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Opinion

More than half of young women hit by pandemic jobs instability

New research by YWCA Scotland has revealed a worrying picture for young women following the Covid-19 pandemic. Digital officer Amy King says they have been disproportionately affected by employment instability.

YWCA Scotland – The Young Women’s Movement engages in social research each year to understand the needs, concerns, ideas and hopes of young women aged 16 to 30 in Scotland. That research culminates in our Status of Young Women in Scotland report; this year’s report (our fifth to date) on young women’s employment experiences looked particularly at the economic impact of the pandemic on young women’s work. The results are incredibly worrying.

The pandemic affected employment for more than half (51 per cent) of the young women who took part, with 25 per cent being furloughed, eight per cent being made redundant, and 20 per cent not being able to find work during the pandemic.

Young women have been disproportionately negatively affected by the pandemic with regards to economic instability. Our research identifies an urgent need for the Scottish Government, official bodies and employers to consider the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the labour market, as well as the support options offered to young women, many of whom are (re)entering the workplace and who are experiencing extreme financial precarity.

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Precarity featured repeatedly in our discussions with young women – through experiences with zero-hours contracts, socially stigmatised work, the experiences of disabled young women and young women with caring responsibilities. Young disabled women and those with long-term conditions spoke about the fear of impacting their health negatively if they continued to work, a lack of clear guidelines around shielding, and a lack of PPE equipment for frontline workers. One in 10 young women we surveyed said that there was zero support for those with caring responsibilities in their workplace, making juggling work and care difficult and stressful.

The lived experiences of young women across the country are being ignored in policy and practice. One focus group participant told us: “When the furlough scheme [was uncertain] we were asked if we wanted to take unpaid leave or take redundancy, so I voluntarily took redundancy but then again in the coming days, the furlough scheme was extended so I would have been better off being on the books and getting furlough, but they wouldn’t rehire anyone back.”

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The pandemic saw one in 12 young women made redundant, 40 per cent of young women did not feel secure in their current work and 60 per cent had to change their career plans. Over 50 per cent of the young women we engaged with felt very or extremely stressed and anxious about applying for new work opportunities.

Beyond securing employment, though, the risks and barriers remain near insurmountable for too many young women. 43 per cent of respondents felt they did not have equal access to work opportunities and 44 per cent of young women experienced bullying or harassment.

Amid the global pandemic, the lack of care and support for young women left 25 per cent of respondents feeling they were not supported at all by their employer to look after their mental health. One in three respondents felt unsupported to look after their general wellbeing.

“Very little emotional or wellbeing support offered during lockdown – even though I stated that it was needed for the whole staff team and even volunteered to invest time to look for resources or offer support,” said another focus group respondent.

Existing issues have, undoubtedly, been exacerbated by the pandemic; not least young women’s confidence and safety in the workplace. Over 90 per cent of the young women we spoke to had experienced imposter syndrome (the feeling of self-doubt or fear of not living up to others’ expectations) at work.

Moreover, the gender pay gap has only widened throughout the pandemic. 38 per cent of young women did not feel they were paid a fair wage or salary for their work. Positions of power in the workplace are still predominantly held by men. The toxic boys’ club culture persists across industries, making it difficult for young women to advocate for fairer working conditions or feel comfortable challenging unfair policies and inappropriate behaviour.

Among our recommendations are the need for greater working pattern flexibilities, challenging toxic working cultures, addressing power gender imbalances across sectors, delivering specific support and training to tackle young women’s experiences of imposter syndrome, and reviewing hiring practices to ensure greater inclusivity.

Research has consistently shown the negative impacts of overwork are more pronounced for women. Regardless of the hours spent in employment, or burden of unpaid labour, the feeling of time pressure is most strongly associated with poorer mental health for women. Taking our own advice, our organisation has transitioned to a four-day week (FTE). We recognise the positive impacts on staff’s mental health and wellbeing, as well as the better work-life balance which is so difficult to achieve otherwise. This move helps us to address persisting gender imbalances with both caring responsibilities and the pay gap – our salaries and annual leave allowances remain the same as when we worked Monday to Friday.

Placing care at the heart of our policies and working practices injects feminism into every aspect of our operations, ensuring recognition of both the economic and cultural value our team brings to the wider YWCA Scotland community.

Amy King is the digital officer of YWCA Scotland – The Young Women’s Movement.

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