Is Unlimited Vacation Bad for Women?

Could this supposed perk make gender inequality worse, at work and at home?

A woman in a swimming pool uses a laptop on the deck of the pool.

Employers across the country are locked in a rat race to out-dazzle one another by providing lavish perks like in-house chefs, wellness centers, and wine bars at the office, and there’s one benefit rising to the top of everyone’s wish lists: the unlimited-vacation policy.

From Netflix to Dropbox, the roster of companies that offer employees unlimited paid time off from work has steadily grown over the past few years. While many workers embrace the idea of taking vacation whenever they want, it’s a tricky benefit to introduce in practice.

“It’s all about how [unlimited-vacation policies] are rolled out,” says David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.The message shouldn’t be, ‘We don’t care, so we’re not paying attention to how much time you take off,’ but instead, ‘We trust you to take time off and get your work done.’ ”

The problem is that in an unequal society, trust is something that men and women receive differently. And if employees worry their boss doesn’t trust them (or might view them as less committed to the job), how does that affect their tendency to take time off?

Natalie (who asked that her full name not be given in order to protect her job status) has worked at two different tech companies in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area that offer employees unlimited vacation days. In her first role after graduating from college, she was often the youngest person on her team. “I saw a lot of people with kids really benefit from the policy,” she says. “It was really marketed to us as, ‘You guys are adults, we trust you, and if your family isn’t doing well, you should stay home, take care of your kids, and not worry about it.’ ”

Though the policy was clearly intended to enable both men and women to more easily take time off for parenting duties, Natalie says that in general, she saw mothers using their days off for child care instead of leisure much more often than fathers were. In this sense, her workplace is part of the norm: Women are more likely than men to use their free time on child care, and a 2017 study found that fathers spend 46 percent of their nonworkdays engaging in leisure activities while their partners are taking care of their children. On the flip side, women spend just 16 percent of the time when their partners are dealing with child care on leisure activities for themselves. This means the same policy that gives unlimited vacation for men may be great for their mental health and stamina at work, but it might feed further into women’s overburden with the “second shift” at home.

This makes sense, given what Heejung Chung, professor of sociology and social policy at Kent University in the U.K., has found about how flexibility policies are used differently by men and women and, in turn, how bosses see their use of these policies differently. “When men request flexible working hours, they’re much more likely to be given these opportunities because in general, employers and society believe that men’s priorities lie with paid work,” she says. “They assume that men will do more work activities that will more actively contribute to productivity, whereas for women, the majority of that flexibility is likely to be used for family purposes.” In the case of unlimited vacation, bosses may assume men are using their time off to recharge, but wonder if women are simply taking time off to dedicate more time to their families and less to work.

Guilt is another factor that plays a key role in how women use their vacation time. Last year, a study called “The State of American Vacation 2017” focused on how feelings of guilt and fear prevent women from taking time off from work: 35 percent of millennial women surveyed said they didn’t take their vacation time because they felt guilty, whereas only 25 percent of men felt the same way.

In situations where vacation days are technically unlimited and women have to feel out company culture (or manager culture) when taking time off, that guilt and anxiety is often exacerbated. Natalie says that she dealt with similar feelings of guilt when she tried to take time off at her first job: “Especially because I was fairly young for the role I was in, I’d definitely feel pressure to work harder and prove that I was deserving of the opportunity.” Meanwhile, Natalie said that her male partner who worked at the same parent company felt a lot less guilty about the time he took off: “If you added it up, he took like seven weeks of vacation. I just felt much more uncomfortable than he did, mentally, about taking that kind of time.”

Feeling guilty about leaving team members in the lurch or appearing like less of a team player also makes it harder for women to ask for vacation days. K. (who didn’t wish to be identified for fear of repercussions at work and whose first name is very identifiable) works at a large tech company in San Francisco with unlimited time off and says she feels the need to be the perfect teammate, especially when she isn’t in the office. “I see women [in my office] doing some super detailed planning and delegating work to a T when they’re going to be out,” she says. “My male co-workers are like, ‘Okay, I’m just gonna be gone.’ ”

K. says she’s had several recent incidents where she’s inadvertently scheduled time with male co-workers who had not bothered to put up vacation-time blockers on their calendars—something she says she and other women in her workplace are very conscious of so as not to waste anyone’s time. “I see women psyching themselves up before asking for time off; a lot of my female co-workers make a special effort when it comes to taking time off. Women have to plan everything before they even think about taking vacation.”

In order to develop healthy norms, Burkus says, senior and middle management need to control the messaging around vacation time, in order for people to actually use it as a perk: “Managers should be showy about taking time off by never responding to emails on vacation, for example.”

This is especially true in small startup environments, where every move leadership makes is noticeable. Kristie (who also asked us not to use her full name in order to protect her job status) works at a tech startup in D.C., and says that despite working in an office with unlimited vacation time, being online and available for client needs no matter what is a key part of office culture.

“I’ve only taken two full days of vacation since I’ve started working here,” she says. “The founder and I schedule a lot of meetings on Sunday.”

Kristie says that there are just three people she works with who truly take time off, two of whom are men: “They don’t respond to emails and set very clear work-life barriers.” Kristie says that her female co-worker who makes a point of working 40 hours a week and protects her vacation time is seen as being fundamentally incompatible with the company’s culture: “We might actually have to fire her because she takes so much time off—she seems less connected to the mission.”

For those who are able to overcome the feelings of guilt or anxiety about not being committed enough to the role or not seeming like a team player, unlimited-vacation policies are an unprecedented step toward building a trust-filled employee-employer relationship. But for that to work, it will take more benefit of the doubt from bosses to workers of both genders—and probably some bold self-advocacy from employees, especially women.

“I definitely felt uncomfortable when asking [for vacation days], but I didn’t let that stop me from doing it,” says Natalie. “I just had to tell myself that I deserved that time off like everyone else, and do it.”