, Volume 53, Issue 2, pp 365–391 | Cite as

Women’s Work Pathways Across the Life Course

  • Sarah DamaskeEmail author
  • Adrianne Frech


Despite numerous changes in women’s employment in the latter half of the twentieth century, women’s employment continues to be uneven and stalled. Drawing from data on women’s weekly work hours in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79), we identify significant inequality in women’s labor force experiences across adulthood. We find two pathways of stable full-time work for women, three pathways of part-time employment, and a pathway of unpaid labor. A majority of women follow one of the two full-time work pathways, while fewer than 10 % follow a pathway of unpaid labor. Our findings provide evidence of the lasting influence of work–family conflict and early socioeconomic advantages and disadvantages on women’s work pathways. Indeed, race, poverty, educational attainment, and early family characteristics significantly shaped women’s work careers. Work–family opportunities and constraints also were related to women’s work hours, as were a woman’s gendered beliefs and expectations. We conclude that women’s employment pathways are a product of both their resources and changing social environment as well as individual agency. Significantly, we point to social stratification, gender ideologies, and work–family constraints, all working in concert, as key explanations for how women are “tracked” onto work pathways from an early age.


Workforce participation Gender Life course Socioeconomic status Work–family 



Both authors contributed equally to the article. We deeply appreciate the critical feedback from the Demography Editor and reviewer, and also the thoughtful comments on the revision from Gordon De Jong and Michelle Frisco. We also thank Jamie Lynch, Bobby Jones, Natasha Sarkisian, Kristen Schultz Lee, Heather Jacobson, Richard Petts, and Emily Greenman for their helpful comments and critiques on earlier drafts of this article. We acknowledge assistance provided by the Population Research Institute at Penn State University, which is supported by an infrastructure grant by the National Institutes of Health (2R24HD041025-11). This research was conducted with restricted access to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the BLS.


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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Labor and Employment Relations and SociologyThe Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyThe University of AkronAkronUSA

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