More Women Working Through Pregnancy and Beyond

Census finds big jump in those who stay late, return early

MONDAY, Dec. 17, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Women worked longer during their first pregnancy and returned to work sooner after the birth of their first child in the 1990s than in the 1960s, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

Legislative mandates such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 have empowered women and may account for the societal change, census officials suggest. But the picture is not complete unless the need for two-income families and the increasing number of women graduating college is factored in, they say.

"Women are, on average, working longer into their pregnancies, and they are returning to work quicker," says report author Kristin Smith, a family demographer for the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. "Fifty-three percent of women stopped working less than one month before the birth of their first child between 1991 and 1995, whereas only 22 percent did so between 1961 and 1965. And 52 percent returned to work by the sixth month after their first child's birth -- and that's an increase from 14 percent in the '60s."

The report, Maternity Leave and Employee Patterns, 1961-1995, is the second report of its kind, Smith says.

"In the late 1980s, we produced a similar report tracking maternity leave time and arrangements from 1960 to the 1980s," Smith says. "This new report takes the data from that first report and adds on data from the late 80s to the mid-90s so we could look at changes precipitated, perhaps, by the enacting of the Family Medical Leave Act in 1993."

"A lot of the changes that the current report shows really took place from the 1970s to 1995," Smith says.

Among the report's findings:

  • The percentage of women who worked during their first pregnancy increased by 23 percent to 67 percent between 1961 and 1995;
  • Between 1991 and 1994, 78 percent of first-time mothers who returned to work within a year of the birth of their first child returned to the same employer, and 69 percent returned to the same jobs at the same hours, same pay and same skill sets.
  • And while 63 percent of women in the 1960s quit their jobs when they gave birth to their first child, only 27 percent did so in the 1990s.

"Women are really taking advantage of paid and unpaid leave after their first child is born," Smith says. "Forty-three percent of women took advantage of paid leave in the '90s, and only 16 percent did so in the 1961-1965 time period."

The new report does not contradict census findings released in October which said working women were staying home to take care of their babies, Smith says. "That report was related to white women giving birth between 1996 and 2000," she explains.

So is it legislation, the job/life balancing act or economic need that caused the get-back-to-work ethic?

"Some would argue that just because women go back to work after having their first child, they've got a balanced work and family life, but I'm not so sure," Smith says. "It could be a single parent, and she might be under the economic necessity of going back to work."

One working-women's organization credits legislation for the advances but says salary equality should be the new priority.

"It is undeniable that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Family Medical Leave Act have enabled America's women to combine work and motherhood," says Jane Smith, chief executive officer of Business and Professional Women/USA (BPW/USA), in Washington, D.C.

"In the last decade, an increase in work-life programs to help workers balance work and family responsibilities have also made it more likely that women will remain in the workforce after bearing children," she says. "However, despite these improvements in the workplace, BPW/USA recognizes that more work needs to be done around the issues of workplace equity and work-life balance."

Kristin Smith counts herself among her own statistics. She just gave birth to her first child four weeks ago. "And yes, I will be returning back to work," she says.

What To Do: To look at the new report, visit the U.S. Census Bureau. And for more on working-women's issues, check the AFL-CIO.

SOURCES: Interviews with Kristin Smith, family demographer, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C.; Jane Smith, Ed.D., CEO, BPW/USA, Washington, D.C.; Maternity Leave and Employee Patterns, 1961-1995, U.S. Census Bureau
Consumer News