Skip to main content

“I knew I was going to have to work my way up from the bottom, but I couldn’t even get a job at the bottom. I wasn’t expecting to have a dream job land in my lap but at the same time I wasn’t expecting to be turned away from places like McDonalds.”

This was the experience of Emalene, one of the young women interviewed in 2015 for the Young Women’s Trust inquiry Scarred for Life, which focused on the situation of young women who are NEET (not in education, employment or training). The title reflects how serious the long-term consequences of youth worklessness can be.

Recent publicity has shown that it is white working class boys who are over-represented amongst those securing poor academic qualifications. This can easily lead to the assumption that it is these young men who are most likely to be NEET. But Department for Education statistics show that many more women than men aged 18–24 are in this position, now 408,000 compared to 313,000, and that this discrepancy has existed for over a decade.

On average young women are NEET for longer – three years compared to two for young men – and the impact on their futures is greater. They are more likely than both those who have not been NEET or men who have been NEET to be unemployed in the future; they are also likely to earn less (measured with reference to subjects aged 34).

The fact that more young women go to university and get degrees can lead, in a similar way, to assumptions that it is young women who are earning more or who are more likely to be in secure jobs.

But yet again, for women, academic qualifications are not translating into higher salaries. Young male graduates earn more than young women, even when they study the same subject.

This difference is apparent in apprenticeships too. YWT’s poll commissioned from ComRes showed that female apprentices are paid on average £2,000 a year less than their male counterparts if they are working full time. This is likely to be related to the types of apprenticeships that young women undertake, for example social care and health and beauty pay less than IT and engineering.

This is the background to YWT’s annual report about young women and work, The Clock Turns Back for Young Women. It shows that young women take a more gendered approach than older women towards professions and work and think that many traditional male roles are out of their reach. In relation to the roles of electrician, ICT technician, construction worker, care worker, nurse and plumber, women over 30 were much more likely than younger women to say that the role was suitable equally for men and women.

There is a big chasm about to open up between the skills needed in industries such as ICT and construction and the number of young people available to fill these increasing numbers of vacancies. Young women seem to have responded to the reality of a landscape in which little has changed in a generation and creative responses are needed to break into this vicious circle. Women and Manual Trades reports that there are only 2% of women “working on the tools” and this figure has persisted for decades.

Valuable talents will go to waste without urgent action. For example, YWT is encouraging employers to improve the recruitment and retention of young women in industries where they are currently under-represented. Our poll demonstrated too that there is an appetite amongst the public for greater enforcement of the National Minimum Wage, with 81% of those aged over 30 agreeing that employers should face tougher legal action for offering remuneration below the minimum wage (67% of those aged 30 and under).

Ninety five percent of NEET young women polled by ComRes said they want to work. But with limited choices available to them, young women are being forced back into traditional roles with few opportunities to enter and progress in the job market. Despite what they really want to do, staying at home may be their only option and they know it. YWT is calling for improved recruitment and employment practices to attract and retain young women in a broader range of employment opportunities. We know this will benefit young women, their children and the UK economy.

Carole Easton is Chief Executive of the Young Women’s Trust. She originally wrote this piece for Bright Blue’s Centre Write magazine on the future of work.