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Guest post: Young women and work

Written by Kirstin Gray, MSc Career Guidance and Development student at University of the West of Scotland.

We're very excited to have this guest post on our blog! Kirstin has recently completed a placement with Close the Gap, and we're really delighted to share her post on the pressures faced by young women entering the labour market, and the impact of gender stereotypes.

Young women and work

2018 is Scotland’s Year of Young People: one of its themes is Enterprise and Regeneration, celebrating young people’s role in the Scottish economy, and a second theme is Education. It also gives young people (aged 8-26) a chance to challenge the existing state of affairs, and therefore an exploration of young women’s experience in the labour market is warranted. At a time when Scotland wishes to celebrate young people it is pertinent young women’s voices are heard. My background is career guidance, more specifically labour market studies, with gender and inequalities at the forefront of my research interest. Armed with this background I write about women’s experiences in the labour market.

Sometimes you read something, and it stays with you. Sometimes it’s an intricate poem, a lyric in a song, a line in a journal or a snappy headline. A quote that has stayed with me comes from Work and Society by Strangleman and Warren, “…gender inequalities are structurally determined, not natural outcomes.” A concept I have been exposed to in my studies is whether or not we are individuated. We are not - we are socialised to act in a certain way, to conform and to maintain status quo in order that society can continue to function. From as early as the hunter-gatherers there have been gendered roles, an expectation that women and men should perform certain duties because of their sex. It is ingrained in society, and in the labour market women have been negatively impacted by this through occupational segregation, devalued work, invisible work, precarious employment and poor mental health. These are some of the issues that will be touched on in this blog.

Girls outperform boys in education, and in 2012/13 44.1% of girls achieved at least five awards at level 5 compared with 34.8% of boys. Despite this women are less likely to be in work than men, and those women who are in work are less likely to be in senior positions and more likely to be in part-time work. Occupational segregation begins in education where girls are less likely to pick STEM subjects, which are interdisciplinary subjects that underpin many top paid jobs. YWCA Scotland research discusses how women are not only discouraged, but also prevented from selecting subjects which are deemed to be “for” boys or men. This research also shows women are concerned about the impact of having children on their career, and feel they are not represented in the labour market on a senior and decision-making level.

It is often asserted that women choose jobs based on other advantages not concerning salary, such as convenience of the job. The truth is, women’s work has been routinely devalued, for example clerical, care and cleaning, and although these jobs are fundamental to society the salary for such jobs is extremely low. There is a common perception that women’s “choices” create the gender pay gap, including; taking a career break to have children, working part time and the type of work women do. The problem with this statement is that the causes that lead to the pay gap are described as free choices instead of structural constraints that have an impact on women in the labour market: discrimination, lack of flexibility, the glass ceiling, and pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Furthermore this idea assumes that women freely choose to do work in the home and care, rather than it being an expectation due to historical gender roles.

Young women’s experience of the labour market is entirely different to their male counterparts, in a labour market which is becomingly increasingly difficult to navigate. Precarious employment is filling the unemployment gap, and while it looks good for governments there is widespread in-work poverty due to low wages. Importantly, women experience a more complex and problematic situation. Recent research honed in on the emotional journeys of young women in the labour market and showed young women feeling increasingly more anxious, with self-esteem decreasing. This is despite young women outperforming young men academically.

This is where precarious employment comes into play. Precarious employment, including temporary contracts and low or zero hour contracts, is inherent in our society. It has become a norm, and a scroll through some job adverts sees the “benefits” of such modes of employment described as flexible working. This type of insecure work puts immense pressure on the employee. How do women fit in? Women are more likely to be in the industries that fall victim to precarious employment; catering, retail, care and clerical work to name a few. The socialisation of young girls influences their journey through education and choice of certain subjects. A sense of identity is interlinked with career maturity, and if that sense of self is socialised by gender roles it is no wonder that these processes repeat themselves and the pay gap remains.

Why does women’s greater academic performance lead to such dire results in employment? Society’s expectation of the role women should have in the labour market plays the most significant factor. Research from the Institute of Physics gives an insight into this: “87% of girls asked (aged 11-21) think women are judged more for their looks than ability.” The rise of 'aesthetic labour' suggests that in some areas of employment, such as retail, image has become an important factor to employers in choosing a candidate for a job. Instead of merit, therefore, it becomes who looks the best for the job. Gendered roles reinforce and amplify this.

What it means to be a young woman is determined by the structural inequalities that surround us. The Year of the Young Person 2018 is an opportunity to have young women’s voices heard. I urge you to share your experience of the labour market with anyone who will listen. In the words of Close the Gap: “Be What You Want” – not what society tells you.

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