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Challenges facing women in post-study jobs, retraining and skills following the pandemic

  • 4 September 2023
  • By Gordon Marsden and Rose Stephenson
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Gordon Marsden, co-founder of Right to Learn, and Rose Stephenson, Director of Policy and Advocacy at HEPI.
  • Right to Learn is convening a free webinar this Friday, 8th September entitled ‘Mind the Gaps – skills, the economy, new jobs and life chances’ from 11:00am to 12:15pm, which aims to explore the challenges of Net Zero, AI and demographic changes and their effect on skills, productivity and the economy. All are welcome: you can sign up here.

Challenges and concerns for women post-pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis were the focus of an event held in Parliament, organised by Right to Learn, the national campaign which brings together further education, higher education, skills, and lifelong learning to look at new ideas and policies to drive the economy, social cohesion and life chances through the 2020s.

The event was introduced by the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Education, Margaret Greenwood MP, who said that a gender pay gap and class ceiling in many sectors for disadvantaged women had been exacerbated by Covid, its aftermath and cost-of-living crisis – and this event was timely. Gordon Marsden, former Shadow Higher Education, Further Education, and Skills Minister and a co-founder of Right to Learn, chaired the event and Professor Graeme Atherton from NEON/ University of West London and also a Right to Learn co-founder was in the audience.

A trio of speakers from the Learning and Work Institute (L&W), City and Guilds, and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) presented their recent research and statistics affecting women. They also discussed Government policies and assessed the state of the Government’s Lifelong Learning Bill and its Lifelong Learning Entitlement.

L&W’s Deputy Director, Naomi Clayton, set her remarks in the context of the UK economy having had the largest employment rate fall in the G7. Their latest publication, Missing Workers said the numbers of people not working or looking for a job had increased by around 600,000 during the pandemic, bringing the number of economically-inactive group to nine million working-age people

Naomi pinpointed a clutch of elements making up the current situation:

  • long-term sickness and ill health (exacerbated by the pandemic);
  • unable to work (because of health and caring responsibilities – often in multi-generational family situations); and,
  • don’t need to work. This includes people in better-paid roles who are more likely, post-pandemic to have retired early. For example, managers, IT professionals, and directors who are able to access their pensions (the majority of which are men).

Naomi focused on the 1.7 economically inactive million people wanting to work but needing advice and help. These include many people in lower-paid occupations most at risk of giving up work for health reasons. Naomi cited those working in housekeeping, social care, personal services and cleaning – the majority of whom are likely to be mid to later life women. (This chimed with other commentary that Right to Learn has heard at previous events we have held. Women in face-to-face service sectors who were not able to work remotely in the pandemic are further disadvantaged for skills and jobs post-pandemic).

Research from L&W and the Gatsby Foundation has shown that the attempts to get women into STEM careers (only 9 per cent of the current engineering workforce is female), including taking up Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies apprenticeships, have a long way to go. Women accounted to just 6.7 per cent of successful applicants for these apprenticeships in 2015/ 16. In general, women are more likely to be put off having another try than men. Statistics suggest that women from minority ethnic backgrounds are even less likely to apply to STEM subject routes.

Finally Naomi referenced L&W’s policy briefing on post-16 young adult carers who are blocked under Government regulations from getting a Carer’s Allowance (£76.75 a week) if they study for more than 21 hours a week. She emphasised that this is a consequence of the advent of T Levels which demand more hours than previous vocational qualifications – and the outcome, if not changed, will make the plight of many of these young careers living in low-income households much worse. At present young carers are three times more likely to be NEETs than those with no such responsibilities, and four times to drop out of college or university. Again, many of those carers are likely to be young women. She called for much more joined-up policies across Government – and far more information, advice, and guidance to support those women caught up in the examples shown.

Faiza Khan, Director of Corporate Affairs at City and Guilds, echoed this and pinpointed a lack of joined-up supportive career advice and skills mapping, for young and older women in the decade since Connexions was axed by Government. She went through highlighting the major piece of research that City and Guilds commissioned report Youth Misspent which involved speaking to 5,000 18-24 year olds and focused on barriers they faced.

The statistics the report showed were stark.

  • One in five of those interviewed had been a young carer.
  • 43 per cent of young people who are working are more likely to be in insecure work.
  • 13 per cent of the 18–24-year-olds were currently unemployed and a further 3 per cent were economically inactive – adding up to 859,000 out of work and education.
  • The average salary for 18- to 24-year-olds in work was £28k. This was about even between the sexes – but for those earning more than average there was a sharp divide. 17 per cent of the young men more than this average, compared to 8 per cent of young women.

Faiza commented, ‘Although projections say that within ten years salary expectation will balance out between the sexes, once women have children their earning potential drops. The IFS says that by the time a mother’s first child is 12 years old, she will be earning 33% less than her male counterparts’.

‘It’s true that health and social care are going to be generating large numbers of jobs and remain a top choice for women to think about going into. The reality is that many of those younger women will be put off by poor remuneration and those who do stay will be lower paid and accept that as their profession.’

‘Of course, there will be the prospect of Net Zero and Green skills coming along – but it remains to be seen how they spread out in terms of salaries and careers, and whether they will be upskilling of current jobs that women are already in, starting changes of career which might offer them better employment in new skills and jobs with better salaries and satisfaction. That is why mentoring, building up a network of alumni independent career advice, and further education in particular must be given more support from Government and other policymakers – colleges here could play a crucial role but they will need more teachers and support staff’.

Fazia added, ‘Gender stereotypes and industry preferences are rooted within the career aspirations of young people from an incredibly early age’ and that a lot of those stereotypes were baked in by late primary and early secondary.

Finally Rose Stephenson, HEPI’s Director of Policy, weighed in with ‘Did you know there is a gender-based funding gap in higher education?’ Drawing from HEPI and AdvanceHE’s 2023 Student Experience survey she outlined the survey data showing that female students were more dependent than male students on maintenance loans – which for the next academic year will only rise to 2.8%, with the latest inflation figures nearly three times more than that.

As with Naomi, Rose highlighted the plight of students in the survey who are carers – over a quarter of full-time students with caring responsibilities rely on paid employment to fund most of their studies and four out of ten of them said the cost-of-living crisis has affected their studies ‘a lot’.

She added ‘for many mature students, particularly those with children, the biggest barriers may be time and opportunity’. She said that the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) offering more flexibility and a loan of £37,000 in today’s tuition fees to use on short courses, modules or full courses was ‘a noble ambition’. Rose warned that there were barriers to encouraging lifelong learners to study not being addressed by the Government via the LLE and its associated Bill going through Parliament: ‘the minimum credit size to access funding is 30 credits- equating to 300 hours of study ..10 hours of work for most of the academic year’. 

She also criticised the DfE for lack of maintenance support for distance learners – even though this was permitted in higher education during the Covid pandemic. Rose said the Open University and other adult colleges and higher education institutions are already responsible for many distance learners – if Government blocks maintenance support for them this could force them either to give up study or force them to go in person to complete the degree – which along with the 300 hours of study to access the LLE was ‘a real barrier to access’ , especially for rural learners. She gave a personal example for those reliant on public transport – ‘I live in rural Gloucestershire; my nearest university is the University of Bristol – a four-hour round trip’.

Rose spelled out what could be done to progress women, and all parents, through education and work – ‘financial support for students who pay for childcare, especially PhD students and … improved paternity leave (the UK has the least generous entitlement in Europe)’. She praised Yasmin Qureshi, the Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, who spoke at the Right2Learn event, for pushing through Parliament her Private Members Bill to make flexible working not an option for employers but by default. 

Touching on the Prime Minister’s announcement to crack down on so-called ‘rip-off degrees’ Rose warned ‘part of the quality measure to potentially cap student numbers on low-quality numbers will be the job and salary at 15 months after graduation. Male graduates average nine per cent more earnings than female ones on that basis. There is a risk therefore that courses which attract more students may be unfairly judged in the regulatory process, with intersections of ethnicity and disability compounding these outcomes’.

Commenting on the meeting, the chair Gordon Marsden said:

This was a really successful Right to Learn event -with good participation from the audience, – with experts bringing up to date research, statistics and individual examples that underline the challenges and disadvantages that many women now face post pandemic to acquire new skills, jobs, and retraining in the UK – as well as starting to see how some of these issues can be addressed.

It shows up the inadequacies of the Government’s failure to put on the face of the Lifelong Learning Bill proper access to the new entitlements.  The proposed blocking of remote learners from being able to take out a maintenance loan at higher levels (reiterated in the House of Lords by a Government spokesman only ten days ago) is nonsensical and will put extra pressure on women (and men) especially those with children, to drop out – making life more difficult for them – and for colleges, the Open University and other higher education institutions.

We at Right to Learn are pleased to highlight these issues in the run up to the Party conference season, and particularly, with this event, to have put these on the table for policy makers. And we will continue particularly to engage in them – so that ‘Mind the Gap’ may get narrower for women.

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