Major annual survey reveals young women ‘filled with dread’, forced into debt and struggling to make ends meet

Young Women’s Trust is today releasing its annual survey of young women. The report entitled Just Getting By, paints a bleak picture for many young women, as they come out of the pandemic and into the cost of living crisis, with young mums experiencing particular disadvantage.

The survey of over 4,000 young women aged 18 to 30 and over 1,000 young men found that over half of young women (52%) are ‘filled with dread’ when they think about their household finances, compared with 44% of young men. This is both a big increase on 2020’s figures (27% and 23%) and represents a doubling of the gulf between young women and their male peers. Financial worries are even more pronounced in young mothers with 75% of single mums and 65% of mums who are joint parents saying that it’s a ‘real struggle’ to make their cash last until the end of the month – a big jump from 2020 when just over half (53%) of single mum told us they were struggling.

Worryingly, the research flags a sharp rise in reliance on borrowing, with 29% of young women in debt ‘all the time’, compared to 17% in 2020. This rose to almost half (48%) of young women with childcare responsibilities. In the last year, 35% of young women have been forced to take on new or additional debt, compared to 25% of young men.

For many young women it’s not possible to work their way out of hardship, as they face multiple barriers to employment and progression at work.  Young women are still likely to be paid less than their male peers and to face discrimination on the basis of their age, gender, appearance, and caring responsibilities. Whilst all agree the fact that women spend more time looking after children is the biggest reason for the earnings gap, young women were far more likely to say that being paid less than men for the same work and having fewer opportunities to progress are also big contributing factors. The research showed that just under a quarter (24%) of young women had direct experience of being paid less than male colleagues to do the same or similar work and 42% had experienced discrimination.

The research also captured data from HR decision makers which showed that almost a third were aware of instances of young women being discriminated against in the workplace over the last year, with a shocking 20% of HR decision makers believing that men are better suited to senior management roles – this is yet another barrier holding back young women at work.

Claire Reindorp – Chief Executive Officer at Young Women’s Trust said:

“Young women are being pushed closer to the cliff edge during this cost of living crisis because they already earn less than their male peers. At a time in life when they should be dreaming, learning and growing, instead they’re trapped in a struggle to meet even their most basic needs.

“There’s a gaping hole in our economy where young women’s talents and skills should be. Too many young women are stuck in low-paid, insecure jobs, unable to work the hours they would like – or worse, forced out of the workforce altogether. This is disastrous for our economy and for women’s equality, as the financial divide will only widen through the course of their lives. We need investment in childcare, in flexible working and in supporting young women to progress in the workplace, if we’re to close the gap and unleash young women’s potential.”

The survey clearly shows the ‘motherhood penalty’ means young mums are hit particularly hard and experience additional discrimination and inequality in the workplace. With young women keenly aware that having children will impact their financial security and work prospects.

  • 61% of young women said that they will wait to have a child until they are more financially secure. This is an increase of over 20% since 2020.
  • 35% of single mums and 26% of young women with joint childcare responsibility have experienced discrimination for having children or other caring responsibilities whilst working or looking for work.
  • 37% of HR decision makers agree being pregnant or having young children has a negative impact on organisational decisions regarding women’s career progression or promotion. This is highest in the hospitality (54%), retail (42%), and infrastructure (42%) industries.

A lack of flexible and affordable childcare and the availability of quality, flexible work with predictable hours both affect young mums’ ability to find, keep and progress within work.

Taslima, a young mother, said:

“There aren′t enough jobs out there with flexible working hours. There′s nothing convenient or accommodating to work around children, and childcare is so expensive. There aren′t enough paid jobs to afford childcare. Most employers cannot discriminate face-to-face but they do not want to take on single parents or mothers to be as they have childcare responsibilities.

“Being on benefits is not enough especially if you have more than two children. It stops me and my family from travelling to see each other. My health is not great. My dream is to set up my own business and to support mothers and single mums. But support for young women is not being taken seriously enough. In this day and age, it should not be like this.”

When it comes to flexibility at work the survey reveals:

  • 82% of young women said the ability to work flexibly is important to them, rising to 91% in those with childcare responsibilities
  • 86% of young women would be more likely to apply for a job that was advertised as flexible
  • 41% of young women would not feel comfortable asking a new employer to work flexibly if flexibility was not advertised in the job description, compared to just 28% of young men
  • 22% of HR decision makers whose organisations offer flexible working told us that they do not currently state this on their job adverts.

Today’s data reveals systemic unfairnesses that disproportionately impact young women and leave them exposed to economic shocks. Significant numbers of young women are in seriously precarious financial situations and need urgent short-term help to make ends meet. In the longer term, the underlying income gap needs to be tackled and both government and employers need to play their part to ensure young women’s talents and skills are recognised and valued.

We are calling for:

  • The government to conduct a meaningful review of childcare provision and to ensure the needs of young mothers are properly considered
  • Targeted investment to ensure flexible childcare is available and affordable for everyone who needs it
  • Employers to embrace innovative ways of offering flexible working – including to those in sectors where many young women work, such as hospitality, retail and social care
  • The government to amend legislation to assume a right to flexible working rather than the current right to request it. Flexibility should be legally available by default from the first day of a job and legislation should ensure jobs are advertised with flexible working arrangements
  • The minimum wage to be increased, at least in line with inflation, so that young women on the lowest incomes are better protected from economic shocks like the cost of living crisis
  • Targeted support for young women’s progression and development at work.
  • Salary transparency and an end to asking for previous salary details, to avoid young women becoming trapped on lower pay than men.

Read the report