Women's Continuous Careers in Italy: The Education and Public Sector Divide


Cross-sectional data on the role of education show that low-educated Italian women have one of the lowest rates of participation in Europe, and that their gap vis à vis the highly educated is very wide. Also wide is the gap in the shares, between high and low educated working women, of those employed in the public sector. By adopting a life-course perspective and using retrospective longitudinal data from the last wave of ILFI (2005), this study analyses how in Italy education and public employment differentiate women's entries into and exits from paid work, observing three cohorts of women born between 1945 and 1974 from the time they leave fulltime education to their forties. The findings confirm for Italy what has been shown for many other countries, namely that highly educated women have more continuous careers around motherhood than do low educated women, regardless of their occupational position, their contract, and their employment position in family-friendly sectors such as the public sector. However, we also find that in Italy highly educated women tend to be over-concentrated in the public sector and that, when they work in that sector, they tend to have more children and to bear them earlier compared with equally highly educated women in the private sector. In the Italian context where protection in the public sector has also been used as a surrogate measure for universal work-family reconciliation policies, and where traditional gender norms still persist, these results are consistent with the possibility that education is so important for women's labour market continuity because it represents an investment in 'reconciliation' and 'work legitimacy' over and above investment in human capital.