With one in five of us living alone, why are women being discriminated against because of their single status?
Standing on a beach in Goa and chatting to other wedding guests, travel writer Meera Dattani was having a lovely time. Until, that is, another guest started talking to her. ‘I was one of the very few singles over 30 and, when he found out I was 39 and unattached, he asked me whether I’d “given up”. I was stunned and said, “I’m 39, not dead.”’
For Meera, it was just the latest example of singlism – the outdated attitudes women are often subjected to if they don’t have a husband or partner. She says, ‘It’s like there is a section of society that
thinks single women are a bit odd. If you’ve found someone who agrees to live with you and spend time with you then you get “stamped” with approval – you’ve met the requirements of life. If you haven’t been “validated” – and are single – there can be a suspicion about you, that there’s something a bit wrong with you.’
Meera isn’t the only one to experience this prejudice based purely on her relationship status. In fact, singlism is a widespread form of discrimination, so much so that when the TED blog featured a piece from expert Bella DePaulo in October called The Price Of Being Single,
it generated thousands of retweets and online comments.
‘Singlism is stereotyping, stigmatising and discrimination against people who are single,’ says Bella. ‘People want to believe that marriage is a transformational experience and that people who get married or are in couples will be happier, healthier and just better people. That, I’ve shown in my research, is just not true. The number of single people is growing and growing, yet singlism isn’t diminishing.’
According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 22% of women and 28% of men currently live alone in the UK. The number has been steadily rising – in 1996, there were 3.9 million women living alone, increasing to 4.1 million in 2012. And according to the ONS, by 2020 there will be another two million households where people live alone.
Since Sex And The City celebrated single life, the idea that women can be happy without a relationship has been accepted as totally obvious by most enlightened people. ‘All the big things associated with marriage have come undone,’ says Bella. ‘Women can support themselves, advancements in reproductive science mean they can have children alone and many are buying houses and not waiting to get married to create a real, meaningful and fulfilling life.’
Yet single women still encounter prejudice in many different aspects of their lives – housebuying being one. Rachel*, 33, an entrepreneur from Hampshire, says, ‘I saw a flat I really liked and phoned the estate agent to book in a viewing. He was quite old-school and asked me to bring my husband. When I said I wasn’t married he asked me to bring my boyfriend. When I said I was single, he went quiet. At the actual viewing I don’t feel he listened to me, and was pointing out the ‘pretty’ features rather than talking to me seriously about the property. Needless to say, I didn’t buy through him.’
It’s not just attitudes that are affected by relationship status. Single women’s reputations and standing at work can also be viewed negatively according to Bella. A study found six out of 10 single people claim to have experienced some form of singlism at work. One in three said they were expected to work weekends or longer hours, while one in five said they were expected to travel more for work than their coupled-up colleagues.
Office worker Laura*, 25, says, ‘I was expected to cover all the awful shifts over Christmas just because I’m single. My colleagues argued that they had events in the diary with their partners that were just so important. And although it was unsaid, I knew they were implying that because I was single, I clearly wouldn’t have anyone to let down. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.’
Bella DePaulo suggests meeting this discrimination head on. ‘Part of singlism is being viewed as a less valid person. And it’s not just that people have these stereotypes and think these demeaning things about you, but some stereotypes get translated into unfair treatment, like being expected to cover the times at work no one wants to do. I’d suggest saying, “Yes, I can help you this time because in a few months I have an event so you can cover for me.” That way you’re not saying, “No, I won’t do it,” but you’re making it clear that this is the workplace and everyone should be treated equally.’
Except they are not. According to Bella’s research, people view singles as more self-centred and less socially mature than those who are married. She also found that single people were paid less, with married men getting paid around 26% more than single men. ‘It’s a prejudice, thinking that you must be more responsible or a better worker. There’s no evidence that’s true.’
But perhaps one of the most frustrating – not to mention hurtful – elements is the prejudice from friends. ‘You might find your coupled-up friends want you to entertain them with stories of your single life,’ says Bella. ‘Or they just assume you are an object of pity – “You poor thing, whatcanIdotosetyouuporfixyouup,” as though you’re broken.
‘Another thing is when couples make plans with other couples and leave out their single friends. The worst version of that is when they make plans right in front of their single friend, saying, “Let’s have
a couples dinner this weekend.” How rude and hurtful. And even worse is when coupled friends get more seriously coupled or get married and they ditch their single friends altogether. They feel they’ve made it into the married couples club and now they are better than single people.’
Meera is fighting back against the singlism. ‘I’ve been single on and off for five years now and whenever I catch up with people they ask if I’m seeing anyone. When I say no, they say things like, “I just don’t understand why you’re single,” and list all my attributes, which I find annoying.
‘There is an unspoken question mark about what do you do when it is just you – the belief that life can’t be fulfilling. For some of us, it may not be what we imagined, but it can and should be rewarding. Being with someone and bringing up children doesn’t automatically make you an asset to society.’
Bella DePaulo is the author of ‘Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, And Ignored, And Still Live Happily Ever After’