Here's Why Women Take Less Vacation Time Than Men -- and What to Do About It

Women are less likely than men to take all of their vacation time. Here's how to step away without feeling like you've abandoned your duties.
Here's Why Women Take Less Vacation Time Than Men -- and What to Do About It
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Editor’s Note: Each edition of this Women Entrepreneur series, Behind the Numbers, presents a stat about a disadvantage women face in work and in business, examines the dynamics at play and provides guidance to help women overcome obstacles.

I need a vacation, you might joke to a colleague or loved one after a particularly hectic day. But in those moments, do you start planning your dream getaway? Or do you refresh your inbox or hop on another call?

The benefits of taking time off are intuitive, even if they seem far-fetched to those who are glued to the grind. You’ll come back de-stressed and recharged, and your performance at work will be better for it, so studies say. Yeah, right, you think. Last time, I came back to half a dozen fires I had to put out and 500 unread emails. No, thank you.  

Because of trepidation and dread, among other reasons, only 44 percent of American women use all of their annually allotted vacation time, compared with 48 percent of men, according to Project Time Off. Clearly, it’s an issue that people of any gender face, but the difference is, the women that Project Time Off surveyed for its 2017 report were more likely (58 percent) than men (49 percent) to agree with the statement that vacation time is “extremely” important to them.

Related: What This Company Has Learned From Making It Mandatory for Employees to Take 4 Weeks of Vacation Per Year

Women were also more likely to report that they’re more stressed by work than men, and that guilt, the “mountain of work” they’d return and the risk of seeming less committed to their job are all elements that deter them, according to Project Time Off.

If you can’t relate to being too busy, or too needed by your team, chances are you can empathize with a woman who doesn’t want to jeopardize career advancement. Some ambitious women may be wary of seeming dispensable, or like they’re not trying hard enough or won’t deserve a vacation until they prove their worth, said career coach and social worker Melody Wilding.

“I think a lot of it comes back to how we’re socialized from a very young age as women,” Wilding said. “Whereas are encouraged to experiment and get out there and play, girls, on the other hand, are praised for being deferential, for being very smart and studious. As a result, as women, we carry with us a lot of that conditioning into the workplace.” (A past Behind the Numbers column has looked at how girls’ parents tend to raise them to be more cautious than boys, and how that translates into permission-seeking and reluctance at work.)

Wilding added that many of her clients fulfill the role of “keeping it all together” for their teams, because they take on all sorts of responsibilities single-handedly. In some cases, women, without meaning to, might make their colleagues dependent on them as a result if they make themselves accessible to troubleshoot every little problem.

Whatever factors are holding women back from taking their hard-earned time off, Wilding offered tips for women on how to prepare for time off, rethink the tradeoffs and even help nudge a workaholic company culture in a more flexible direction.

Give others a chance by finding your ‘zone of genius.’

You might try to be a hero, guiding everyone, taking over when someone hits a roadblock and overseeing colleagues’ efforts toward certain projects. If you perform this sort of role, or if people rely on you and you alone to do a certain task, you may feel depended on and tethered to the office.

“If you keep doing something for someone, they’re never going to make mistakes on their own, and they’re never going to learn on their own,” Wilding said.

Wilding challenges her clients to think about the types of work that they’re uniquely qualified to do that they also enjoy doing. She calls such work the “zone of genius.” On the other hand, responsibilities that fall under the “zone of competence,” a.k.a. unenjoyable tasks you feel obligated to do, are “candidates for either total elimination, streamlining or delegation.”

So, question the status quo and ask yourself, do I always have to be the one to do this?

If your team is strapped, draft a detailed plan.

Maybe the fact that you’re the only one in your department isn’t your fault, but a result of short-staffing. You shouldn’t feel like you can’t take the vacation days your company has allotted you just because they’ve made you a one-woman team.

“Come to the table with a proactive plan having thought through, ‘what is absolutely non-negotiable that has to get done in the time I'm away?’” Wilding said. Tell your manager you’ve looked ahead at the project calendar and considered alternatives for how certain must-dos can get done, through automation, working ahead, delegation or otherwise. Have a discussion, rather than asking for permission.

“It’s a starting point for ,” Wilding said. “I think women, oftentimes, come from a place of apology. We’re like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, do you think maybe I could take some time off? I know we’re really busy.’”  

Plus, this could help your boss realize that you alone is not enough, even when you’re in the office full-time. The fact that you don’t feel like you can take a vacation may send a signal it’s time to re-evaluate your responsibilities or hire a support person.

Establish ‘escalation protocols.’

You may have set a precedent for yourself that you’re “always on ,” or that you’ll respond within five minutes during the workday. The problem with that pattern of behavior is, when you really want to go off the grid, people may not know where to turn.

Wilding has clients who find themselves in this position set up what she dubs “escalation protocols” before they leave the office for vacation. This means letting people know if and when they should contact you, by phone vs. email, if an unexpected situation arises.

You can request being left off of email updates about certain projects during your absence, and instead schedule a catch-up meeting or briefing once you’re back with all of the information in one place.

“You’re balancing that line of making yourself available,” Wilding said, “and honoring your own integrity and internal expectations around being a loyal team player.”

Work around a workaholic culture.

If taking time off is either implicitly or explicitly discouraged in your organization, that doesn’t mean that you, too, have to be a work martyr year-round -- or that you have to quit.

One approach is to give plenty of advance notice. Wilding suggested building in quarterly or seasonal check-ins and scheduling your next chunk of vacation days during that time. In addition to keeping everyone in the loop, you hold yourself accountable.

“It’s almost like a parallel to sleeping in your gym clothes,” Wilding said. “It’s a pre-commitment device to get yourself to follow through on the action, because we’re more likely, as humans, to be consistent with decisions we’ve already made.”

Another approach is to ease into it. Maybe you want to spend an extended amount of time in , but that would be a radical ask at your company. Maybe you take a day off once a month, then two days the next month, then a week. From there, you ask to work remotely for a period of time.

Wilding has clients who work their way up to build credibility that they can balance their workload with time off -- though again, you have to create a system around your work and the people you collaborate with.

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