You’ve probably heard the statistic that 70 percent of U.S. mothers with children under the age of eighteen work.5 But what’s the real story? Turns out these statistics include full-time and part-time work. In fact, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, only 48 percent of mothers with children under the age of eighteen work full-time, 16 percent work part-time, and 6 percent are unemployed and looking for work.6 The remaining 30 percent are stay-at-home mothers.
The numbers also vary by age of child. Of American mothers with children under the age of six, 36 percent are completely out of the paid workforce. Many of them go back to work once the children are in school, leaving 25 percent of moms still home full-time when the children are between the ages of six and seventeen.
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Who are these stay-at-home mothers? According to Pew Research Center, two-thirds live in traditional arrangements with husbands who work while they stay home to care for the children you know, the households that once represented the typical middle-class American family.7
The remaining one-third of stay-at-home moms are single. Most of them are unemployed and, sadly, most live in poverty. They typically lack a college degree and do not have the resources necessary to find child care. They may want to work, but our system does not provide them with the necessary supports such as paid sick leave and subsidized day care so they can.
The above statistics cover American moms overall, but what about the 39 percent of American women who are college-educated?8 What happens when they become moms? These are the women Betty Friedan spoke to all those years ago when she talked about the frustrations of not having a career and urged them to get into the workforce. They are the same ones Sheryl Sandberg is urging to lean in today. They are the ones we all hoped and continue to hope will fill the huge leadership gap between women and men at the top of every sector of our economy.
According to research compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor and economists at the Federal Reserve, and corroborated by iRelaunch, a company dedicated to helping women return to work, a significant subset of college-educated mothers pause their careers. In fact, on average around 23 percent take a significant (more than one year) career break.9 That’s approximately 2.3 million highly qualified women who are out of the paid workforce focusing on their families right now.
And that doesn’t include women like my friends scientist Lisa McPherson or venture capitalist Patricia Nakache who manage to negotiate a part-time solution for themselves, their employers, and their families. A 2013 study by Professor Joni Hersch of Vanderbilt University Law School found that college-educated married women with children were 20 percentage points less likely to work fulltime than those without.10
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