Census Bureau Releases 40-Year Profile of Work and Pregnancy

March 5, 2008

The Census Bureau has released a new report on women’s working patterns, choices, and benefits during and after a first pregnancy, Maternity Leave and Employment Patterns of First-Time Mothers: 1961–2003 [PDF]. The report reveals trends over the recent decades, and concludes, “Overall, these findings indicate that women are staying longer at work, returning more rapidly after having their first child, and, in general, choosing to incorporate work life with childbearing and childrearing more than did women in the 1960s.”

I do have a small quibble with that statement, however, as the report does not address economic considerations in detail, leaving aside the question of whether women are freely “choosing” to be in the workforce or if economic factors make it more of a necessity than was the case in earlier decades. It also ignores the possibility that women simply may be more able to work during and after pregnancy now, rather than being fired or preemptively quitting. Data on these items was only available back to 1981, so the report misses the baseline status of these earlier decades prior to the Civil Rights Act and FMLA provisions. The report also ignores changes in the medical management of pregnant women as a factor, such as debates about bed rest and attitudes about pregnancy in general. Although the report wasn’t intended to address such complex issues, it’s difficult to interpret the data without this context.

Among the findings:

  • From 1961-1965, 44% of women worked during their pregnancies. This percentage hit the 60-70% range in the 1976-1980 period and has remained there since, being 67% from 2001-2003.
  • The percentage of women who worked full-time during pregnancy reached the 50-60% range in the 1976-1980 period as well, from about 40% in the early 1960s.
  • Interestingly, among women who did work during pregnancy, the percentage working full time was actually lower in 2001-2003 than in 1961-1965 (90% vs. 85%).
  • Based on 2001-2003 data, the older women were at their first birth, and the higher their educational attainment, the more likely they were to work during pregnancy.
  • A detailed analysis of leave arrangements from 2001-2003 reveals that part-time workers were more likely to quit their jobs, less likely to receive paid leave, and more likely to be fired than full-time workers.
  • From 2001-2003, 49% of working women who gave birth took some paid leave (including maternity, sick, and vacation leave). 39.1% reported taking some unpaid leave, 25.3% quit their current job, and 3.8% reported being let go from their job. Respondents could choose more than one answer, as many women took some combination of paid and unpaid leave.
  • From 2000-2002, 42.4% of women were working 3 months after giving birth. This is dramatically different from the 9.9% of women who were working by 3 months in 1961-1965.

What do you think of these findings? Do they suggest areas for work on improving benefits and maternity leave, such as in part-time workers, protections for pregnant workers against being fired, or the swiftness with which many women need to return to work?

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