Longer maternity leave linked to lower attrition in U.S. military

· 3 min read

Longer maternity leave linked to lower attrition in U.S. military

Pocket Science: Exploring the 'What,' 'So what' and 'Now what' of Husker research
Pregnant woman cradling her belly with her arms

Welcome to Pocket Science: a glimpse at recent research from Husker scientists and engineers. For those who want to quickly learn the “What,” “So what” and “Now what” of Husker research.


In the mid-2010s, the U.S. Department of Defense modified the maternity leave policy of its armed forces, approving an increase from six to 12 weeks of paid leave for active-duty women in the U.S. military. In announcing the change, the DOD cited a desire to better recruit, support and retain personnel.

So what?

Curious about how the policy change may have influenced retention, Nebraska’s Weiwen Chai and Lt. Col. Minette Herrick of the U.S. Air Force consulted a database that included 67,281 women in the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines who became pregnant between 2011 and 2019. The duo sought to learn what proportion of those women departed the military during a roughly 21-month span: from their first prenatal visit through the first year after giving birth.

Overall, 21% of the women exited the military within that 21-month window. But the researchers discovered a trend when comparing attrition from 2011-2015, when maternity leave was still six weeks, against 2016-2019, after the leave had doubled. Whereas 23% of the pregnant women departed under the previous policy, only 18% did so when afforded 12 weeks of paid leave.

Chai and Herrick also found that the link between leave length and attrition varied with rank, especially when it came to women who generally lacked it. Among junior-enlisted women — those ranking lowest in their respective branches — 29.2% exited under the six-week policy, compared to just 22% of those receiving 12 weeks’ leave. By contrast, attrition rates remained flat among pregnant women who had achieved higher ranks, such as senior officer or warrant officer.

Given the nature of the analysis, Chai and Herrick could not determine whether, and to what extent, the increase in maternity leave actually drove the notable drop in attrition. But the researchers managed to rule out several variables — including age, ethnicity and marital status — as potential explanations for the trend, further suggesting that the change in leave policy did contribute.

Now what?

On the civilian side, just eight U.S. states and Washington, D.C., offer publicly funded maternity leave. Though 1993’s Family and Medical Leave Act mandated up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new mothers, smaller companies are exempt, and employers can withhold that leave from women they have employed for less than a year.

Based on the study’s findings — and the large, nationally representative sample of women from which they came — companies and states looking to boost their retention would be wise to consider lengthening and subsidizing parental leave, the researchers said.

Recent News