No Movement on Maternity Leave

Despite a host of factors that would suggest otherwise, the number of U.S. women taking maternity leave has changed very little in the last two-plus decades.

So says a new study from Ohio State University, which finds that, on average, roughly 273,000 women in the United States took maternity leave each month between the years 1994 and 2015, “with no trend upward or downward,” according to an OSU statement. Fewer than half of those women were paid during their leave, the same statement notes.

Pointing to variables like an economy that has grown 66 percent in that time, and the number of states implementing paid family leave legislation over that 22-year span, study author Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at OSU’s Center for Human Resource Research, “expected to see an increasing number of women taking maternity leave. It was surprising and troubling that I didn’t.”

Zagorsky did, however, find the number of fathers taking paternity leave tripling between 1994 and 2015, “although the numbers are much smaller than those of women taking time off.”

More specifically, the number of men taking paternity leave rose from 5,800 men per month in ’94 to 22,000 per month in ’15.

In addition, Zagorsky’s study—based on data culled from the Current Population Survey, a monthly poll conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau—found that most women taking maternity leave were not paid. Less than half (48 percent) were compensated for leave in 2015. And, paid maternity leave is increasing, but only at a rate of less than one percentage point per year, according to Zagorsky.

“At that rate, it will take about another decade before even half of U.S. women going on leave will get paid time off,” he says. “This is a very low figure for the nation with the world’s largest annual gross domestic product.”

By comparison, more than 70 percent of men taking paternity leave in 2015 were compensated for their time off, says Zagorsky, who reasons that “one possible reason for this gender gap is that few men are willing to take unpaid leave to care for a newborn.”

Given that the inflation-adjusted gross domestic product went from $9.9 trillion a year in 1994 to $16.4 trillion in 2015, “it would have been reasonable to expect that some of the benefits of this large economic expansion would have gone to working women with newborn children, but that’s not what I found,” says Zagorsky.

He was equally startled by the effect, or lack thereof, that new paid family leave laws in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have had on maternity leave numbers, noting that those three states comprised 16 percent of the U.S. female labor force in 2015.

“If the laws were effective, some impact should be seen in national data,” says Zagorsky. “These results suggest we have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world as far as providing for new mothers and their children.”