Rethinking young women’s working lives

New research will examine how women’s early experiences of employment shape long-term career paths and reinforce inequalities in the labour market.

The project, led by University of Leeds academics and funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), will explore early indications of work inequalities based on gender, and how disadvantages in employment develop over time.

At present, little is known about young women’s very first experiences of work, particularly when undertaken alongside studying at school, college or university, and how this may impact on future employment choices and outcomes.

Young women are often at the sharp end of wider economic downturns - whether that be austerity, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the current cost of living crisis.

Dr Kim Allen, School of Sociology and Social Policy
The research aims to highlight how inequality is apparent in young women’s earliest experiences of paid work through analysis of national labour market datasets, combined with focus groups and interviews with young women who have not yet had children.

Previous studies have often focused on the ’motherhood penalty’ - the notion that women with children encounter work-related disadvantages more so than those without children - when discussing gendered inequalities. Yet data shows that women experience gender inequalities irrespective of being a parent and this project will examine the factors that contribute to this.

Principal investigator Dr Kim Allen, from University of Leeds’ School of Sociology and Social Policy , said: "We know women now outperform men in education, and outnumber them in higher education. Despite this, women still experience inequalities in the labour market, such as the gender pay gap, higher levels of precarious employment, and discrepancies in promotions.

"Young women are often at the sharp end of wider economic downturns - whether that be austerity, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the current cost of living crisis.

"Our project will shed a light on the experiences of women from an early age, so we can help develop policies and practices that support equitable employment outcomes in the future."

The project is part of the ’Transforming Working Lives’ initiative - a broader scheme of research projects investigating changes in working lives and power in the workplace, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Announcing the scheme, Professor Alison Park, Interim Executive Chair of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) said: "The world of work is changing rapidly.

"Understanding how and why it is changing, and how this affects workers’ lives, will help policymakers, businesses and employees to navigate key challenges, including how to help people to progress in their careers and how to enhance gender equality in the workplace. These seven new research projects will collaborate and coordinate with one another, enhancing the collective impact of ESRC’s investment."

Transitioning from education to work

Alongside analysis of national data sets, the research will involve focus groups with young women aged 14 to 23 who are working while still in education, and in-depth interviews with employed women of ages 16 to 29 who have completed their studies.

Co-investigator Dr Kate Hardy, from Leeds University Business School , said: "Previous research into gendered inequalities has focused on employment in isolation to studying. Now, more and more young people are having to undertake paid work alongside their studies, often working part-time in the evenings or on weekends.

"These experiences are often trivialised as ’side jobs’ and separated from young people’s formal labour market entry once they leave education. Our research, however, will consider how these early experiences of working while studying can give rise to longer-term patterns and establish differences between men's and women's working lives that we know grow as workers get older.

"We also recognise that employment inequalities exist between women from underrepresented and marginalised groups. Our project will examine how experiences are shaped by social class, gender identity, ethnicity, sexuality, (dis)ability, geography and education."

Shaping the future of women’s work

The research project - L’earning: rethinking young women’s working lives - starts in October and is funded for three years in collaboration with Professor Rachel Cohen from City, University of London and Dr Kirsty Finn from Manchester Metropolitan University.

The project will be assisted by a young women’s advisory group who will play a central role in steering the study and ensuring young women’s voices are centred in the research.

The findings will be used to support future policies and practical interventions that improve young women’s working lives and transitions into and through employment.

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