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  • By Germana Barba

Is Marriage Our Winning Ace?

The number of single people is increasing everywhere, yet we still prefer the married

I’ve been single for most of my life. Somehow, the idea of getting married and building my own family has always been less attractive than having a lot of social connections, reading many books, and being very engaged in practicing freedom. Like a lot of other women in my generation, I’ve spent quite some energy trying to impose myself as someone whose many interests did not necessarily include being someone’s wife.

With half of all marriages ending in divorce, it could be said that long gone are the days where forming a family was universally celebrated. At least in Europe and the U.S., next to the old belief that “married people are happier” now comfortably sits the idea of a “happy singlehood”, as Hebrew University of Jerusalem Professor Elyakim Kislev’s book calls it.

And yet, the reality is that married men with children are still the prevailing model of leaders. In its history, the U.S. has had only two Presidents that entered office unmarried, both men serving in the role more than a century and a half ago. In the private sector, different research studies worldwide converge on close to 90% of CEOs being married, with corporate governance expert and Stanford professor David F. Larcker arguing that “what goes on in the personal lives of executives can matter to the company.” Social changes do not seem to affect our archetypal preferences.

Are married people more “responsible”?

I was never a CEO, but when I became an executive, I was, to my knowledge, the only unmarried one in my peer group (to be fair, I was also the youngest one). No husband to talk about. No child-related commitment that made me justifiably late for work. For some reason, I prided myself on keeping my private life completely separate. That must have worked pretty well if one of my former bosses told a colleague that I “did not have a social life”. Quite the opposite. But speaking about the party I had gone to the night before a major company meeting or my upcoming blind date in the evening after an exhausting budget discussion felt inappropriate. Perhaps I was wrong about this. Talking about our personal lives with our work colleagues without fear of being judged is crucial to the ecosystem — as I have been taught by pretty much all of the leadership courses I’ve attended.

To be fair, I never felt that my “singletude” was a reason for colleagues to insinuate that there was something wrong with me. My discretion was more due to the idea that others would not be so interested in my private life unless it was something they could relate to — so talking about it with other singles felt more natural. But I know of other women and men who do feel embarrassed because they don’t conform to the married-with-children tale. I also know people who aren’t married, but at work refer to their partner as their “wife”. I guess a marriage — even a bad one — is largely understood, but singlehood leaves much to the imagination. Us singles could be spending the evening eating chocolate in front of the TV (alone, of course), or having an alcoholic blast with a million people, or a thousand other options in between, including very romantic and gratifying relationships that would come pretty close to perfect love. Faced with so many unpredictable answers, questions are wisely avoided from the get-go. At times though, intimate convictions come out in the open. A former boss telling me that, at age 35, it was time for me to think of settling down. A colleague admitting to some of his co-workers that his wedding band made it easier for him to climb the corporate ladder. A peer commenting that since I don’t have children, I have a lot of free time, and I can spend my salary all on myself.

There is a theory that matrimony is the “normal” state of a responsible adult, and companies like its executives to be “normal” and “responsible”. Now, family as a proxy for stability, responsibility, and commitment could even be understandable on a superficial level, but what about the fact that single people tend to be tremendously dedicated to work, very talented at networking, and arguably more motivated by the job itself rather than the money because they don’t have to provide for others? Many companies’ policies have benefit systems that clearly favor married over non-married employees (from schooling assistance to family-wide health insurance and career advice for spouses), particularly at higher levels. Obviously, nuclear families have higher costs than single people, but I also know ex-colleagues who financially support their parents, or widowed mothers, or less fortunate nephews. Aren’t these equal indicators of responsible behaviors? Is the (often broken) life-long commitment to another person the only obligation that counts?

The real meaning of “diversity”

The simple truth is, we can no longer afford to think that one arrangement is more “normal” than another one, or our organizations will never become attractive for the groups that are least represented.

Overtime, the word diversity has been simplified to indicate how many women or members of minority groups occupy leading positions. Which, in my view, equals to talk about the effect instead of the cause. In its original formulation, diversity was about recognizing individual differences along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious and political beliefs, etc. It is really about a pluralism of ways of being rather than the simple presence of specific groups where decisions are made. In fact, the latter is likely to be caused, at least in part, by the former. Clarifying what we truly mean by diversity is absolutely critical, or we risk following a recipe for failure.

One of the primary challenges to instilling an authentic, diverse mindset is that companies with strong cultures have performed better historically, and this assumes a baseline level of similarities across leadership and the workforce. If this is the belief of the top of an organization, the idea that differences in how we think and what we believe can provide a wellspring of creativity and innovation may not be genuinely embraced. Charles De Gaulle’s famously said, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” It also boils down to one of humans’ most classical ways of functioning: we tend to understand and prefer what is similar to us and be uncomfortable with people who hold habits and beliefs that are far away from ours. That leads to the paradox that companies wanting to truly open up to diversity often assign this task to individuals who are themselves the expression of the prevailing company culture, instead of putting in charge someone who deviates from it significantly. If you want your clothing style to become ‘cooler’, would you ask for advice from your 70-year-old aunt or your 19-year-old niece?

Organizations aren’t islands

In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reported that more than 120 million U.S. residents, or almost 48% of adults aged 18 or older, were divorced, widowed, or had never been married. In London, unmarried people have outnumbered married people. Similar numbers can be found in most large cities around the world. Also, people tend to marry later compared to the past, which has implications for organizations seeking to recruit young people.

Organizations are not islands. They live and breathe in society. Society is made of a wealth of beliefs, orientations, social arrangements, and ways of being. All equally legitimate to the extent that they do not harm others. The more an organization is in tune with society, the more competitive it will be.

Fascination with royal and presidential families may still pervade our collective consciousness and exist in our minds also to keep alive our childhood fairy tales. We all like to escape to glamorous dreams every now and then. But it is time to stop pretending that unmarried people are something less. Resisting society’s mandate to life-long coupledom requires courage and at the very least is a sign of independence and resilience. And it may serve future generations well for them to pursue the life that suits them best, rather than the one prescribed.



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