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Today’s moms are working later into their pregnancies — and going back to work earlier too

No time for this -- get back to work (iStockphoto)

Last week the Supreme Court handed down a 6-3 ruling making it easier for pregnant women to take employers who discriminate against them to court. As the Pew Research Center's FactTank blog notes, the ruling has special salience today given that pregnant women are now working much later into their pregnancies than they used to. And not only that, but after they've given birth they're returning to work earlier than ever before.

Data from a 2011 Census brief tell the full story. In the early 1960s, fewer than half of American women were working at the start of their pregnancies, and only about 15 percent continued working until a month before their due date. In the mid-2000s, by contrast, about two-thirds of women were working through the beginning of pregnancy, and over 50 percent were still on the job a month before their due date.

Today's moms are returning to work much earlier too. In the 1960s, a little over 10 percent of mothers returned to work within four months of giving birth. Today more than 50 percent of moms are back in the office by then -- nearly a fivefold increase.

What's driving these changes? For starters, more women are working, period. According to the Census brief, in the 1970s "more mothers, to maintain economic well-being and for other reasons, began to enter and stay in the workforce, resulting in an increase in homes where both spouses worked." In the early 70s around 45 percent of all women were in the labor force, compared to nearly 60 percent in 2005, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More working women means more pregnant working women.

But other factors are at play too. Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978. That act, which was at the center of last week's Supreme Court case, prohibited employers from discriminating against pregnant women. The passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993 mandated 12 week of unpaid leave for child or family care. These changes, though seen by many as a minimal accommodation for working families, may have enabled more women to stay in the labor force during and after pregnancy.

But U.S. family leave policies remain stingy by international standards -- we're the only developed country that doesn't mandate any paid maternity leave, for instance. That's causing us to fall behind other countries when it comes to women in the workforce, according to a 2013 study by two Cornell University economists, making us less competitive with those countries in the global marketplace.

During the 2006-2008 period, fewer than half of new mothers took paid leave after birth, according to the Census. Thirty seven percent took unpaid leave, 15 percent used disability or some other form of leave, and 9 percent either left their jobs or were fired. Those numbers aren't exactly indicative of a robust support system for new parents.

As is the case with paid sick leave, more companies are finding that offering paid maternity leave is good for the bottom line. When Google boosted paid maternity leave to 18 weeks, for instance, the attrition rate for new mothers fell by 50 percent. Paid parental leave policies also have significant benefits and cost savings from a public health perspective. They're associated with higher breastfeeding rates, lower infant mortality rates, and better maternal health.

Three states -- California, New Jersey and Rhode Island -- offer paid parental leave paid for by payroll deductions. So far, the results out of those states look good -- the cost to workers is less than a dollar per week, and they haven't seemed to negatively impact employers' bottom lines either.