Fearful Women Shun Maternity Leave, Study Reveals

Pregnant woman at keyboard America is the only modern, industrialized country that does not offer paid maternity leave to new mothers. And in the U.S., 51 percent of new mothers lack paid leave from their employers. Now, a new study finds that many of those women who do have maternity leave from employers aren't using it in full.

The study released Thursdayby CareerBuilder found that nearly 1 in 3 (30 percent) of women who have had a child in the past three years have cut short their maternity leaves, not taking as much as their employers' policies would allow. Of women who have had children in the past three years, less than half -- 44 percent -- took eight weeks or more of maternity leave. The rest took less, often far less.

According to the survey, 12 percent of women went back to work after taking a leave of just two weeks or less. CareerBuilder, an AOL Jobs partner, speculated that "competitive work environments" and "demanding positions" are discouraging women from taking full advantage of maternity leave.

Other studies have shown similar findings. After California passed a state law requiring paid maternity leave to workers, a 2011 study found that just one third of female workers were taking full advantage of their leave. The reason: They feared doing so would make their employers "unhappy" and possibly result in them getting fired, reported the left-leaning Center for American Progress. (New Jersey is the only other state with such a law, according to NBC News.)

Unfortunately, such fears can be warranted, according to Ariane Hegeswich, the study director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. "There's still a perception that working mothers are not fully committed" if they take long maternity leave, she says. "You're supposed to go to the hospital, have your child and then return to work." Because if they don't, Hegeswich added, the women risk being taken less seriously at work, or maybe even eventually getting fired.

More:What Working Moms Really Want

Last year, a federal judge ordered a Milwaukee medical staffing company to pay $148,000 to Roxy Leger, a former bookkeeper for the firm, after the company fired her while she was on maternity leave. The judge found that Charles Sisson, the owner of the company, HCS Medical Staffing, had referred to her pregnancy as a joke, insisted that the maternity leave should only last a few days, and then fired her while she was still in the hospital recuperating from a Caesarean birth.

As egregious and awful as that case sounds, statistics suggest that pregnancy discrimination remains a pervasive problem. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received5,800 pregnancy discrimination complaints in 2011, up from 4,000 in 1997.

Meanwhile, the prospects for guaranteed paid maternity leave is diminishing in the United States. The Families and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, guarantees most workers the right to take three months unpaid leave. The U.S. is joined by just three other countries (Swaziland, Liberia and Papua New Guinea) on the list of countries that do not guarantee paid maternity leave. And the number of American employers offering fully paid leave is dropping, according to the Families and Work Institute. In 2005, of the employers who provided paid leave, 17 percent offered full pay. In 2011, that figure dropped to 9 percent.

In spite of the obstacles, and the persistence of the gender wage gap, women are still finding a way to create one form of gender equality in the workplace. The CareerBuilder study found that nearly as many women as men now consider themselves their family's "sole breadwinner." The difference is just 5 percentage points -- with 39 percent of dads filling that role, compared to 34 percent of the moms.

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