But the results might not be generalizable to all women, she and others said. Despite the large sample, the effects were limited to women who took leave immediately after it became available. Only about a fifth of women who gave birth then did so, and that group might have been more inclined to step back from work in the first place.
A variety of research has found that this group was more likely to be older, high-earning, white and college educated than those who took leave after the program had been in effect for a while. Even later, awareness of the program was low, particularly among low earners — exactly the group that research has shown gets the most economic benefits from paid leave.
The paper’s authors explored other explanations for the unexpected results. Perhaps employers discriminated against women who took leave, nudging them out of their jobs. But even if they treated mothers this way, it is unlikely that they would treat women who took a few weeks of leave a decade earlier differently than other mothers, they said.
Instead, the researchers concluded, something about taking paid leave seems to have encouraged mothers to scale back at work and spend more time with their children.
Mothers who took the leave spent more time than those who didn’t reading to children, sharing meals with them and taking them on outings, the researchers found. They also had fewer children, consistent with the style of intensive parenting that entails investing lots of time and money in each child.
Still, while leaves of a year or more in Europe have been shown to stall women’s careers, women in California took just several weeks off. Could that short a period really influence their career and family decisions for years to come?
If it did, Ms. Bailey said, it could be because the weeks after a baby is born upend a family’s life and create new routines. If the mother — but not the father — is out of work and doing most of the child care at the beginning, the division of labor could get locked in. One piece of evidence for this, she said, is that the effects were bigger for first-time mothers, who were forming their family routines for the first time.