The Workplace Gender Gap You Probably Didn't Realize Exists

It’s no secret that gender inequality in the workplace is still very much a problem — and according to a new study, there’s yet another factor at play that most of us probably haven’t considered: Millennial women take less vacation time than men do, often because they feel the demands placed upon them much more keenly. That’s right: On top of the gender wage gap, the gender confidence gap, and all sorts of other sexist gaps that exist in the working world, there’s a gender vacation gap, too.

For the Project: Time Off report "The State of American Vacation 2017," marketing research firm GfK gathered data via an online survey of 7,331 American workers conducted between Jan. 26 and Feb. 20, 2017. The workers surveyed were all 18 years of age or older, worked more than 35 hours a week, and had paid time off as one of their job's benefits. The sample size included people at all levels; about a third of them (2,593) were managers, with 479 being senior leaders with executive titles or similar and 2,083 being middle managers. The remaining 4,738 employees were non-managers.

The good news is that generally speaking, Americans took a tiny bit more vacation in 2016 than they did in 2015 (to the tune of 16.8 vacation days in 2016, compared to 16.2 the previous year). Weirdly, though, there seems to be a disconnect in how managers feel about employees taking vacation time and how employees think their company culture feels about it: 82 percent of managers believe that taking vacation time can improve employees’ health and well-being, 81 percent believe it can help with burnout, and 82 percent believe it boosts morale — but 66 percent (fully two-thirds!) of employees feel like the message they’re getting from their company about taking time off is ambivalent at best and discouraging at worst.

Furthermore, it appears from the survey data that this disconnect affects women and men differently, particularly in the Millennial demographic. At 48 percent, men in general were more likely to use all their allotted vacation time in 2016, while women in general hovered around 44 percent. Within the Millennial cohort specifically, however, 51 percent of men used all their vacation time — three percent more than men more generally — while for women, the figure stayed at 44 percent. That seven percent difference is not insignificant, especially consider that the percentage of Millennial men taking all their vacation time rose from 44 percent in 2015, while the percentage of Millennial women doing the same actually dropped (from 46 percent) over the same time period.

Project: Time Off posits that stress levels, guilt, and concerns about workload might be responsible for the differences in how many women use all their vacation time versus how many men do. According to the survey results, women report feeling more stressed than men both at home and at work; 48 percent of women feel stress at home, while only 40 percent of men do, and 74 percent of women feel stress at work, while only 67 percent of men do. What’s more, the perception of company culture looking down on employees taking vacation time seems to affect Millennial women more than men: 69 percent believe they receive either nothing or mixed or negative messages about taking vacation time, with only 63 percent of men believing the same.

And here, I would argue, is where the key to the whole thing lies: Even when the message being transmitted is ostensibly the same, the expectations our culture places on women, which often differ so dramatically from those placed on men, mean that women end up suffering disproportionately as a result.

Consider the fact that, even in heterosexual households where both partners work, women still shoulder the majority of chores and childcare — findings that have been underlined by multiple studies, including this one from researchers out of Fairleigh Dickinson and Montclair State Universities and this one from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK (both were published in the fall of 2016). No wonder women are more stressed at home than men are; our work day doesn’t end when we leave the office — it just picks up again as soon as we get home, only this time, it’s all unpaid labor.

What’s more, the full report contains a table comparing the barriers to taking time off between Millennial women and Millennial men — and the figures are telling. Let me break it down for you here:

  • 50 percent of women fear returning to a mountain of work, while only 44 percent of men feel the same;
  • 40 percent of women feel that there’s no one else who can do their job, while only 35 percent of men feel the same;
  • 37 percent of women feel the need to show complete dedication to their job, while only 32 percent of men feel the same;
  • 35 percent of women actually feel guilty for taking time off, while only 25 percent of men feel the same;
  • And 32 percent of women are afraid of appearing replaceable, while only 26 percent of men feel the same.

These statistics do not exist in a vacuum. Why might women fear returning to a mountain of work or appearing replaceable more than men? Because we’re already less likely to get raises or promotions than men, and we don’t want to do anything that might further harm our chances of career advancement. Why might women feel the need to show complete dedication to their job so much more than men do? Same thing. Why do a whopping 10 percent more women than men feel guilty for taking time off? Because we’re often made responsible for performing emotional labor for everyone else and constantly told to put other people’s desires before our own needs — even when it’s detrimental to our mental or physical health.

So, to recap: Women are paid less than men for doing the same work, we deal with all sorts of double standards (women are “bossy” when they’re assertive, while men are “leadership material”; women’s appearances are policed in ways that men’s are not; and so on and so forth), we’re more stressed because of what our culture generally expects of us (but doesn't expect of men)... and on top of it all, we feel like we’re not allowed to do what’s necessary to unstress — that is, take some time off to recharge.

This is bananas.

So: What’s to be done about it? Obviously it’s not a simple answer; a whole paradigm shift needs to happen in our society more broadly, because work issues are just one of the many, many things that feminism is working to address. But I wonder if a temporary, stopgap solution might come back to that disconnect between how managers view employees taking vacation and how employees think their company views vacation — because clearly, the majority of managers are on their employees’ side here. That’s encouraging; it might dispel some of the fears that Millennial women in particular have about requesting time off.

So go ahead — if you need some time away from your job, and you have the vacation time to spare, ask for it. The answer might be pleasantly surprising. While one person requesting time off won’t solve the bigger issue immediately, it might help bring it to the forefront. And when one person becomes many people — well, that’s what a movement is. And that’s how we make the changes that need to be made.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a weekend getaway to plan.

Check out the full Project: Time Off report, "The State of American Vacation 2017," here.