Why are young women so worried about the future?

In 2015, Australia’s young people have a lot on their plates.

Aside from the ordinary pressures of finishing school and entering the workforce, they are doing so in the face of record high youth unemployment, a rapidly changing job market and a gender wage gap that is going nowhere fast.

It makes sense then that the latest youth survey from Mission Australia has found more than half of the young people perceive the following three as the top barriers to their individual success: academic ability, financial difficulty and lack of jobs.

For young women — far more than men — gender is also a source of concern when it comes to future opportunities.

Despite being more engaged in education and employment generally, the female respondents were less confident in their ability to achieve their goals, when it came to school or work, and fewer reported high levels of confidence compared to the male respondents.

For one in five young women, academic ability and financial difficulties were the biggest worries — for boys it was just over one in ten.

“Gender equality and feminism have probably arisen as my biggest concerns,” a 17-year-old girl from NSW responded. “I think it is certainly a societal problem, I think education is hugely essential to this. I think women need more political representation.”

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The survey — which is the largest of its kind — aims to encourage young people to “speak up” about their fears.

Each year a report is collated with responses from more than 19,000 teenagers between the ages 15 and 19 and used to inform the agendas of governments, policymakers and community organisations.

Mission Australia’s CEO Catherine Yeomans said it was important to listen to the fears of young people and for policymakers to respond accordingly. She also highlighted the importance of thinking about young women specifically.

“While we shouldn’t oversimplify such responses, it does concern me that young women – who academically achieve on par, if not better than males – appear to be lacking confidence in their skills,” she told Mamamia.

“What do young women perceive as the bar that is set for them as opposed to for men?”

We asked a group of young women: “What’s your biggest fear for the future?”

After alcohol and drugs, equity and discrimination was the biggest national concern for both sexes, even before the economy and financial matters — for young women (as many as one in four), it was the most significant issue.

Predominantly their responses focussed on gender inequality and racism, but one in five also labelled LGBTI issues, such as marriage equality and gender identity, as being of national importance.

“This may reflect debates we are having at a national level, particularly around domestic and family violence,” Ms Yeomen said.

“I think the young women are not growing up in a vacuum. We can see as adults in the workforce that there are too few women in senior roles… in government, industry, boardrooms — all walks of life.

“Where are the role models for the girls? Our young women seem to believe that if you’re not at the very top academically, you’re unlikely to be able to secure those jobs that you are aspiring to because there are so few of them that are available for young women.”

Ms Yeomen speculated that the lack of opportunities for women, along with a heightened awareness of family responsibilities and physical and mental health issues (just over one in five had a level of psychological stress that indicating a probable mental illness) were putting disproportionate pressure on young women versus their male counterparts.

She recounted a response from one young woman — a 15-year-old girl from WA — she had found particularly affecting.

“Money would be a big help,” the girl wrote.

“Our family has never been able to go out on holidays together because we can’t afford it and it will make our mortgage even worse. I feel like our financial issues are holding us back from everything.”

Ms Yeomans said that the society is sending a lot of mixed messages to young women and that they are concerned is “no surprise”.

“The fact that they are continuing to report the economy and financial matters as a national concern shows that financial issues are weighing heavily on their minds as they consider their futures,” she explained.

“What’s so encouraging to see as well is that these young women are very articulate, socially aware and they are speaking out about a range of issues that they’re seeing.”

You can read the survey in full here.

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