Do Benefits Preferences Differ by Gender?

Gender and other demographic information could help executives better predict benefits preferences.
benefits gender

Women may be from Venus, and men may be from Mars, but are their benefits preferences really light years apart?

A recent study by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, “Work-life 3.0: Understanding how we’ll work next,” found that 64 percent of women and 54 percent of men said “work-life balance is very important.” However, other opinions on benefits are more polarizing and perhaps not as closely shared.

MassMutual found that men’s top benefits of choice are more vacation time (50 percent) and better 401(k) matches (43 percent). Meanwhile, 44 percent of women surveyed said they valued vacation time most and 40 percent said they valued 401(k).

Those differences aren’t groundbreaking, but one of the biggest disparities between the two genders was on education and tuition reimbursement: 18 percent of men said this was their benefit of choice, compared with 27 percent of women, according to the MassMutual survey.

According to Mercer’s “When Women Thrive — Gender Equality Imperative,” men are focused on retirement and asset accumulation and also appreciate paternal leave options. Women, however, ask for benefits more around general financial wellness, according to Pam Jeffords, a partner at the human resources consulting firm. Jeffords said that although women and men are both equal in terms of financial literacy, women don’t think they are. Therefore, financial wellness courses may be a great value proposition for female job candidates.

Jeffords also said that since firms tend to evaluate their health care by the workforce as a whole, they tend to focus less on some issues that disproportionally affect women. Women increasingly experience anxiety, depression and sleeplessness more than men, which negatively impacts their ability to do their jobs.

Jeffords encouraged executives to attempt to understand these issues their workers experience. One way to do this is by looking at employee health issues by gender. While employers can’t see individual information in their insurance provider’s data warehouse, Jeffords said they can parse out by demographic. Then, to make meaningful changes at an organization, “not only can the employer put some wellness programs in around that [health issue], but sometimes just simply communicating to your female employees, saying ‘Hey. We’re seeing this.’ …That alone is going to make women feel good,” Jeffords said.

Especially for companies with struggling diversity initiatives, this attention to women’s wellness could help drive their ascent to top leadership roles, Jeffords added. By ignoring women’s unique financial and wellness needs, attempts to improve diversity may be incomplete. Furthermore, studies have shown that more equal representation in leadership drives profits. “If you think about how much the average employer is spending on diversity and inclusion to have no results, if it can actually drive results, that goes straight to the bottom line,” she said.

Others disagree that benefits preferences are materially different between genders. Rather, they said that the lifecycle of workers might be a better indicator.

Dow Scott, a professor of human resources and employment relations at Loyola University, Chicago, has studied pay preferences by gender and found only minor differences between the two. Men preferred variable pay only a little more than women did. “You can’t just rely on things like gender, age — these sort of demographic cues — to tell you how people want to be paid,” Scott said. People may have different preferences, but these vary more on an individual basis than by demographic.

As with pay, benefits preferences likely have more to do with lifestyle, not gender, Scott said. “A man and a woman that both are single and living by themselves will probably want about the same thing, but if it’s a man and a woman that are both married, they’ll want something different.”

For example, an individual with children would probably be more likely to want health insurance than someone in their early 20s, who can still be covered by their parents’ insurance.

One solution to differing benefits preferences could be a personalized benefits system, with a menu of options all covered under a company’s benefits plan. This option considers the employee’s lifecycle, not from an employment standpoint, but from life itself, said Sreeni Kutam, division vice president of HR for the Major Account Services business unit at ADP, a human resources consulting company.

From early career workers, to newlyweds, to new parents, to those exploring retirement, “the demands and the needs of [those] distinct segments are different, so organizations are trying to meet those varying demands at that point in life,” Kutam said.

Those demands also might differ based on geography. Kutam said that ADP’s global presence created a need to have country-specific benefits programs. For example, with women working night schedules in India, it’s common to provide safe transportation back to their homes, he said. “Organizations need to be conscious of the needs of the global populations that they have in their workforce and meet that demand in an appropriate way,” Kutam said.

Finally, Jeffords advised to be conscious of biases like offering benefits to certain groups. For instance, some managers could think that flexible work schedules are meant to benefit working parents. However, employees without children could feel left out of the benefit if it isn’t offered to them. “Managers really need to understand that they have to take their own judgments and biases, if you will, out of the equation and look at the policy and how it’s designed to help all employees,” Jeffords said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy.