Women's accelerated advances in the work force have run into a major barrier: the troubled economy.

"The year 1982 was not a good one for the female worker," declares a new report by the Women's Research and Education Institute (WREI), the research arm of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues.

"Recent gains made in non-traditional and male-dominated occupations slowed perceptibly . . . The number of women working part time because they could not find full-time employment increased by 27 percent; the number of women who wanted to work but were not in the labor force . . . rose by 39 percent."

Although 1982 unemployment rates for women were slightly lower than those for men, "A growing number of the female unemployed are non-married and/or single parents for whom employment is the sole alternative to welfare or poverty. Many others are the wives of men who are currently unemployed."

Among other WREI findings reported at last week's national conference on Capitol Hill, attended by about 250 scholars, politicians and administrators:

* In 1982 more than 2 1/2 million wives were the only employed family members--an increase of 44 percent in four years.

* Working women remain concentrated in low-paying occupations and industries, with relatively few advancement opportunities. Over one-third of all women (and only 6 percent of all men) are employed as clerical workers, yet the 1981 average weekly pay of $328 for full-time male clerical workers was nearly 1 1/2 times that of full-time female clerical workers.

* While women represented nearly 28 percent of all employed managers and administrators in 1982--up from 16 percent in 1970--that progress has slowed significantly. Before the recession, women's share of these jobs was increasing by more than a percentage point annually; between 1981 and 1982, the increase was under six-tenths of one percentage point.

* The number of women in blue-collar construction jobs has diminished by more than 20 percent--down to some 54,000 in 1981 from a high of about 74,000 in 1980. (Openings in construction-trade apprenticeship programs have dwindled to virtually none for both sexes.)

Despite the difficulties getting, keeping and moving up in jobs, "Paid employment is--and will continue to be--a fact of life for American women," said Marilyn Levy of the Rockefeller Family Fund.

"More than half are now in the work force. By 1990 it is projected that there will be 60 million women workers in comparison with 68 million men workers within the United States.

"By 1995, projections have been made that 91 percent of all women between the ages of 25 and 34--married, unmarried, children, no children--will be in the work force. So parity is close at hand--at least in terms of numbers."

Women's employment progress, however, "has not necessarily challenged the underlying structure of cultural assumptions about women, nor about how resources are distributed," said William H. Chafe, director of the Duke-UNC Women's Studies Research Center, Durham, N.C.

"During the 1950s, for example, most of the women who joined the labor force were over the age of 35 and their children were either in high school or out of high school. They least directly contradicted the societal prescription that women should be primarily homemakers and mothers."

During the 1960s, the greatest increase in employment took place among women ages 25 to 35--generally when their children were in school. More recently, it's been the early and late twenties, as more and more women wait until after age 30 to have children.

In almost all cases, "Women's jobs have been defined as work which is to help the family," said Chafe, "not as a means of establishing independence and autonomy on the part of women.

"Therefore it's been in work that is--quote, unquote--women's work: sex-segregated, underpaid with little room for development and progress . . . it hasn't really threatened the existing distribution of power or the underlying cultural assumptions."

The women who have achieved in non-traditional fields, Chafe notes, generally come from "relatively privileged backgrounds."

His warning: "We run the risk of having, in effect, two worlds--one where the minority of privileged women enjoy a greater degree of opportunity, and the other where the majority of women are in dead-end, low-paying, sex-segregated jobs."

Other conference updates:

The Wage Gap: "Where the national ratio of women's to men's earnings is 59 cents to every dollar," said Sandra Morgen of Duke-UNC's Women's Studies Research Center, "the southern black women earns about 47 cents to every one white male dollar--a ratio that goes as low as 38 cents in Louisiana.

"Top professional women earn about 73 percent of what male professionals earn; clerical workers earn only 64 percent of what their male counterparts earn, and sales persons earn only 45 percent."

The New Technology: "One of the trends for the 30 percent of employed women in the clerical field is the redefinition and de-skilling of work which formerly had a whole variety of aspects," noted Karen B. Sacks of the Business and Professional Women's Foundation.

New technology, for example, is breaking down the broad-based secretarial job--with skills ranging from typist to diplomat--into numerous pieces such as word processing and data entry. These chores are subject to "assembly-line type of measurements of output" and have "few opportunities for upward or even lateral mobility."

Also, data-entry work is increasingly being contracted out "to areas like Barbados or South Dakota instead of New York where wages are higher." Women who do this "automated piece work" generally receive low pay and no benefits.

Consequently, "there has been an increase in unionization of women, particularly in white-collar unions of clerical and service employes." While women constitute only 28 percent of all union members, they comprise half of all the increase in new union members since 1960.

Stumbling Blocks. The lack of writing, supervisory and presentation skills are most apt to keep the 80 percent of employed women in traditional, low-paying jobs, according to a study by Marjorie Glusker of Cornell University.

Women themselves cite the lack of three things--educational credentials, self-confidence and assertiveness.

Comparable Worth: Since the late '70s, when Denver nurses garnered national attention by showing that their salaries were lower than the city's painters and tree-trimmers, "There have been between 80 and 100 state and local government initiates on the issues," said Ronnie Steinberg of the State University of New York at Albany.

"Job-evaluation studies are demonstrating that women's jobs are undervalued between 15 and 25 percent."