversity Champion" was anything but, and why the status of not being married deserves consideration as a serious diversity issue. Unmarried status is a diversity issue in the workplace, but it should also be an issue in many other arenas as well.

II. An Example of a Workplace That Prides Itself on Valuing Diversity, But Offered Only Dismissiveness Toward Unmarried Employees

Kevin Markey should have had an easy time having people hear him. His organization prides itself on the diversity of its membership and the seriousness with which it considers issues of diversity. His workplace has "Diversity Champions" who are "responsible for supporting and encouraging progress of our diversity agenda." The Champions focus on eight categories:

  1. Age
  2. Careers
  3. Disability
  4. Gender
  5. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual
  6. Race
  7. Religion or belief
  8. Transgender

So when Markey wrote a letter explaining the importance of valuing and recognizing people who are not married, and sent it to the Chief Executive and Diversity Advocate of his organization, he didn't expect them to dismiss him out of hand. The person responding on behalf of the Diversity Advocate explained that they chose the eight categories based on "evidence of the need to:

  • Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment, and victimization.
  • Advance equality of opportunity.
  • Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who don't."

The responding person added that the organization had conducted a survey that indicated no need for a Champion for people who are unmarried, single, or in civil partnerships.

III. Why Unmarried Status Is a Diversity Issue

Markey's diversity advocate found no evidence of a need to "eliminate unlawful discrimination" against unmarried people. At least as it applies to people in the U.S., this claim is the easiest to knock down. We all know that at the federal level alone, there are more than 1,000 ways in which only those who are legally married receive full benefits and protection. We also know, from systematic research, that there is housing discrimination against people who are not married, including unmarried couples. We also know that married men often have higher pay than single people—sometimes much more—even when the married and single men are equal in seniority and accomplishments. That sounds like a violation of "equality of opportunity" to me. If we had a more robust and far-reaching inquiry into the status of married and unmarried Americans across many domains, I think we would find even more evidence for unlawful discrimination.

The other "need" on the list is to "foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who don't." On the face of it, that might seem to be the silliest case to try to make. Do we really need to teach married and unmarried people how to relate to each other?

What I think we do need is a recognition of the value of the lives of people who are not married. We need to appreciate the people and the pursuits that make the lives of single people meaningful. Unmarried people in the workplace should face no greater demands to justify their lives than married people do.

For example:

  • If your employer believes that the wishes of your married coworkers (or your coworkers with children, if you don't have any) deserve greater priority than your own with regard to leaving work early, choosing vacation times, or covering for the holidays, that's a diversity issue.
  • If your employer believes it should allow your married coworkers special consideration when their spouse dies or becomes seriously ill, but cannot fathom why an unmarried person would want the same consideration for the most important person in their life, that's a diversity issue.
  • If your employer wants to know why you want particular vacation times, or why you don't want particular travel assignments, but never asks your married coworkers to justify comparable requests, that's a diversity issue.
  • If your employer believes that married men are more responsible than single men, and promotes and pays them more even when their work is no better than that of comparable single men, that's a diversity issue.

Those are some of the more obvious ways that unmarried status should count as a diversity issue. There are many others, relevant to the friendliness or hostility of a workplace. Micro-aggressions have gotten a bad name, amidst all the complaints about people being overly sensitive and too politically correct. Most of the whining, I suspect, comes from people who are not targets of the rude, insensitive, or just plain uninformed remarks.

Consider, for example, just a few of the kinds of workplace interactions that many unmarried Americans have told me (and others) that they have experienced:

  • If you are a solo single person, do your coworkers assume that what you want, more than anything else, is to become unsingle? Do they try to "fix" you up, as if you were broken? Do they try to get you to entertain them with stories of your dating life or your sex life? Do they do these things even when your responses to previous instances should have made it clear that you don't like any of it?
  • If you are in an unmarried couple, do your coworkers badger you with inquires about when you are going to make it official, even if you've discouraged such inquiries in the past?
  • If you are a solo single, do you find that mostly couples-only topics of interest dominate informal conversations? Do your coworkers ask about the people and pursuits that are important to their married colleagues, but can't think of anything to ask you other than "are you seeing anyone" or "how did that date go on Friday night?"
  • Have your coupled coworkers ever planned a social event in front of you, while making it clear that it is a couples-only event?

Maybe these examples sound pretty trivial, each as light as a feather. But a ton of feathers is just as crushing as a ton of sterner stuff. Interactions with unmarried people should not be surround stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions any more than interactions with other categories of people should. Stereotyping, stigmatizing, mocking, marginalizing, or ignoring people based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, social class, religion, or disability should all be unacceptable. So should the same, as they applied to unmarried people. These are all diversity issues.

IV. What It Would Take to Advance Unmarried Status as a Diversity Issue

The U.K. diversity advocate mentioned three ways of addressing diversity issues: eliminating discrimination; advancing equality of opportunity; and fostering good relationships. Typically, representation is also a core diversity issue, and that matters, too. It matters not just as a matter of fundamental fairness, but also as a way of giving everyone the gift of deeper, clearer, and more expansive ways of thinking. A diverse workplace saves organizations from mental ruts.

For unmarried people—or people in any groups that are not the culturally dominant ones—to think about their lives in ways that standard scripts do not constrain, it helps to have resources dedicated to their lives. With regard to race and ethnicity, for instance, universities now often have entire programs of study devoted to people who are not European whites. The media has public intellectuals, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, who will talk about his experiences in ways that people who do not share them never could.

But even numerical representation and cultural resources are not enough. Can students raise their hands in classrooms and safely make the points that Coates makes? What would happen if they tried to broach such issues among a diverse group of peers? On matters of race, though, we are further along than we are on matters of unmarried status. We still don't have much by way of scholarly research and writings on life outside of marriage—or not much that takes single life, rather than marriage, as its starting point and true focus. We don't have public intellectuals getting serious media attention, either. So in our classrooms and workplaces, and in all of the pathways and domains of our everyday lives, people who are not married still face dismissive treatment when they ask that their lives be taken seriously.


(1) For references to studies documenting pay discrimination against single men, and more detailed discussions and documentation of other forms of discrimination, see Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.

(2) For more on the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people in many different domains, see Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It.

(3) For more about the many ways that people really are living their lives, see How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.

(4) Thanks to Kevin Markey for letting me share his story here.

(5) The opinions expressed here are my own, and not the official position of Unmarried Equality.