First published by Open Democracy, 23rd November 2016
The lack of self-confidence among young women looking for a job in Britain, revealed in the ‘Work It Out’ report, is a phenomenon engineered by social and cultural factors.
Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake provides a heart-wrenching exposé of the cruelty that bubbles beneath the surface of the Department of Work and Pensions’ dealings with some of Britain’s most vulnerable people. New research published on 15th November shows that Jobcentre Plus is currently failing Britain’s young women on a massive scale.
Young Women’s Trust, an organisation dedicated to supporting women between 16 and 30, has put together a report condemning job centres across the country for being utterly ineffectual in help young women to re-enter the workplace. The report found that only 19 per cent of young women who visited a job centre in the last year said that it helped them find a job, and 44 per cent said that Jobcentre Plus hadn’t given them useful information about work and training opportunities, compared to 34 per cent of young men surveyed.
Young Women’s Trust’s ‘Work It Out’ report sheds light on a situation where job centres are actually driving young women away and alienating them from claiming the temporary financial support that they need.
The clue really should be in the name. A ‘job centre’ should be a place where people are aided in their search to find a job, and prepared for employment with opportunities to hone and develop their skills. This is clearly not the case, when the majority of young women are having overwhelmingly negative experiences of Jobcentre Plus.
Hattie is a 24-year-old writer and illustrator. She’s been in and out of employment since graduating in 2013 and after doing two full-time unpaid internships, signed on at the job centre. She says:
“I was encouraged to apply for a job every day, even if it didn’t fit with what I wanted from a role. Seemingly they cared more about getting me off their books as soon as possible than what I needed from a job. Eventually they decided that I should apply for a couple of Christmas temp jobs to earn money, and I took a job at GAME. It didn’t guarantee me any hours and I usually had one four-hour shift a week, earning me less than £30. My mental health suffered immensely and I ended up quitting. As far as I’m aware, if you quit a role given to you by the Job Centre then you can’t go back on to claim JSA. The following month I had to survive on money given to me over the holidays, and I looked and felt horrendous due to poor diet and had little to no drive to even leave the house because I didn’t have any money.”
Dr Carole Easton, Chief Executive of Young Women’s Trust, says: “Young women are more likely to be out of education, employment and training than young men. They want to work and be financially independent but they aren’t getting the necessary support. It is clear from this report that job centres need to change.”
Abby* is 23 and had to leave her paid job at a charity because they failed to make reasonable adjustments to help mitigate the effects of her health problems. She told me that the job centre ‘terrifies’ her. She says:
“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve burst into tears in the job centre. I went in with the attitude that it might be hard, but that they were there to help. This is not true, and it is only by preparing for a horrible experience each time I have to go I have been able to protect myself as best I can. I have had experience of three different job centres.
They were totally useless when it came to accommodating my disabilities, both in terms of helping me find appropriate work, and how to assist me when I was physically there. My disabilities mean I need to take lifts rather than stairs, and I have constantly been questioned and told I am ‘raising suspicions’ when needing to use the lift (where you have to be accompanied by a member of staff). When I’ve arrived early (because if you’re late you will be sanctioned) I am told I am not allowed to be there because I’m too early. And so they make you wait outside the building, regardless of the weather and regardless of your disability.”
Abby’s experience is not unique. With 59 per cent of young women surveyed describing their time at the job centre as ‘humiliating, and 68 per cent calling it a ‘stressful’ experience, it’s evident that Jobcentre Plus is not fulfilling its role. No one should go to a government branch, in need of help, and be humiliated or treated with base disrespect.
It’s clear from the testimonials of hundreds of benefit claimants and from anonymous information given by DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) employees that due to the measures introduced under Iain Duncan Smith, Jobcentre Plus staff are actively encouraged to impose financial penalties on those claiming support.
The PCS union produced documents in 2015 that show Jobcentre Plus managers threatening staff who failed to instigate enough sanctions with performance reviews, or denying them performance-based pay raises. Regardless of whether financial sanctions are appropriate, staff are pushed to approve them. There’s also evidence that staff are encouraged to use ‘the hassle factor’ to make claiming benefits so difficult and frustrating that people are forced off the DWP’s books. These tactics are corrupt, disingenuous and bullying, and have no place in a civilised, humane Britain.
In terms of the gender imbalance found in the Young Women’s Trust’s ‘Work It Out’ report, female respondents expressed higher levels of self-doubt. 54 per cent of young women said they lacked self-confidence, while only 34 per cent of young men reported the same. Young men were markedly more confident when applying for a new job than young women, and more young women said that they would be put off applying for a job if they didn’t meet all the criteria than the young men surveyed.
The so-called ‘confidence gap’ is likely to be a product of living in a stubbornly unequal society, where women are still viewed as ‘other’ and their work is demonstrated to be less financially valuable, due to the existence of the pay gap.
In the UK, the pay gap currently stands at 13.9% for full-time workers, meaning that women will in theory be working from 10th November until the end of 2016, for no pay at all. The pay gap continues to exist, because despite the 1970 Equal Pay Act, there are still men and women receiving different pay for doing the same role, and around 54,000 women each year are forced to leave their jobs after receiving poor treatment on returning from having a baby.
Caring and domestic responsibilities within the home still fall overwhelmingly to women, meaning that women are more likely to choose part-time work or jobs with flexible hours. Part-time jobs are typically lower paid with fewer opportunities for upward career progression. The labour market remains stubbornly divided, where ‘feminized’ sectors like the caring professions and the leisure industry, staffed by workers who are 80% female, typically involve poor pay and little professional esteem.
American journalist and author Jessica Valenti writes that the ‘confidence gap’ is merely an understanding of how little women are valued by society. She says that to lack confidence is “not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured”. Between the very real threat of sexual violence, the images of physical ‘perfection’ we’re deluged with on a daily basis via advertising, the pressures of the billion-pound weight-loss industry and the expectations placed on women from an increasingly young age via pornography, it’s hardly surprising that young women don’t report the same levels of confidence as their male peers. Remember, that if you’re too confident or capable, you’ll be branded ‘bossy’ or a ‘bitch’.
Another point worth addressing is that 85 per cent of young women said that they’d applied for jobs and not heard anything back. Often dubbed the ‘fight for feedback’, it has become increasingly difficult to receive any meaningful response from roles if your application is unsuccessful. Even if you attend a first or second-stage interview, businesses may not feel the need to provide any feedback on why they decided to go with another candidate.
This serves to make the process of finding a job intensely demoralizing. You can apply for literally hundreds of roles, and only receive a cursory email response from a handful of them. It’s unsurprising that searching for employment is viewed as a depressing or hopeless task, like chipping away at an unyielding rock-face. When applying for jobs, you can’t learn from rejections if you don’t know where you went wrong.
Businesses who fail to respond to unsuccessful applicants (even when they’ve attended interviews) might argue that they just receive too many applications to reply to unsuitable candidates, but surely this is an indication that there are too few jobs to go around, and that forcing JSA claimants to apply for roles 30+ hours per week is putting a strain on employers.
The UK government has a responsibility to support those who are out of work, both through financial aid and by providing opportunities for training and professional growth. In a wealthy, Western society, this responsibility should be fulfilled no matter which party has the majority in Westminster. However, job centres are failing those who turn to them for help precisely for ideological reasons. The Tory disregard for the vulnerable, dispossessed and unlucky is not beneficial to our society. It’s merely a form of kicking those who are already down, rather than extending a hand to lift them up.
The lack of self-confidence among young women highlighted by the ‘Work It Out’ report is a phenomenon engineered by social and cultural factors. When young women are faced with the arbitrary, inhuman nature of a bureaucracy (in this case, Jobcentre Plus) that’s specifically engineered to work against claimants, the effects of poor self-belief are incredibly damaging. Inadequate provision at job centres and unpleasant behaviour from DWP staff can not only prevent young women from finding appropriate employment, but can also cruelly bar them from reaching their full potential.
*Names have been changed.