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University of Bath

Young female and forgotten?

This study aimed to understand the issues faced by high numbers of economically inactive young women in England and to recommend new ways of supporting them.

In the UK, young people in the ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training) group are divided into two categories within the official statistics – they are either economically active (EA) or economically inactive (EI). Young women have a much great propensity to be defined as economically inactive due to their caring responsibilities, while young men are much more likely to be actively seeking work. The lives of young women who are NEET and EI was the subject of a two-year study (2015-17), which was led by Professor Sue Maguire and co-funded by Young Women’s Trust and the Barrow Cadbury Trust. The study enabled young women to share their experiences through qualitative research with 57 young women across 9 localities in England. It also included a literature review, five area case studies and drew on data from the Labour Force Survey and Understanding Society to build up a profile of economically inactive young women and the factors that lead them to NEET EI status.

The final report, which was published in November 2017, provided an illuminating insight into their day-to-day lives. An overarching finding from the research was the extent to which many young women faced multiple barriers. The majority of young women relied heavily on their family for practical, financial and emotional support – most were living with or near their close family network, which reinforced evidence from the first-year case study evidence. Among those who were independent from family support, the ability to establish and sustain a positive relationship with a key professional, such as a youth worker, a social worker or a community psychiatric nurse (CPN), was crucial in helping them navigate their way through welfare entitlements, housing issues and day-to-day living. Beyond the confines of family and/or professional support, young women were often devoid of wider social contact, with limited friendship networks and social activities, and lacking the means to travel. Again, this was a key finding in the first year of the study.

Most young women in the sample had academic and/or vocational qualifications, with the majority having undertaken post-16 provision. However, what remains disturbing is the extent to which they were unable to build on their qualification base to progress into higher level educational provision or good quality and sustainable training and employment opportunities. Many had ‘churned’ between Level 1 and Level 2 education and training provision with a range of providers, including schools and FE colleges, as well as third sector and private training organisations. While this lack of progression could be attributed to the disruption caused by an unexpected pregnancy, child care responsibilities or health issues, the lack of opportunity for many young women to access independent guidance and support, as well as secure ‘small steps’ or pathways towards economic and social independence, was a powerful finding.

Other key features of young women’s lives were their limited finances and reliance on welfare and/or family support. In particular, some found it a real struggle to make or change benefit claims, and, consequently, faced financial turbulence and insecurity. A common cause of such disruption was when switching benefit claims as a result of changes in personal circumstances or new types of welfare support, such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Universal Credit (UC), being introduced. Financial difficulties were also acute when young women lived alone and/or were lone parents. Coupled with financial hardship, the evidence presented in the first-year report about young women who are NEET and EI being isolated, disconnected and hard to reach was reinforced in the in-depth interviews with young women.

The quantitative results supported existing evidence that parenthood has a massive impact on the propensity of young women to become EI, whereas for men there is no statistical difference between those who have fathered a child in the past year and those who have not. The analysis also demonstrated how mental illness poses an equal risk to both sexes, in terms of heightening their chances of becoming EI. Additionally, while high educational attainment acts as a buffer against young people becoming EI, the risk of doing so remains much greater for young women, regardless of their qualification level.

The final report made a number of recommendations, including:

  • Providing one-to-one personalised support to young women to help them with their next steps, notably finding work;
  • Reducing the time taken to process welfare claims, such as Universal Credit;
  • Including investment in jobs and skills for young women in the Industrial Strategy. This should offer flexible working hours and better pay, as well as affordable and adaptable childcare to help women become economically active;
  • Calling for urgent action to address the alarming number of young women (and young men) who are in the NEET and EI category due to anxiety and depression, and whose mental ill health is exacerbated by being NEET, and
  • Ensuring that European Social Fund (ESF) provision that currently supports local employment initiatives is replaced with central government funding.

Research team

  • Professor Sue Maguire, Honorary Professor, IPR
  • Emma Mckay, Young Women’s Trust