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Common Paid Leave Practices Could Be Reinforcing Gender Roles, Survey Suggests

New SHRM survey gives a snapshot of workplace paid leave benefits

Two women sitting at a table talking to each other.

Stereotypical views on gender can trip up well-intended paid leave programs, new findings from a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey on paid leave benefits suggest.

Parental Leave

Mothers on average are given 41 paid days of maternity leave, compared with 22 paid days of paternity leave for fathers. The average amount of paid adoption leave and paid surrogacy leave was 31 and 36 days, respectively.

Not surprisingly, very few parents left any parental leave unused. The average amount of unused paid maternity leave was 17 hours, according to the Paid Leave in the Workplace report.

The survey was fielded from Nov. 20, 2015 through Jan. 14, 2016, and 2,665 HR professionals from a random sample of SHRM's membership participated.

"A comparison of the days of maternity leave awarded per year versus the days of paternity leave awarded reveals that organizations could be reinforcing gender roles in society and the workplace," said project leader Christina Lee, SHRM researcher for total rewards strategies. While the percentages of organizations that offer maternity leave and paternity leave are similar; "this research exhibits possible inequities in the amount of parental leave given to men and women, as the average days of maternity leave were almost double the amount awarded for paternity leave. This imbalance may force mothers to stay at home and discourage fathers from taking time off to care for a newborn."

The differences in parental leave offered to mothers compared with fathers further indicates that "organizations still expect mothers to take on the majority of early infant child care," said Jennifer Schramm, manager of SHRM Research's Workforce Trends program. "Differences in leave benefits based on gender could, however, be increasingly questioned by employees both in relation to gender equality and equality of paid parenting leave benefits on offer for same-sex and opposite-sex couples with children." 

Employee Tenure

Among organizations offering a paid-time-off (PTO) plan that includes sick, vacation and personal days in one combined "bank" from which days off can be "withdrawn," a majority (87 percent) based available leave time on an employee's length of service at the organization.

Length of service was used to determine paid vacation at 91 percent of organizations. An employee's length of service seemed to have little impact on paid sick leave, determined by length of service at 9 percent of organizations, or paid personal leave plans, which typically provide one or more personal days off each year in addition to paid vacation, sick days and holidays (determined by length of service at 14 percent of respondents).

Among organizations offering paid leave not based on employees' length of service:

  • For PTO plans, full-time employees, on average, are awarded roughly three to four weeks (18 days) of combined PTO leave, and part-time employees are given around two weeks of leave.

  • For non-PTO plans, full-time employees, on average, are given 16 vacation days, 11 sick days and four personal days per year. Part-time employees are awarded, on average, generally around two weeks for vacation, a week for sick leave and less than a week for personal leave per year.

Average Paid Leave Days per Year Not Based on Employees’ Length of Service


Full-Time Employees

Part-Time Employees

Paid time off (PTO) plan



Paid vacation plan



Paid sick plan



Paid personal plan



Number of days shown in table is the average. Only respondents whose organizations offer a set number of days for their respective paid leave plan that is not based on an employee’s length of service to their full-time employees or part-time employees were asked this question. 

Source: SHRM Survey Findings: Paid Leave in the Workplace.

Among organizations offering paid leave based on employees' length of service:

  • The average days per year offered in PTO plans range from 13 days for employees with less than a year of service to 26 days for employees with 20 or more years of service.

  • Paid vacation plans ranged from 8 to 22 days based on employees' length of service. 

Average Paid Leave Days per Year Based on Employees’ Length of Service


Less than one year

One year

Two years

Three years

Four years

Five to nine years

10 to 19 years

20 or more years

PTO plan









Paid vacation plan









Paid sick plan









Number of days shown in table is the average. Only respondents whose organizations offer the respective paid leave plan to their full-time employees based on their length of service were asked this question. Paid personal plan data are not shown due to a small sample size. 

Source: SHRM Survey Findings: Paid Leave in the Workplace.

Waiting Periods

On average, full-time employees have the shortest waiting periods to begin accruing leave in PTO and paid sick plans at 26 and 22 days, respectively. However, full-time employees had to wait five to six weeks to start building up vacation (42 days on average) and personal leave (37 days).

Part-time employees generally wait roughly a month to begin accruing leave in a paid time off, vacation and personal plan, whereas the average waiting period to accrue leave for a sick plan is 16 days.


On average, four days of bereavement leave were awarded during the death of a spouse or child. In the event of a death of a domestic partner, foster child, grandchild, parent, sibling or grandparent, three days of bereavement leave were given.

One or two days of bereavement leave were given for other extended family or a spouse's relative. However, many organizations did not issue bereavement leave for a friend or colleague's death.

Average Days of Paid Bereavement Leave

4 days

3 days

2 days

1 day

0 days


Same-sex domestic partner.
Opposite-sex domestic partner.
Foster child.

Relative of a spouse.
Relative of a same-sex domestic partner.

Extended family member (e.g., cousin, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew).

Relative of an opposite-sex domestic partner.


Number of days shown in table is the average. Only respondents whose organizations offer paid bereavement leave were asked this question. 

Source: SHRM Survey Findings: Paid Leave in the Workplace.


On average, employees were able to take paid sabbatical leave after six years with their employer, while eligibility to take an unpaid sabbatical was fulfilled after two years.

Generally, 132 paid days were awarded for a paid sabbatical program, whereas 116 days were typically awarded for unpaid sabbatical programs.

According to SHRM's 2016 Employee Benefits report, unpaid sabbatical programs have decreased compared to 20 years ago, whereas the percentage of organizations offering paid sabbatical programs have remained the same.

"A decline in unpaid sabbaticals in recent years suggests that fewer organizations may be open to the concept," Lee said. "While some organizations argue that sabbatical programs could be quite costly, others claim that these benefits can help employees stay engaged and motivated. Employees on sabbatical are may avoid burnout, while employees covering the extra work are able to receive additional training and development opportunities."

As the workforce grows older, Lee noted, "the demand for sabbaticals may increase as it can be a valuable tool as part of organization's succession planning."

Related SHRM Article:

Labor Demand Boosts Paid Time Off Benefits, SHRM Online Benefits, June 2016

How to Weigh the Value of Paid Parental Leave, SHRM Online Benefits, April 2016

The Rush Toward Paid Parental Leave: Why Now?, SHRM Online Employee Relations, September 2015

Related News Article:

Why Men Are Scared to Take Paternity Leave, Bloomberg, October 2016


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