L-earning: rethinking young women's working lives (Project Summary)
Project team: Dr Kim Allen (University of Leeds), Dr Kate Hardy (University of Leeds), Dr Kirsty Finn (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Professor Rachel Cohen (City University).
Background and context: Despite women’s increasing participation in education and the labour market, gendered outcomes and inequalities remain, including a gender pay gap and horizontal and vertical segregation. Recent economic disruption, including the COVID-19 pandemic, has brought new urgency to addressing these inequalities, with young women workers disproportionately impacted (Women’s Budget Group and Young Women’s Trust 2020). Explanations of unequal gendered outcomes have focused predominantly on the ‘motherhood penalty’ (Tomlinson 2006; Kricheli-Katz 2012) and occupational segregation (Hegewisch and Hartmann 2014). While these offer vital analyses, a gender pay gap exists for women regardless of whether or not they have children (Dias et al 2016), and the period of time during which women engage in the workforce before they have their first child remain underexplored. With respect to occupational segregation the literature omits wider experiences and contexts of young women’s lives - particularly experiences of paid work undertaken before formal transitions from education.
Indeed, research suggests that even work while at school may involve occupational gendering (McKechnie et al. 2014; Easterbrook et al. 2021) and a gender pay-gap (Kooreman 2008). Most young people have experiences of paid work before completing education, in part because of labour market fragmentation and increased demand for part-time labour (Mizen et al. 1999). The majority of school students have done some form of paid work (Hobbs et al. 2007) and paid work is increasingly common among higher education students (Gil 2014), especially women students (DfE 2018). For many ‘earning while learning’ is ‘a necessity for survival’ (Simpson 2020), particularly given rising tuition fees and spiralling living costs (Finn et al 2021). Yet the variety or nature of this work is rarely interrogated in depth. Typically, it is explored as an impediment to academic achievement (Payne 2012) or understood in a binary fashion (career helping/hindering). For HE students paid work is often positioned as instrumental, temporary or detrimental to movement into ‘graduate careers’ (Williams 2014; Hordosy et al. 2018). Such analyses underestimate the stickiness of side-jobs, particularly as rising graduate underemployment has made transitions to graduate careers more uncertain and elusive (Allen 2015, MacDonald 2011).
The study: Drawing together key debates and literatures from Work and Employment Studies, Youth Studies and the Sociology of Education, this mixed methods study with women aged between 14 and 29 will provide a novel contribution to understandings of gendered inequalities through a distinct focus on the early life course experiences of working among childfree or pre-motherhood women - including work undertaken while studying. Taking a holistic and relational approach to working lives, the study will analyse and conceptualise the multifarious experiences of paid work that young women accrue before they officially 'transition' from education, which have been under-theorised and invisibilised in studies of gender and work to date. It will identify how early engagement in work - including part-time/weekend jobs, illicit and undeclared work, and work for family – develops knowledges, networks, relationships and values, establishing trajectories that may embed gendered patterns including occupational segregation. In doing so it will advance understandings of how the work of very young workers contributes to gendered inequalities and outcomes in later working lives.
To achieve this, we will utilise a range of methods to examine different phenomena, including: analysis of existing national surveys for drawing out large-scale patterns, trends over time and over individual life-courses; focus groups and interviews with 180 young women to drill deeper into key issues, including views on good work, past experiences and transitions, and hopes for the future; and interviews and roundtables with stakeholder representatives to ensure the research has broad impact.
The study will be steered by both a project advisory group (comprised of academics and key stakeholders) and a young women's advisory group (facilitated by The Young Women’s Trust), ensuring that young women themselves have a central role in shaping the research. Alongside academic journal articles and conference presentations, findings will be disseminated through a project website, news articles, a project report and policy briefings, a final dissemination event, and a short film that foregrounds the voices of young women.
*The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of their Transforming Working Lives scheme. Follow us on Twitter at @ywworking