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Fewer women are working now than in 1999, survey shows

The number of women in the workplace has declined 5 percent in the past 15 years, according to data collected by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and experts and other data show the recession, workplace dynamics and a choice to be a full-time homemaker as reasons for the decline.

The OECD data compiled by The New York Times showed the percentage of women ages 25-59 working in 1999 was 74 percent, an all-time high, has since dropped to 69 percent this year.

The recession is partly to blame since employers over the past six years have eliminated many jobs that women typically held, according to the Times report.

The so-called glass ceiling is another theory behind a depleting women’s workforce. A Harvard Business School “study showed that women who chose to leave the workplace after having children did so because they felt they had little chance of advancing and not because they chose to have families,” said Think Progress, the Center for American Progress blog.

However, a contrasting joint poll by The New York Times, CBS News and Kaiser Family Foundation, conducted last month, reported that “of nonworking adults aged 25 to 54 in the United States, 61 percent of women said family responsibilities were a reason they weren’t working, compared with 37 percent of men,” the Times reported.

The poll also found that “most homemakers report that they are happy with their current situation. But the experience of not working is also considerably more positive for women than men,” the Times stated. Although, “nearly three-quarters said they would consider going back if a job offered flexible hours or allowed them to work from home.”

Other experts suggest that the decline in the number of women working can be attributed to the limited access women have to work benefits, specifically paid maternity leave.

“Women make up 63 percent of the lowest wage workers,” reported the Huffington Post. And low-wage jobs are unlikely to have benefits like paid sick days, parental leave and paid vacation.

Paid family leave, including maternity and paternity leave, as a workplace norm would increase the number of women in the workforce. And more women working means a stronger economy, said President Barack Obama in a speech at Rhode Island College.

Conservative critics slammed President Obama for a puzzling remark he made in the same speech about stay-at-home moms. He said the choice to leave work to stay home with one’s children “is not a choice we want Americans to make.”

But he was referring to a lack of affordable childcare and limited maternity leave in the United States that forces women to choose between working and staying at home. It was a comment to encourage better workplace policies and more childcare options for mothers, not to discourage child-rearing, reported Lois Collins in the Deseret News.

However, workplace changes are happening for women who want or financially need to work while simultaneously raising children. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by a pregnant employee against her employer, United Parcel Service. Peggy Young sued UPS for not accepting her request for temporary light-lifting duties during her pregnancy in 2006. Instead she was given unpaid leave and eventually lost her position and health benefits, according to The Economist.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of UPS, explaining the company's policy was neutral and that any accommodations for pregnant workers would be preferential treatment under current law, The Economist reported.

Although UPS won the Supreme Court case, the company had earlier reacted to the lawsuit by changing its internal policies. “Starting Jan. 1, the company will offer temporary light-duty positions not just to workers injured on the job, which is current policy, but to pregnant workers who need it as well,” reported The Washington Post.

dsutton@deseretnews.com | Twitter: @debylene