Young women more anxious than ever about future career prospects

Young women more anxious than ever about future career prospects, new research suggests


Dr Jo Gleeson is the author of a forthcoming paper about these findings published by the Monash University, Centre for Youth Policy and Education Practice.

Over the last decade, women’s workforce participation has grown and so too have the levels of educational attainment achieved by women with ABS figures confirming women are more likely than men to get a Bachelor degree or above qualification.

Further, according to WGEA the gender pay gap consistently decreased between 2014 and 2019. 

Despite such developments, Monash University research into young Australian women reveals high levels of stress, lack of career direction and potentially negative external influences over their career choices.

Our findings suggest a need to look more closely at the critical years of senior schooling when career choices are formed. This has important implications for young women in general, and careers education in particular.

Firstly, let’s look at the bigger picture.

In a survey of 2,473 Victorian secondary school students from five diverse schools, students were asked about the kinds of career advice they receive at school. We found that young women’s career choices continue to be concentrated within a handful of traditional, professional career pathways. Echoing OECD data, 65 percent of young women who nominated a career sought career destinations within the 10 typical popular occupations.

Nine out of ten of these occupations are considered professional, requiring tertiary study (such as doctors, teachers and veterinarians). Aiming for these types of careers has persisted in recent decades despite the emergence of new occupations, for example, from technological developments (such as artificial intelligence and social media).

At the same time, a quarter (26.6 percent) of female survey respondents believed that there are too many people going for jobs in their preferred career.

Over half (57.9 percent) of female respondents felt they had fewer career choices because of who they are or where they come from.

OECD data indicates that backgrounds matter in young people’s career choices and aspirations. For example, high-performing young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are four times less likely to hold ambitious aspirations than high achievers from the most privileged backgrounds.

The pressures and expectations of others seems to be a major reason young women pursue these careers, nonetheless. Social pressures are significant, with 49.1 percent making choices based on others’ expectations (e.g. parents/carers). Just over half (51.6 percent) were worried that others would not approve of their choices. A similar percentage (54.6 percent) were making choices to please others.

Secondly, many young women suffer from stress in choosing employment pathways. Over a quarter (26.1 percent) often felt down or worried about choosing a career. Around one in five (21.5 percent) felt overwhelmed by the career information and choices that they faced (with 34.1 percent being neutral).

Perhaps the most striking finding is that just over 39 percent of female respondents were concerned about ever achieving a “real” career. Slightly more (40 percent) felt they had no career direction. A third overall (33.5 percent) did not know what careers best suited them. A similar proportion (31 percent) did not feel employable.

Even when very specific choices were made, many young women felt constrained in their abilities to make career choices. Consequently, this is affecting confidence in their decision-making and their future career direction and wellbeing. Career stress is also associated with relationships with others and in young women’s own career decision-making abilities and perceived obligations.

Perhaps the top career choices continue to be in the same fields because they still resemble some sort of linear trajectory. Over a third (34.5 percent) of young women who have chosen a career still feel anxious about it. This could imply that they know their pathways are not going to be linear and feel the pressure from ‘others’ (family, relatives, friends, teachers) who expect young women’s career experiences to be the same as they were for them, some decades ago.

Young women understand that if they want a “real” career, they have a restricted set of choices. Anything outside of this set of choices is uncertain – hence they might lack confidence and anxiety when choosing a career, especially if it is counter to the expectations of significant others. Consideration of the social forces shaping young women’s choices needs greater attention, particularly in relation to careers education, which sits at the periphery of many schools. Careers educators need to be deeply engaged in the changing workforce and to find ways of bringing these significant others (parents/carers) along the careers education journey.

Last year, our Australian Youth Barometer survey of 505 Australians aged 18-24 found that almost half (46 percent) of young people experienced significant stress due to ‘feeling stuck’ in life. Just over half (52 percent) of young women in this survey reported this feeling. Some of this stress might relate to the impact of the pandemic. Another explanation might be the wider uncertainty associated with the contemporary workforce and the erosion of single, linear career pathways. Regardless, something much deeper is going on. Careers education in schools is a good place to start. 

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