On the Beach or Sweating at Work? Depends on Gender

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By Genevieve Douglas

While August marks a quieter office, an uptick in away messages, and a general summer slowdown at work, not all employees take the same approach to using their vacation leave.

Nine out of 10 employers offer some form of paid annual leave, and the median amount of leave is 15 days, according to Bloomberg data. But women and men are using vacation leave differently, and not because they receive different benefits—they perceive different expectations at work.

Those workplace culture factors can translate into real gender gaps in vacation leave use. Research firm CivicScience found that of all of the respondents who said they were planning to use all of their vacation time, 56 percent were men while only 44 percent were women.

“We see women getting stuck in the guilt trap of putting work on someone else by taking vacation. They tend to take less time overall because of this,” Katie Denis told Bloomberg Law Aug. 1. She is the vice president and lead researcher at Project: Time Off, an initiative to encourage vacation leave.

Vacation leave use between genders also can differ based on the other kinds of paid leave an employee has used, Kimberly Churches, CEO of the American Association of University Women, told Bloomberg Law Aug. 1. “As women are entering the workforce, if they’ve taken maternity leave there can be pressure or guilt to show they are serious about staying at that job, or working hard, or worry about the perception that they’ve taken too much time away.”

Perception Trumps Policy

Regardless of an organization’s vacation leave policy, women often perceive different vacation expectations from co-workers and supervisors, Denis said.

According to Project: Time Off’s annual vacation leave survey, 62 percent of men report that their company wants them to use all of their leave, while 63 percent of women feel that their workplace culture doesn’t encourage them to take leave. “There is more of a hang-up about women taking leave, and they just feel more of those pressures,” Denis said.

“The psychology behind use of leave is complicated,” Liz Supinski, director of data science for the Society for Human Resource Management’s research team, told Bloomberg Law Aug. 2. “Employees, organizations, and organizational cultures tend to overlook the fact that paid leave is part of your compensation package. You’re entitled to it.”

Taking vacation is important for a variety of factors: performance, morale, wellness, productivity, retention, and workplace culture, Supinski said, but “there’s a communications gap.” While human resources professionals understand that employees should take their vacation, “employees are still not getting that message loud and clear.”

Clarity, Transparency Needed

Employers can address these discrepancies by having regular training and ongoing information sessions on leave and benefits, including regular surveys and audits to see if there are implicit or explicit biases holding women back, Churches said.

“Clarity and transparency can help eliminate or change those cultural norms if they’re not benefiting employees,” she said.

Discrepancies in leave also may be influenced by individual managers or smaller teams within an organization. Each supervisor has a different philosophy, and if one group of workers isn’t taking any vacation leave, that must be addressed, Churches said.

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