Do Single Women Have A Harder Time Saying No At Work?

7 min read

Bright-eyed, and armed with a degree, my friends and I graduated college with a determination to find a job in our field of interest and a zeal that could rival that of Chatur Ramalingam’s. Some took up jobs in advertising, some in film-making, some in financial auditing, and others in tech. As distinct and diverse as our work was, a common thread linking us all together was the automatic, unspoken acceptance of the fact that a life outside work is something we would have to forego for the near future. “Work-life balance” or “work boundaries” was not something we could desire, let alone expect.

“I’m in advertising bro – on a good day I get home at 11 PM.”

“It doesn’t look good to leave before 9. They’ll think I’m not dedicated enough.”

“If they ask me why I want to leave at a reasonable time, what reason can I give that sounds valid enough?”

These are some of the most common justifications we hear from people when this issue is brought up.

The idea of young people with no “familial responsibilities” as such, having to go above and beyond for their work, or risk their performance being perceived negatively, has been propagated and internalised through the years.

The manner in which we’ve internalised patriarchal insecurities of inferiority, and the desire to break out of them, has led to the yardstick for measuring a woman’s empowerment largely being her career.

The belief is that in order to break away from the shackles of years of discrimination and sexism, we must not only pursue careers, but work tirelessly and relentlessly in them, to prove our worth.

While justifying setting up boundaries between your work and your life outside of it, is a tough terrain to scale for everyone – it’s viewed as slightly more acceptable, and less as a transgression on the employee’s part, when the employee is married or is a parent.

It’s harder to justify working only for the hours your job description requires you to, when your superiors don’t perceive you as having a life that’s important enough, outside of work, to want to get home to. If you don’t have parental, household, or familial duties to get to after work, you don’t have have a justified reason to not spend those long hours at work.

You’re expected to devote all your time, mental space, energy (and even your weekends!) to your work, because you can.

This only escalated during the lockdown, when active work hours stretched on well into the night, and weekends of rest have become a rare phenomenon,  because  “what else do you have to do? Go clubbing?(*insert loud laugh*)”

Set Up Realistic And Healthy Work Boundaries For Yourself

If you feel like your schedule is unmanageable, and you’re overworked, but also feel like these grievances will be perceived as a lack of dedication to the job and lead to a negative bias towards your performance, you need to start setting up clear boundaries at work.

Here are 5 tips to setting realistic boundaries that will help you work smarter, increase your productivity, and create a healthy relationship with your work – while also maintaining a level of respect for yourself at the office.

Question How Good Work Is Measured And Understand That Your Time Is As Valuable As Anyone Else’s

Understand that staying late at the office and working to the point of burnout should not be measures of success, or signs that you’re doing a good job at work.

Just because you’re not married does not mean your life outside work does not have value, or that you must necessarily invest it in your work.

Take Into Account Your Personal Priorities

Despite not being a wife or a mother, remind yourself that it is okay, if not extremely necessary – to want to be present and grow yourself in your life outside of it. This could include your home life, passions, relationships, taking care of your physical and mental health, or learning new skills. Don’t feel guilty for wanting to sustain and grow an identity that isn’t just attached to your career.

Communicate Upfront And Communicate Firmly

Once you understand your priorities, communicate them early, in a professional manner. Communicate that you have a class at 6 PM that you need to get to on certain days of the week. Be upfront about your time limits and the degree to which they are flexible. Let your team know that you won’t be available to answer work calls or emails beyond 7 PM.  Communicate clearly what constitutes a “work emergency” that you are willing to be flexible for.

Say No, And Delegate Work When It’s Appropriate

Sometimes you will be asked to do work outside your job description – and that’s okay. However, if you’re already over-burdened with work, see if it’s possible to delegate the work.

Ask yourself if accepting the tasks outside your scope of responsibility will compromise you performing your main functions well, or require you to work for unreasonably long hours. Ask yourself if there’s anyone else on the team who would be better suited to the task, and has the band-width to take it on.

In some cases where delegation or flexibility is not possible, practice saying no – a hard task for most of us.

Say no in a way that doesn’t come off as stubborn or accusatory, but instead explain how you do not want your primary responsibilities or productivity to suffer by taking on more work.

Use Technology To Communicate Structure

Technology can be a great tool to communicate personal boundaries, especially when working from home. You can use technological tools that set your working hours and notify your co-workers about them. You can block off your hours on Google calendar when you are engaged in a specific task and do not want to be disturbed. You can put up statuses on your organisation’s Slack account that make it clear when you’re unavailable, busy with work, or have logged off for the day.

Expect Your Boundaries To Be Questioned , But Don’t Let That Make You Question The Value Of Your Time And Choices

This is bound to be a difficult process. Your peers will probably continue to occasionally push back on your boundaries, and your boss is likely to not understand, and not like the fact that you insist on having them.

However, don’t let this question your belief in what is best for you, your health, your productivity, and your long-term growth.

Don’t let others’ lack of value for your lifestyle choices and  time, affect the way you value them.

Being a single working woman does not mean you must necessarily invest all your time and effort into your work, in order to succeed – it means you have the liberty to invest them in yourself, in order to grow.

You’re invited! Join the Kool Kanya women-only career community where you can network, ask questions, share your opinions, collaborate on projects, and discover new opportunities. Join now.

Sanjana writes far too little to call herself a writer and reads far too much pop-culture fiction to call herself a reader. She once received a Special Mention for the Best Young Critic Award by MAMI, and refuses to stop talking about it. Her love for films, art, and theatre runs deep and is only borderline pretentious. She detests writing in third person but can be convinced to engage in it occasionally.


  1. Have been questioned many a times for my choices in life thanks to being single. Have been with this start up for the past 11 years now and it almost feels like family. So, initially I brushed away their thoughts, opinions and questions under the carpet of their care and protectiveness towards me. And gradually I realised, that I had no social life left. I had chosen to be single for various reasons, one of which was that I loved listening to I, ME and MYSELF. Yet, here I was trying to be a deaf ear to all three of them for my WORK. I used to spend more time at work initially to have an understanding of it, then I started staying back late at work to avoid facing questions of people back home (The over friendly Aunties, Uncles and neighbours) who would walk in any time and not hesitate once in giving their unsolicited advice to me. Yes! You read it right. And then a little while later, I found peace working all alone at work after everyone had gone back home.

    It took me about 7 – 8 years to understand that this act of mine had made people around at work assume that I do not have a personal life beyond work and home is any way being taken care of by my parents. They were right in doing so. And after this realisation, it became hard for me to break this assumption and steer clearcut of it. Me and my colleague, who is also single, decided to give it a try. We both enrolled ourself for a Gym session (right across the street where our office was) and we used to leave work every day at 6 pm sharp. This worried our co-workers for a while. But the nail on the wall was when we started refusing to take calls or respond to emails after 6 pm and before 10 pm the next day.

    Things are not easy at home either. All through the lockdown, Amma thinks all I have done is sit / sleep on my bed with the laptop pretending to work. She thinks she can call out to me any time and tell me some random thing like – “Matar cheel de” or “Pani bhar de” or worse still “Doodh ubal raha hai, dekhle” And if I even try to tell her that I am on a call or I will do it later, she starts off with her TRUMP Card. “I have been slogging all my life for you folks (includes me and my Dad) and you can’t do this small thing for me. What is so important about that call that you can’t take it later? At your age I was working and taking care of family perfectly. And you are totally useless. What did your MBA degree teach you?”

    I guess these are perks of being single. Got to take it with a pinch of salt.

  2. Yes single women have a harder time – not just at work. Somehow, the society seems to think that being single equals being without responsibilities. And it is married women who judge more than the men usually. But then this is an example of our patriarchal conditioning. If we are not essaying a “role” which fits the patriarchal mindset, we basically don’t have responsibilities.


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