Diverging employment pathways
among young adults

Women are more likely than men to be in
lower-earning pathways

In this essay, we explore how wage and benefit pathways differ between men and women who experienced socioeconomic disadvantage as adolescents. We find:

  • Women are more likely to be in trajectory groups with lower economic mobility than men. In the more upwardly mobile groups, women have lower earnings than men, despite having higher education levels.
  • Black men are overrepresented in the lowest-earning group relative to their share of the total study population—likely related to structural racism in the labor market.
  • For both men and women, the groups with the lowest earnings have very high incarceration rates (although rates are considerably higher among men than women).
  • Trajectory differences between men and women may be partially driven by occupational segregation, higher work hours among men, and more child care responsibilities falling to women.
  • Within-gender differences are notable as well. Women in the lowest-earning trajectory are more than three times as likely to have children at age 27 than women in the highest-earning trajectory. Among men, 44% in the lowest-earning trajectory have been incarcerated, compared to 3% among the men in the highest-earning trajectory.

Men and women often have very different work lives. Childbearing and caretaking responsibilities have profound effects on whether and how much women work outside the home; women typically have lower employment rates and are more likely to work part time than men. Women also frequently work in different occupations than men and earn less money.

Some of the differences between men and women can be explained by the nature of the jobs. For example, women often seek employment in fields and occupations with lower pay or earnings. Some women also choose to commit more time to family or other caretaking obligations. But some differences can be explained by discrimination: Even when women complete their education and pursue employment in high-wage industries and occupations, they are underpaid relative to men. The result, too often, is pronounced economic hardship among women.

This reality is borne out in our analysis. In the second essay in this series, we found women are overrepresented in trajectory groups with the least economic mobility, while men make up a supermajority of the group with the steepest increases in earnings and benefits. Moreover, we found through multivariate analysis, described in the third essay of this series, that simply being female results in a reduced probability of membership in an upwardly mobile trajectory group, even when controlling for a variety of factors such as education, occupation, training, and childbearing.

To better understand how wage and benefit pathways differ by gender, we separately analyze the trajectories men and women in the study population experience.

Who is in the study population?

To identify adults who experienced socioeconomic disadvantage in adolescence, we assess whether they met any of the following criteria in their teens:

  • Lived in a low-income family
  • Neither parent had a postsecondary degree
  • Mother was aged 19 years old or younger when her first child was born
  • Family received public assistance

Anyone who met at least one of the above criteria is included in the analysis.

Men earn more than women across all trajectory groups

Just as we established four trajectory groups for the study population as a whole, we found that men and women each fell into four groups when we ran separate analyses by gender. In this essay, we describe the male and female groups, compare them to each other, and look at differences within each gender. For example, how do men in a lower-earning group differ from men in a higher-earning group?

At age 30, every male trajectory group has higher earnings than the corresponding female trajectory group. Women are also more likely to be in lower-earning groups overall: 62% of women are in Group 1 and 2 compared to 52% of men.

In Group 1, earnings are extremely low: $3,200 for females and $5,600 for males. They are unlikely to receive employer-related benefits, with an average benefit score of 0.1. Nineteen percent of men fall into this group, compared to 25% of women.

Both Male and Female Group 2 have low earnings and sluggish growth. At age 30, women earn $16,000 on average, compared to $24,000 among men. They have similar benefits levels, with both men and women receiving about one employer-provided benefit on average. Group 2 accounts for the largest share of women from disadvantaged backgrounds: 37%, nearly 10 percentage points higher than the next largest group. Thirty-four percent of men from disadvantaged backgrounds fall into Group 2.

In the second-highest earnings group, Group 3, average earnings for women at age 30 are approximately $33,000, or about 71% of male earnings ($47,000). Males have a slightly higher benefits index score (2.4 compared to 2.0). Group 3 accounts for the largest share of men from disadvantaged backgrounds: 37%, compared to 29% of women.

Group 4 is the most upwardly mobile trajectory group for both men and women, but average earnings for Female Group 4 at age 30 are $75,000—about 72% of Male Group 4 earnings at the same age ($105,000). Both groups have an average of about 2.5 employer-provided benefits. It is the smallest trajectory group for both genders, accounting for 9% of women and 11% of men.

The trajectories of men and women reflect common patterns, but also differ in important ways

The trajectory groups among men and women resemble each other on several fronts, reflecting well-established labor market and societal trends. Indeed, these patterns align with those described in the second essay in this series, which reported on the analysis of the study population as a whole (not disaggregated by gender).

We list these similarities between men and women below and refer you to Essay 2 for more detail:

  • Those who start with the fewest economic resources struggle the most to achieve economic mobility.
  • Poverty rates are extremely high for lower-earning trajectory groups.
  • Men and women in higher-earning trajectory groups work more consistently and are more likely to work full time/year-round than lower-earning trajectory groups.
  • Incarceration, work-limiting health conditions, and disconnection from school and work are most common among the groups with the flattest earnings trajectories.
  • Military experience and working in a job that is covered by a union contract are most common among the groups with the most upward mobility.

However, beyond these similarities, trajectories for men and women also differ in important ways.

Male trajectory groups are highly stratified by race, incarceration, and military experience

As with the disadvantaged population overall, male and female trajectory groups are both stratified by race. But this stratification is especially extreme among males. Black men comprise 20% of the male study population, but they account for 40% of the lowest earners (Male Group 1) and only 8% of the highest earners (Male Group 4). In comparison, white men, who make up 58% of the male study population, account for a disproportionately smaller share of Group 1 (39%) and larger share of Group 4 (75%).

The lowest-earning males have staggeringly high rates of incarceration: 43% of Male Group 1 and 24% of Male Group 2 have been incarcerated. These numbers reflect the country’s shift toward higher incarceration rates and longer sentences, which started in the 1970s and has had disproportionate impacts on lower-income communities and men, particularly men of color.

Military service is more common among upwardly mobile trajectory groups. It is most common among Male Group 3 (18%) and least common among Male Group 1, of which only 1% have served in the military.

Differences in connections to work and family formation distinguish female trajectory groups

While female trajectory groups are also somewhat stratified by race, and incarceration is above average for the worst-off groups, other factors more strongly differentiate the groups—particularly, connection to work and family formation patterns.

Only 10% of Female Group 1 worked full time/year-round at age 30. The share of Female Group 4 working full time/year-round at age 30 was over seven times higher (73%). But even those female trajectory groups that work the most still work less than the comparable male trajectory group; for example, 87% of Male Group 4 works full time/year-round, which is more than 10 percentage points higher than Female Group 4.

Caring for families may be at least partially driving this work intensity difference between Female Group 1 and 4. A higher share of women in Group 1 are teen mothers (41%) than the share of Group 4 who are mothers at age 27 (26%). By age 27, 84% of Group 1 women have children. Single motherhood also appears to characterize the situation of many women in Group 1 and 2. The share of women with children at age 27 in these two groups far exceeds the share married or cohabiting with a partner. Differences in parenthood status are far less pronounced among the male trajectory groups, with about 45% to 53% of men having children by age 27, regardless of trajectory group. However, differences in marital or cohabitating status are greater among men: Members of Male Group 4 are over five times more likely to be married or cohabitating (52%) than members of Male Group 1 (10%).

The most upwardly mobile men have much less formal education than the most upwardly mobile women

Further distinguishing the male and female trajectory groups is the prevalence of postsecondary education. Among both men and women, those in the higher-earnings groups have higher levels of education, but the highest-earning women are more much likely to have a bachelor’s degree than the highest-earning men. Fifty-seven percent of Female Group 4 members have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 19% of Male Group 4. A majority of Male Group 4 members have only a high school diploma. It’s possible that job-related training might be part of the story here: Training is most common among Male Group 4, where almost half participate in training between ages 24 and 27.

At age 30, the highest-earning women overwhelmingly work in management/professional occupations, while the highest-earning men are split between white- and blue-collar occupations

The occupations male and female trajectory groups hold differ both between and within gender. At age 30, 71% of women in Group 4 are in management and professional occupations—more than 50 percentage points higher than women in the other trajectory groups. Among the highest-earning men, a plurality work in construction, production, or transportation occupations (45%), followed by 33% in management and professional occupations. In fact, construction, production, and transportation occupations are the most common job family among men in all trajectory groups, lowest- to highest-earning. Among women, lower-earning groups are much more likely than higher-earning groups to work in service occupations.


Achieving upward economic mobility is difficult for all young people who experience adolescent disadvantage, but our analysis points to ways in which the transition to adulthood differs by gender. For one, women are simply less likely to be upwardly mobile: Almost two-thirds of women who experienced adolescent disadvantage are in the least upwardly mobile groups, compared to a little more than half of men.

Different factors shape opportunities for men and women. Among women, occupational segregation and caretaking responsibilities play large roles. Many lower-wage occupations disproportionately employ women, particularly women of color. Evidence also demonstrates that as an occupation becomes more female-dominated, median wages decline.

Meanwhile, the long-standing scarcity of affordable, high-quality child care reflects outdated notions of women’s roles, how the economy functions, and child development. In a country where 71% of mothers with children under age 18 are in the labor force, and where mothers take on more caretaking responsibilities than fathers, there are simply not enough child care slots to meet demand. Federal child care subsidies reach only 14% to 22% of eligible children, and the current fragmented and underresourced child care system provides extremely limited access to high-quality and affordable care.

Moreover, the highest-earning women earn considerably less than the highest-earning males. Some of this is explained by women going into lower-paying industries and occupations, as well as differences in the amount men and women work. Men in the highest-earning trajectory group more often work full time or overwork. But women’s higher education levels suggest educational attainment alone does not close the earnings gap among the highest earners.

Among men, it is hard to overstate how high incarceration rates are among the least upwardly mobile trajectory group. The racial dynamics are unmistakable, linked to bias and discrimination in our criminal justice system. Black men are overrepresented in the group with the highest incarceration rates—making up 40% of Group 1, even though they are only 20% of the male study population. Imprisonment has lifelong economic consequences as stigma, legal barriers to work, and missed educational opportunities and work experiences reduce employment opportunities. One analysis estimates that formerly incarcerated people suffer average annual earnings losses of 52%. These losses total hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a career, with larger earnings losses for previously incarcerated people who are Black and Latino or Hispanic than for those who are white.

While gender shapes the experiences and opportunities workers encounter, it should not determine their destiny. The challenges workers face demand proactive employer action and responsive government policy to promote economic mobility, which we discuss in Essay 6 of this series.

About the Authors

Nicole Bateman

Nicole Bateman

Former Senior Research Analyst – Brookings Metro
Martha Ross

Martha Ross

Senior Fellow – Brookings Metro
Gabriel Piña

Gabriel Piña

Research Scientist II – Child Trends
Kristin Anderson Moore

Kristin Anderson Moore

Senior Scholar and Past President – Child Trends
Jessica Warren

Jessica Warren

Senior Research Analyst – Child Trends
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