Singles Speak Out

By Ann DeLong Greenberg (2/2008)

This article is reprinted with permission from FS Direct, a publication of the Family Liaison Office of the Department of State.

We asked and you answered! The Family Liaison Office’s (FLO) first ever survey of singles in the Department clearly struck a chord, as evidenced by the 973 responses received over a period of two weeks. The survey was designed by FLO’s Crisis Management and Support Officer to assess singles’ use of and satisfaction with Community Liaison Office (CLO) services at post and FLO services in Washington. We also wanted to get as much information as possible on the range of issues confronting singles at post so that we could provide detailed information to senior management in the Department. Comments covered a range of topics including aspects of people’s social lives, to working conditions and administrative issues, to suggestions for how better to support singles within the Department.

For purposes of the survey, FLO intentionally used a broad definition of “single”, which included anyone who is not married or anyone who has a long-term partner, is engaged, separated or separating (spouse or partner), divorced, or widowed. Demographic data from posts indicate the single population to be about a third of Foreign Service (FS) employees overseas. Of those who responded to the survey, 66% are female and 34% are male. Sixty-one percent are single, never married, while 23% are divorced. Eight percent have a long-term partner and 3% are engaged. The majority (61%) are between the ages of 30 and 50 years old and just over half have been with the Department for less than 5 years; 73% have been with the Department less than 10 years. Eleven percent of the respondents have an EFM accompanying them at post, while 9% are accompanied by a Member of Household (MOH). Nearly 86% of the respondents work for the Department of State and 5% for USAID. Like all of FLO’s programs, the survey was open to anyone serving under Chief of Mission authority, so employees from the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury and the Peace Corps also participated in the survey.

Singles were asked to name their three biggest concerns at post. The issue cited most often was the social environment, both inside and outside the mission, followed by the availability of recreational activities. Others mentioned security/safety, mobility, language and family (including elder care, parent, and children’s issues) as their biggest concerns. While some clearly were relying on the CLO and the Embassy to provide a framework for their social lives, others singles stated, “I don’t need an organized social life—I am capable of self-entertaining.”

Eighty-three percent said they participate in CLO activities at least some of the time. Welcome and orientation (the sponsorship program) and events planning were by far the two areas of CLO responsibility most utilized by singles. When asked which CLO activities they enjoyed most, about half cited organized travel and trips (including city orientations and weekend trips), while a quarter cited parties and social get-togethers, followed by holiday celebrations and shopping opportunities. Many singles appreciated the safety, comfort, and company provided by organized trips and this was an area where they would like to see even more opportunities.

When asked why those who don’t participate in CLO activities choose not to, many said CLO activities are too family oriented. Others cited time constraints or the fact that the activities were organized during work hours and therefore biased towards spouses, as reasons for not participating. Others indicated they had interests outside the Embassy and did not need CLO activities.

Most (55%) singles said they are not necessarily interested in activities designed specifically for singles, though they do appreciate adults-only events. As one person commented, “I’m not anti-kid, but it changes the dynamics of a group and the conversations when kids are present.” When asked what kind of activities they would be interested in, many indicated an interest in the types of activities already organized but with special consideration for single participation, i.e. shopping trips and events on weekends; adults-only events; more trips for singles who are not comfortable traveling alone; cultural events; mixers with local singles or singles from other embassies; and more community service opportunities. Sixty-four percent stated that they would be willing to help organize activities which were specifically for singles or adult oriented.

When asked about the Family Liaison Office, several people commented, “It’s not for me. Just the name Family Liaison Office indicates that.” Only 11% thought FLO was concerned or very concerned about singles. Interestingly, however, only a small percentage of respondents (13%) had ever used the FLO internet or intranet sites (www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo) for information but, of those who did, 69% said they found the information they were seeking. Fifteen percent had contacted FLO on MOH issues. Clearly we have some outreach to do to emphasize that FLO has always provided services and programs to the broad Foreign Service “family,” including the very important singles population. Although survey results indicate that many people see FLO as only serving a traditional, nuclear, State Department family, when we talk about the “Foreign Service family” in FLO, we are talking about a very broad and inclusive “family” that includes any American U.S. government employee who is serving, has served, or will be serving under Chief of Mission Authority and their family members or Members of Household.

Single parents (10% of respondents of which 80% are female; 50% are divorced; and 46% are between the ages of 40-50) had somewhat different concerns. Their biggest concern at post is the quality of education, followed by being a single parent, security issues, and the availability of recreational activities and childcare. Single parents tended to actively participate in and appreciate CLO-sponsored activities, especially those geared towards children. They were more likely to contact FLO for information on the CLO program, education and youth services, and MOH issues. Several suggested an online listserv for single parents.

Singles responding to the survey also provided comments on a number of administrative issues they face at post. The survey indicated perceptions on the part of some singles that: their needs and wishes are not considered when housing decisions are made; they are often the first to be called upon to stay late or work overtime; they are required to work disproportionately over the holidays; they are not given the same consideration as those with spouses and children during the bidding and assignments process; they are disadvantaged because they do not have help with administrative and personal tasks when they first arrive at post or when they depart post; and, while they believe that they often save the government money, they are not compensated for this. While not everyone would necessarily agree with these perceptions, we will be raising all of these concerns with management.

Additionally, some respondents expressed the belief that the Department actively discriminates against those with MOHs. Many complained of the difficulty living overseas with an MOH who is not entitled to the same benefits EFMs enjoy, including language training, visa support, paid travel, access to MED, inclusion in housing assignment decisions, and access to post facilities. A few mentioned that MOHs are sometimes not included in official or even community activities. Where not strictly prohibited by law, FLO and CLO our programs and services are always available to all family members, EFMs and MOHs. There was some acknowledgement of this amongst respondents, with specific thanks for MOH inclusion in programs like the Cox Professional Development Fellowships.

As part of the survey, FLO received many thoughtful suggestions on how we can improve our programs and services to singles. Some of these suggestions are already being implemented in FLO and at the Embassy level through the CLO program, though we realize we need to do a better job conveying this. We also got many suggestions for specific programs and activities, some of which can be easily implemented, that we have forwarded to CLOs at post. We know now that we need to work to design programs that are more sensitive to the needs of singles at post and better advertise those programs that are already available to singles. We also know that we need to advocate, where we are able, on behalf of our single population to ensure that administrative policies are not being implemented solely based on marital status. We thank all of you who participated in the survey for taking the time to give us such valuable feedback. We appreciate your participation and encourage you to continue this dialog with FLO. Be assured that this survey is just the beginning of what will be a continued FLO focus on the issues raised by singles. AAFSW has more information about about FLO, including contact information.

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