Single: Addressing the Professional Stigma

Feb 22, 2011 by

"Women at Work"The single state, at least for women, is a mixed bag professionally.

Sure, on the one hand, employers discriminate favorably in hiring and promoting single women.  They recognize the advantage of having on their team those of us who have few pressing family obligations, bring in that paycheck, and a strong work ethic. There are now a number of discrimination employment lawsuits in professional services such as law contending the employers demoted or terminated those who acquired family responsibilities.

On the other hand, once we’re hired, the workplace can be a tricky environment for single woman.  Some of us are resented because we have the scheduling freedom to accommodate the employers’s or clients’s needs, even whims. The hostility can be palpable.  Some are treated with condescension.  One boss invited me to be “with his family” a Christmas.  In addition, there is that primitive wiring which drives humans to exclude those who are “different.” According to tribal norms, despite the high divorce rate, we are not enough like them.

The more talented and successful we are the harder it is to embrace the reality of this stigma.  I was well into the third decade of my career path before I looked at the dots and then connected them.  I couldn’t duck the pain that I had been treated as “less-than.”

No slouch when it comes to problem solving, I addressed the issue – in fact, very effectively.  Thanks to the success of my tactics, those in the professional loop now treat me so well that there are no jokes any longer about my Jersey City, New Jersey accent.

Here are some of those winning tactics:

The crown jewels. Expensive jewelry tends to transmit the message that some man values us enough to shower us with fine things.  At the top of the list of shrewd investments has been a large custom-set diamond that could easily be interpreted as an engagement ring, no matter what hand I wear it on.  People look down at it and seem to conclude I’m okay in their book.  I first experimented with wearing a small diamond.  That improved how others treated me so much that I moved on to the next level.

Half smile. Single women are assumed to be dour.  Perhaps they were right about me.  Thanks to an executive coach, I now enter situations with a half smile, much like Alicia on “The Good Wife.”  Of course, smiling too much or too often can get us labeled as insecure.  Just a little smiling goes a long way.  I also answer the phone with a half smile in my voice.

Moat of caution. For single women, most of what we say and do can and will be held against us.  While trying hard not to appear guarded, I have built a moat of caution which I stand behind.  Part of that has been to create a menu of clichés.  During the holidays I comment about the beauty of the lights.

Re-routing conversations. Pests will always inhabit the earth.  When they introduce intrusive topics as why I never married, I re-route the conversation to focus on them and their families.  Since family life has its share of disappointment and disgrace, they are put on the defensive.  From then on I am the one in the position of strength.

About the Author

Jane Genova Has Written 24 Articles For Us!

I’m a coach, book author, and lecturer on careers, specializing in transitions. When I was 58, I restarted my professional life. That was in 2003. Since then I have I have muted into one of those renaissance folks who keeps multiple lines of work going. My latest book Over-50: How We Keep Working has helped thousands of people realize that exciting careers don’t depend on your age. I write four blogs: Jane Genova, Law and More, Career Transitions, Over-50.
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  1. Jane – As I read your post the image that came to mind was not unlike the road that Alice traveled when she fell down the rabbit hole. Sometimes the world we find ourselves in has rules that make no sense to our reality. Thanks for the ideas of how to navigate without shouting “Off with her head!”

  2. Rebecca Crichton

    Great ideas Jane. I knew there might be some reason a diamond could be in my life. Maybe I deduct the expense as business? The Moat of Caution is a powerful tool for situations where we are getting a feel for our safety and for whether we want to deepen the connection. I know it goes in the face of the instant intimacy that some people think is necessary to make friends, but I think it creats a space for learning about what the future might hold with people we don’t know. Thanks for the honesty.

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