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Few Women Take Pregnancy Leave in California, Study Finds

Few Women Take Pregnancy Leave in California, Study Finds


      Only one in three working women who qualify for pregnancy leave in California take advantage of the employee benefit, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. Those who do cite medical necessity, physical discomfort and stress or fatigue as the reason for taking time off from work before their baby is born.

      The study, one of the first to examine how women in California use their maternity leave benefit, was published online on March 31 by Maternal and Child Health Journal. It will appear in print later this month when the journal’s delayed January 2006 issue goes to press.

      “What struck us most is that so few women do think about taking leave,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Sylvia Guendelman, a professor of maternal and child health in UC-Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “And when they do, it’s because they have to, not because they want to.”

      The findings suggest that pregnancy leave benefits in California are being used almost exclusively out of necessity and are not contributing to excess leave-taking, Guendelman says. California is one of five states that offer paid pregnancy leave.

      In an effort to find out who is using these pregnancy leave benefits, how they are being used and what drives women’s decisions about whether to use them, Guendelman and her team interviewed 1,214 women who had participated in a study of birth outcomes in Southern California. All women had recently given birth, and all had either worked at least 20 hours per week during the first six months of their pregnancy or had worked through the date of prenatal screening, which usually occurs about 15 to 20 weeks into pregnancy. The interviews took place between July 2002 and November 2003.

      The researchers found that 52 percent of the women worked up to the time of delivery, while only 32 percent took pregnancy leave. Another nine percent quit their jobs before giving birth, five percent cut back on their hours and two percent were fired during pregnancy.

      Interestingly, only one in four of the 32 percent of women who took leave — a mere 100 women in the group of 1,214 interviewees — said they based their decision on the availability of the leave benefit.

      The findings suggest that rather than being used predominantly as health-promoting behavior, pregnancy leave constitutes a coping response to stress and tiredness and the need to mother young children already in the house, Guendelman says.

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