The standard logic goes as follows. Woman gets pregnant. Woman takes time off for pregnancy. Woman finds out how high the cost of childcare is, or how hard it is to leave a child, and drops out of her job within the first year of her child’s life. This logic assumed that very young children pushed women out of the labor force. And it was right—that is, up until recently.
Last week I wrote about some new evidence that some women do in fact opt out of the labor force. The study shows that a significant percentage of college-educated women whose husbands make more money have the urge to leave their careers. I speculated that while this is clearly about the gender wage gap, it may also be about childcare duties. After all, many couples still assume that only a wife’s, and not a husband’s, income goes toward paying for someone to watch the little one.
But that picture seems to be far more complicated than we may have once assumed. In fact, the tug of childcare duties may have completely changed since the 1970s and ’80s. As Stefania Albanesi, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and author of the study, told me in a conversation about the childcare implications in her study, “It doesn’t seem that children play the role that they played in the past. The flattening out of labor force participation occurs both for women with no children and women with children; this suggests that having children per se is not driving it.” In the past, giving birth to a child was the key factor in whether a woman left her job. Now both mothers and women without children are those dropping out.
There’s evidence of this in Albanesi’s study. The percentage of women in the work force whose husbands are high earners has been leveling out since the late ’80s and ’90s for both women with children and women without. It also holds true across most age groups—from 21- through 53-year-olds—which suggests that young children aren’t a big factor.
There are some other studies that also point in this direction. A recent Census Bureau analysis looked at women and childcare arrangements from 1961 to 2003. In the past, the study’s findings show, childbirth seemed to push women out of the labor force in droves. From 1971–75, only about 20 percent of women were working again six months after the birth of a child. That trend has changed. From 2000–02, over 50 percent of women had returned to their jobs. Women also take less time off during pregnancy: from 1971–75, only 43 percent of women took time off the month before their birth. About 45 percent took time two to five months out, and an amazing 13 percent left a full six months ahead of time. These days it’s almost all in the last month: from 2001–03, nearly 80 percent of women left with just a month to go.