How the ‘Mommy Culture’ at Work Affects How Often Women Take Vacations

The separation between home life and work life is disappearing for American workers.
(Photo: Agnieszka Wozniak/Getty Images)
Aug 9, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sean Eckhardt is TakePart's editorial fellow.

The stack of papers is growing to the ceiling, and the boss is demanding assistance. You didn’t sleep well last night because you feel as if the weight of the entire office is on your shoulders because your coworkers are slacking. It’s been like this for months, and you could use a vacation, but you’re too worried about what’ll happen when you’re gone to take the much needed time off.

It’s a scenario that’s being played out daily as American workers take fewer and fewer of their earned vacation days. Women in particular, who are forced to balance the 24-7 work culture with the expectations that come with raising a family, often face disadvantages when trying to climb the corporate ladder.

Project: Time Off, a coalition of entertainment companies, hotel chains, city tourism bureaus, and other organizations, is trying to reverse this trend by encouraging people to spend more time away from work. A recent survey published by the group found that 55 percent of American workers who receive paid time off left vacation days unused in 2015. That breaks down to 658 million unused days, more than a third of which cannot be rolled over to the following year or paid out.

“We’ve lost almost a full week of vacation time in 15 years” on average per employee, said Katie Denis, senior program director of Project: Time Off. “This is a relatively recent phenomenon.”

According to the survey, people are reluctant to take vacations for various reasons, including falling behind on assignments, feeling that nobody else can do the job while they are out of the office, and wanting to show “complete dedication” to the company.

Georgene Huang, the founder of the website Fairy God Boss, says women requesting vacation time face additional impediments. The website functions as a Yelp-like search engine that has information on corporations’ policies on issues women face in the workplace, such as pay equity and maternity leave. Her management experience as well as the feedback gathered on the website suggest that women often experience challenges and expectations at home as mothers and wives that men do not face as fathers and husbands.

“Women feel like they have to ask permission to, say, pick their kids up from day care or say, ‘I have to leave early.’ ” Huang said. “Generally, in my experience, men don’t ask for that time.”

Only 20 percent of women hold senior management positions in the United States, which is less than in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. It’s a dynamic that scholars like Paige Edley, a communication studies professor at Loyola Marymount University, see in their research: Because men are often working in their off-hours, while women are expected to take care of the family, taking more time off makes upward mobility more difficult for women to achieve. Edley refers to this dynamic as the “mommy track,” as professional women are often penalized for prioritizing family over work. Because work is accessible at all times with new technology, employees are sometimes criticized for not being constantly on call.

“There are threats that come from their bosses too about missing too much time, whether it’s time for [the employee] or sick kids, and the whole mentality is that they can be threatened and controlled in that way,” Edley said.

Studies have shown that for men and women alike, taking vacation time benefits mental and physical health. According to the American Institute of Stress, a majority of Americans say that they have work-related stress, which is associated with increased rates of heart attack, high blood pressure, depression, and other health issues. According to the Framingham Heart Study, the largest and longest-running study of cardiovascular disease, women who took vacation time once every six years or less were almost eight times as likely to develop coronary heart disease, as compared with women who took time off at least twice a year.

“You can never turn it off, so you could work 24-7 if you choose,” Edley said. “Some want to work until they’re dead, and if [managers] have that kind of mentality, they expect it from their employees as well.”

Even if companies have good paid leave policies in place, it does not guarantee that employees will take advantage of it. One of the things employers should do, according to both Denis and Edley, is lead by example. When managers take vacations and actively encourage their employees to do so as well, they feel more comfortable asking for time off.

“There are two parts of it: There’s individual manager policy, and then there is the human resources company policy, and sometimes the two can align, and sometimes they don’t,” Denis said. “If you’re a manager and you feel like your employees should take some time off, you should say it, and then you do it, and then people will see. That’s the strongest signal you can send if you’re the CEO or head of the department.”

Edley cites examples like Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO who took two months of family leave when his daughter was born, as a sign that innovative companies and a new generation of employees with different priorities will over time change the “workaholic” culture she sees as pervasive in the workforce.

“Newer companies are competing to see who can give the best benefits, the best work-life balance,” Edley said. “The old dinosaur companies that think you have to work, work, work, with no job protection or a sense you’ll lose your job if you take any time off—they are going to go by the wayside.”