Is Unlimited PTO Actually Hurting Women?

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Taylor Tobin1.84k
April 18, 2024 at 8:2AM UTC

A policy favored by startups and tech companies that’s recently grown in mass appeal, being offered unlimited vacation time seems like a dream come true. Imposing no official cap on paid time off offers workers freedom (and trust from their employers) that’s fairly unprecedented at this time. But while unlimited PTO may seem like an empirically positive benefit, some women question its actual positive impact.

Slate recently examined the effects of unlimited PTO on employees of different genders, and they discovered a major discrepancy in the way male and female workers use their time off. The piece cited a 2017 study which revealed that 35-47% of men with children use their PTO for leisure activities while their partners watch the kids, while only 16-19% of women did the same. Slate also interviewed several women who suggested they experienced gender-specific guilt over taking advantage of PTO, which could make unlimited time-off less of a perk for them than for their male colleagues. 

We asked a professional women working at companies with unlimited PTO policies to tell us whether they consider it a benefit or a liability. Here's what they said. 

“I really feel a lot less stressed knowing that I will be able to take care of my family and myself when really needed.”

Like the women interviewed in the Slate article, GitHub data scientist Dr. Kavita Ganesan does use her company-provided unlimited PTO for family responsibilites. However, she doesn’t feel at all hindered by her choice to care for loved ones. Instead, she views the situation as a positive one that allows her a greater level of freedom.

“I have unlimited PTO at GitHub, [and] I personally think that this is a very positive benefit. I really feel a lot less stressed knowing that I will be able to take care of my family and myself when really needed," Dr. Ganesan said. "It also makes vacation planning much easier, as you are not trying to use up your accrued time and you are not taking a vacation under pressure." 

Ganesan thinks PTO isn't only beneficial to employees. She argues the policies increase productivity and don't suffer too much misuse, making them beneficial to employers.

"I personally have taken a week off here and a week off there when I get really overwhelmed with everything going on, and it's helped me a lot," Dr. Ganesan said. "I have rarely seen people misuse the unlimited PTO. In fact, I feel that we are a lot more responsible because we are really grateful for this perk."

“In the absence of clear guidelines, I lowball myself and take less time off.”

While unlimited PTO gives some employees an appreciated sense of flexibility and liberty, others would actually prefer a policy that clearly spells out their allotted time off. Take software engineer Melissa, for example. She believes that the lack of structure around her company’s PTO policy encourages employees to avoid taking days off when they need them because they fear being subjected to company politics.

“At my current company, the colleague on my small team, a male, had already scheduled ample time away by the time I started the position. He typically takes at least 5 weeks off over the course of a year, and works remotely while abroad for another 4 weeks or more. Any time off I request has to be worked around his vacation schedule which he was smart enough to plan long in advance," she explained. "By the end of my second year at the company, I had taken only two weeks of PTO. I was incredibly burnt out, having long felt the need to work even harder to compensate for our being short staffed.. I can admit partial fault for the situation: No one told me to work harder, and no one denied me time off. For that first year as an employee, I simply didn't ask for it." 

Melissa’s experience with her company’s PTO makes her question it as a concept. “At this point, I think unlimited PTO is bull. Some people avail themselves of it better than others, which breeds discontent. I'd much rather be given a set number of days," she says. "In the absence of clear guidelines, I lowball myself and take less time off."

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