Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman


(image courtesy shaow clipart)

Here’s my hypothesis, and I’m wondering if somewhere there’s a good study that brings together these strands: When it comes to workplace bullying and economic insecurity exacerbated by the Great Recession, single women — especially those with dependents — face a sort of double jeopardy.

Specially targeted for bullying?

Workplace bullying targets are not limited to any demographic set.  However, according to the 2007 national prevalence study (link here) conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International pollsters, nearly 6 of every 10 bullying targets are female.

In addition, while conceding that my impressions are anecdotal, I have found that, in my countless unsolicited exchanges with targets seeking legal referrals, unmarried women in their 30s or older, many of whom are single parents, appear to be disproportionately on the receiving end of some of the worst forms of bullying at work.

It makes sense, sadly.  Let’s start with the observation that truly abusive bullies often have a knack for sniffing out vulnerable individuals.  Then we look at potential targets: Demographically speaking, is there any group more vulnerable than single women raising kids?  They already are juggling work and caregiving, their schedules seem timed down to the minute, and not infrequently they are struggling financially — especially if there is no father in the picture.

Single women without children may not be as economically desperate to hold onto their jobs, but they can be very vulnerable as well.  Women in general remain underpaid compared to male counterparts. Those who came out of dissolved marriages may have re-entered the workforce later in life. Circumstances vary, but they may be less likely to have someone to fall back on if bullied out of a job.

Economic insecurity

In a report titled The Other Half: Unmarried Women, Economic Well-Being, and the Great Recession (link here) recently issued by the Center for American Progress and Women’s Voices. Women Vote, Liz Weiss and Page Gardner analyze the economic state of single women in the midst of the Great Recession.

Unmarried women lag behind single men and married couples by many economic measures, including earnings from work and household income, which includes earnings as well as other sources of income such as Social Security or investments. Unmarried women also have much lower median net wealth than men or couples, and they have significant debt. Single women are about as likely to have debt as single men, but the median value of their total debt is greater than single men. All of these factors combine to create a relatively insecure economic picture for unmarried women.

The Other Half is chock-full of facts, figures, and analysis. Clearly the mass media have underreported the impacts of the Great Recession on this significant segment of the population.

Summing up

Membership in any demographic group will not shield one from the realities of today’s workplace and economy. After all, plenty of white males with families and homes in the ‘burbs have experienced difficult work environments and unemployment. But when you start pulling together information about who is targeted for bullying at work and who is suffering financial distress, single women start to emerge as an especially vulnerable group.


Hat tip: I first learned about the work of Women’s Voices. Women Vote and The Other Half at a July Congressional briefing on women and unemployment, sponsored by the Americans for Democratic Action Education Fund, on whose board I serve.


Additional commentary, July 2018 — I wrote this piece some eight years ago, when the ravages of the Great Recession were still being felt most acutely. That said, during the intervening years I have become more aware of the targeting of middle-aged women in workplaces, especially when it comes to bullying, age discrimination, and other negative occurrences. I believe there are some bigger societal forces at play that have powerfully gendered dynamics driving them.

6 responses

  1. I am a single, divorced woman, over 50, and I am the target of mobbing at work. Not only do I not have any financial resources to rely upon, finding another job will be extremely difficult (I have been looking for two years). These bullies at work are well aware that I don’t have the financial resources to fight them, and that is what they are counting on.

  2. Not only am I single, with a a child, but I was returning to the workplace after having cancer and coping with the vulnerability and other challenges involved. The aggression spread into a withholding of accommodations, mobbing on the part of HR, and health damaging investigations that took too much of my strength. I have not read anything about cancer and other serious health matters, and how bullying exploits this vulnerability. The investigation eventually proved I was right. What a waste of so many resources because an appropriate intervention was not made to help me because I was not believed.

  3. Rosemarie and Susan, I’m very sorry that your own circumstances prompted you to write in response, but I appreciate your sharing them with us. Best, David

  4. Interesting to hear the opinion on single or divorced women WITH children. I do agree that single or divorced women overall experience more bullying … however I have had experience that there is one more group even more so – although we can all agree no one really wants to “win” this race! However, I have found women who have never married and never had children are targeted frequently, even asked if they are gay and it is often assumed there is something wrong or “not right” because of having no partner and no children…I tried this experiment myself for fun. And now I state I am divorced rather than “single” and when asked about children I merely state that unfortunately I broke up with my last fellow just around when it was getting too late to have children. Interestingly enough, bullying and aggression at work as virtually stopped (once I moved on to another organization). However, there was one potential bully who even attempted to prod my answers. Interesting. So that is my take…my advice in terms of Human Resources Management to anyone who asks is always to “keep an eye on the single woman with children, and, even more so, perhaps, depending on who is working in the environment, the single woman with no partner and no children…” If the leaders suspect bullying – I tell them this is always the first “place” to observe… My background: I have experience dealing with many targets of workbplace bullying and aggression – and have also been the subject to bullying and aggression. I am invovled in Leadership Training – and we are looking at including this subject manager as part of the curriculum in a new program coming out.

    I definately agree

  5. I think there could be something to it. Certainly deserves more looking into.

    Several years ago, as i began to see the light at the end of the tunnel of a difficult divorce, the polycarbonate floor mat was(metaphorically speaking) rudely yanked right out from underneath my work chair. It was the beginning of many long drawn years of degradation, betrayal and sloppy abuse which limited the institution’s ability to draw in and effectively serve clientele. I do not know whether the timing of this was coincidental, but it certainly brought me to my knees discovering that the employer i had spent the previous decade shielding from legal liability and supporting in a thousand other sincere ways had not only abandoned me but actively sought to take me down.

    That said, your wealth of information and resources has been a bright point. Thank you.

  6. I am the target of work place bullying. I have been a consultant all my life, and amassed over 1 million dollars to start a new venture, realizing there is not VC for females. A technology executive enamored with me…promising marriage, children and white picket fence could not stand my sucess without a F500 behind me. He chose not to marry and wrote mortgages on my house, causing me to lose my life savings. Then ran me over with a car to silence me. I have 2 brain injuries lost a kidney and had to learn to walk. With no medical insurance (preObamacare) I am now vulnerable, getting no medical care, family disappeared (waiting for my demise) , friends happy that my pedestal is broke, and no one to advocate for correct care. I am being told, I don’t need my mind, women dont use executive fuctions, I should be a housewife. I have an IQ of 130, which is why I was DESELECTED for marriage… men don’t want to consider your needs, wants, desires, or consult you. They want to marry who they can control and wont run away and disgrace them. A career woman can run away. I am getting no help from anyone. Married women still fear their husbands interest in me, career women see me as possible competition, men see me as yesterdays gum. Is this the society we really have?

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