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Women Leaving and Re-entering the Workforce

Women are in the labor force, though their employment patterns may be different from that of men.


2009 U.S. Census Bureau Research

In 2009, the Census Bureau published a report looking at opting out, based on the American Community Survey 3-year data file for 2005-2007. The researchers found that, despite many media stories to the contrary, most working mothers return to the workforce within a year after having a child.1

  • No large differences appear in employment status between women with children who were at least one year old and women who had no children in the household.2
  • There was some variability by occupation.3
  • The researchers hypothesized that two groups of women may opt out: women whose earnings are so low they may not be able to afford child care and women whose family earnings allow them to forgo personal earnings. However, women at the highest household income levels ($200,000) were only slightly more likely to stop working than women in the middle household income levels ($100,000-$199,999). Women with the lowest household income levels were the most likely to opt out.4

Further analysis of this data set showed that stay-at-home mothers were on average younger and poorer than other mothers, according to America’s Families and Living Arrangements 2011.5

  • 38.8% of stay-at-home mothers were under 35 years old, compared with 30.9% of other mothers6
  • 44.1% of families with stay-at-home mothers had income of less than $50,000, compared to 20.3% of other families7
  • 24.3% of families with stay-at-home mothers had income of $100,000 and more, compared to 40.0% of other families8

2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics Research

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released research in February 2007 called, “Trends in Labor Force Participation of Married Mothers of Infants.” This study found that the labor force participation rate of married mothers of infants hit its peak in 1997, began to decline for a wide variety of demographic groups, and has been relatively stable since 2000.9

Looking closely at the decline of labor force participation according to income level reveals that women with husbands in the highest 20% of earners had a 5.9% decrease in their labor force participation rates between 1994 and 2005. Women with husbands in the lowest 20% of earners decreased more – 13.1%. For women with husbands in the middle 20% of earnings, their labor force participation rate between 1994 and 2005 actually increased, by 2.4%.
The authors speculated that while some wealthier mothers of infants may choose not to work, the high cost and low availability of child care may prevent some poorer mothers from working even if they wanted to.10

Women with Young Children in the Labor Force

  • 60.6% of women with children under 3 years old were in the labor force in 2011.11

Part-Time Work of Mothers

  • 30.0% of employed women with children under 3 years old worked part-time in 2011.12
  • 19.4% of all employed workers work part-time in 2012.13

Snapshot of Women with Children Under 18

More than 10 million women with children under 18 were not in the labor force in 2011 (10.4 million women, compared to 1.7 million men).14

Total women with own children under 18: 36,172,00015

  • 25,783,000 are employed16
  • 2,273,000 unemployed17
  • 10,389,000 not in labor force18

Labor Force Participation Rates of Women and Men, By Age

In 2012, the labor force participation rate of women 16 and older was 57.7%, and for men 16 and older it was 70.2%.19

Employment Patterns of First-Time Mothers

  • A study of maternity leave and mothers’ employment from 2011 looks into women’s employment patterns.20
  • During the time period between 2005 and 2007, 79.2% of women who worked during pregnancy had returned to the workforce within a year of their first childbirth.21
  • Among mothers returning to work, those who move to a different employer often do so for higher pay.22
  • Between the years of 2005 and 2007, 18.6% of women who worked during pregnancy and returned to work within a year of childbirth did so at a different employer.23
  • Of those who went to a different employer, 43.9% reported that they worked fewer hours than before their first childbirth, 45.1% worked the same number of hours, and 11.0% worked more.24
  • Of those who went to a different employer, 27.6% reported that they received higher pay at a new employer after their first childbirth, 41.8% received the same pay, and 30.6% received lower pay than before their first birth.25

The Effect of Children on Women’s Labor Force Participation

A study by economist Heather Boushey for the Center for Economic and Policy Research in 2005 analyzed whether a women with a child at home would be any less likely to be in the labor force that she was at earlier points in the last two decades, simply because there was a child in her household. Findings include the following:

  • Women’s labor force participation rates have not fallen due to the presence of children at home.26
  • Labor participation rates for highly-educated women in their thirties are, for the most part, unchanged.27
  • Women’s labor force participation rates have fallen due to the early 2000s recession.28 In addition, a “mancovery” after the “mancession” shows that men continue to gain jobs on net every month but one since March 2010, while women continued to lose jobs month after month through September 2010.29


73% of executive women surveyed in Catalyst’s Women in U.S. Corporate Leadership study said they were comfortable with the trade-offs they have made between career and personal goals.30

How to cite this product: Catalyst. Catalyst Quick Take: Women Leaving and Re-entering the Workforce. New York: Catalyst, 2013.