Professor Rachel Cohen from City, University of London’s Department of Sociology and Criminology will collaborate on new UKRI-funded research into women’s early experiences of employment

By Chris Lines (Senior Communications Officer), Published

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, funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and led by University of Leeds academics, 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.

City’s Professor Rachel Cohen, based in the Department of Sociology and Criminology, will be one of a team of academics from three different universities, aiming to highlight how inequality is apparent in young women’s earliest experiences of paid work through analysis of national labour market datasets. This work will be combined with focus groups and interviews with young women who have not yet had children.

Professor Cohen said:

It’s great to be part of this exciting project, working with a fantastic team that brings together female academics with expertise across the fields of sociology, work and employment, geography, youth studies and education and to be collaborating with practitioners who engage in day-to-day work with young women.

We are planning to shine light on a neglected but important part of young women’s lives and contribute to better understanding of what produces the concentration of young women in lower paid occupations, not least so that this changes, and young women’s wage penalty is reduced.

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.

Young women often most affected

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 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 (ESRC).

Announcing the scheme, Professor Alison Park, ESRC Interim Executive Chair, 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.

Professor Cohen [pictured] said:Professor Rachel Cohen

“Increasingly young women are working for pay while still at school or college, in both traditional roles (like babysitting or retail) but also in newer fields (for instance, selling products online).

“Too often these jobs get ignored or treated as an inconvenience by academics and policymakers whose focus is on post-education transitions into employment.

“Yet, there is a small body of evidence that young women’s earliest experiences of work may have long-lasting impacts, contributing to their self-understandings of what they are good at or what they are suited to, and that this contributes to the gendering of occupations and the concentration of women in specific, often less well-paid fields, such as care.

Co-investigator Dr Kate Hardy, from Leeds University Business School, added:

“We 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. 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.

Learn more about the ‘Transforming Working Lives’ initiative – a series research projects investigating changes in working lives and power in the workplace, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council