National Single Parents Day: Reflecting on single parents and employment

Posted on: 21 March 2024 by Dr Laura Radcliffe in Research

National Single Parents Day: Reflecting on single parents and employment

On National Single Parents Day, Dr Laura Radcliffe reflects on how we can attract, support and retain single parents in the workplace, with an emphasis on the added pressure faced by single mothers.

Every 21 March, National Single Parents Day recognises the hard work and dedication of single parents in our society.

Single-parent households are common across OECD countries, constituting around one in four families in the UK and USA, the majority of which are headed by women.

Although single parenthood is often a temporary state in the life course of many people, it can permanently alter single parents’ career trajectories, which is something we need to improve as a society.

Research highlights how, due to lack of another adult within the household, single parents are likely to experience greater challenges in managing competing work and family requirements.

They often face additional pressures due to being the sole or main breadwinner, while simultaneously being predominantly responsible for hands on caregiving.

They also lack the support systems available to couples, such as the ability to divide household chores and responsibilities, engage in turn-taking with a partner when it comes to childcare, or the availability to generate dual-income.

Extra pressure on single mothers

Societal attitudes towards single mothers often perpetuate negative stereotypes and stigmatisation, leading to additional pressures involved in navigating a devalued social identity.

Society has often portrayed single parents as a problem because they don't fit the traditional family model, as uncommitted employees, or as people who receive benefits and drain society's resources.

These harmful stereotypes still exist today, despite more single parents being in the UK workforce than ever before

Unfortunately, these attitudes also ignore the extra challenges that single parents often face in relation to employment.

Our research with single mothers, published in the British Journal of Management, shows that the experience and internalisation of stigma often results in still further additional work striving to avoid association with stigmatised stereotypes.

They do this by trying to go the extra mile to prove they are exceptional parents and employees, and they can do it all independently, without needing support.

There is therefore additional pressure involved in navigating a stigmatised family identity, which further exacerbates work-family conflict and negatively impacts their wellbeing.

Motivated to progress if work conditions facilitate single-motherhood

Our research has also revealed that paid employment is highly valued by single mothers, as it plays a crucial role in maintaining a positive self-image.

Moreover, our findings indicate that single mothers are highly motivated to progress in their careers when they have access to flexible working arrangements, encouragement and support for career development.

These factors empower single mothers to strive towards career advancement and success.

However, where this is not the case, single mothers are likely to end up working below their skill levels, which has negative implications for individual well-being, but also for organisations and society.

Yet, even for those single mothers who do progress at work and are able to continue to strive for such progression, this still comes at a cost due to unsustainable workloads and expectations of work primacy, leading to frequent work-family conflicts and exhaustion.

Therefore, current incommensurate work and family ideals, alongside workplace cultures of overwork, always comes at a particular cost to single parents.

The role of organisations in supporting single parents

In conclusion, single parents face unique challenges and pressures in managing competing role requirements, making meeting the requirements of paid employment challenging.

However, they often strive to progress at work despite these challenges.

As we celebrate National Single Parents Day, let us take a moment to appreciate and recognise the hard work of single parents in facing and overcoming unique challenges in navigating work, family, and stigma. 

Let us consider how we as a society, as employers, or as line managers, can provide support to help challenge stigmatised stereotypes of single parents and to practically support them in managing exacerbated work-family conflict.

Such support might include flexible work arrangements, access to affordable childcare and efforts to shift cultural attitudes towards single parents.

By acknowledging and addressing these challenges, we can help single parents to achieve sustainable employment and progression, as well as a better work–life balance and improved well-being, and in doing so, create a more equitable society for all.


Laura Radcliffe

Dr Laura Radcliffe

Reader in Organisational Behaviour 

You can read Laura's paper here:

Radcliffe, L., Cassell, C., and Malik, F. (2022). 'Providing, performing and protecting: the importance of work identities in negotiating conflicting work–family ideals as a single mother', British Journal of Management, 33(2), 890-905