Written by Lara Brett
This policy paper will explore UN Women’s policies for youth employment in Europe. UN Women is the United Nations body for achieving gender equality. It collaborates with the UN Member States, governments, and civil society to implement policies and practices that benefit women and girls all over the world (UN Women, 2022a). Headquartered in New York, it has various Liaison Offices in Europe, as well as the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, and country and multi-country offices across the globe (UN Women, 2022b, 2022c). Although not specifically founded to tackle youth unemployment, UN Women should treat this area as a priority, to ensure that young women have a positive start when entering the job market and to prevent workplace inequality at the early stages of a woman’s career.
Why girls may face unemployment more than boys in Europe
According to UN Women, “adolescent girls and young women” constitute 600 million out of the estimated 1.8 billion people aged 10-24 around the world. This is the largest youth population ever (UN Women, 2017). However, “twice as many young women as men are not in education, employment or training [termed NEET], and they have less access to technical and vocational education and training” (UN Women, 2021). Young women are more vulnerable to unemployment, compared to their male peers, especially in Turkey and the Western Balkans (UN Women, 2021).
UN Women notes that
“Interpreting data about youth transitions to employment is complicated because many factors influence the ability of young people to enter the labour market – such as the specific age, level of education, time since their first job, and decisions to start a family. The ECA region, however, exhibits distinct gender patterns among young women who are not active in the labour market due to family reasons” (UN Women, 2021).
The organisation further observes that “family reasons” are often not a factor for the exclusion of young men from the labour market. Indeed, “The gender gap in NEET rates points to the influence of stereotypes and expectations that women prioritize family life over working and developing careers” (UN Women, 2021). Whilst UN Women stresses that women may choose to prioritise their family, the organisation also argues that girls leaving education earlier can lead to prolonged economic inactivity or women getting stuck in lower-paid jobs more often than their male counterparts (UN Women, 2021). Furthermore, young women without a university degree are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to peers who have this qualification (UN Women, 2022c).
These patterns continue into adulthood, as “prime working years correspond to the time in many women’s lives that they interrupt their careers to give birth and to raise children” (UN Women, 2021). Indeed, the so-called “motherhood penalty” also results in lower wages for women, meaning that young mothers could be penalised during the early stages of their careers (UN Women, 2021). Once out of work, women also tend to experience unemployment longer than men (UN Women, 2021).
Furthermore, women also tend to be “underrepresented” in science and technology, although research shows that Eastern Europe breaks this trend, possibly due to Soviet-era investment in STEM facilities ( Thornton, 2019, UN Women, 2021).
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing gender inequality. Even pre-pandemic, women were more likely to be unemployed, or work in front-line roles, which have been impacted by job closures or increased exposure to the virus, especially in sectors such as hospitality, health, and social care (UN Women, 2021).
Hence, closing the gender gap in youth employment can prevent women and their families from becoming trapped in a cycle of unemployment and poverty, which ultimately is going to strengthen Europe’s economy and social cohesion (UN Women, 2022d).
UN Women policies and initiatives for youth employment
On the global level, ‘Women’s economic empowerment is one of UN Women’s four thematic areas’ (The United Nations, 2022). Within the ‘United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) Strategic Plan 2022–2025’ there is a brief mention of the link between economic development and girls’ empowerment, relating to “Reducing women’s and girls’ poverty by strengthening women’s economic rights”, and supporting adolescent girls in leadership roles (The United Nations, 2022).
The Youth Leap into Gender Equality report, published in 2017, details UN Women’s Youth and Gender Equality Strategy (UN Women, 2017). This document refers to both youth and employment, but not in conjunction with one another. It mentions the establishment of a Youth Task Force to better serve the interests of young people, and UN Women’s intention to engage with government agencies and NGOs that are concerned with youth affairs, but it does not mention Europe as an area of priority (UN Women, 2017).
It is unclear whether UN Women’s European offices have country-specific strategies for the gender gap in youth employment, and how they plan to implement the organisation’s aim of economic empowerment for young women.
In 2019, UN Women published its Youth Plan of Action for 2019-2021. Again, it prioritises girls’ leadership and partnerships with youth organisations, with the UN’s Civil Society division supporting UN Women’s youth work (UN Women, 2019).
In terms of promoting the “economic empowerment of young women,” UN Women strove to:
• Mainstream young people in existing programmes in-country and regional offices.
• Enhance specific youth and gender equality programmes in countries experiencing a youth upsurge, especially in regions such as Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
• Support vocational training for young women to access decent employment and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Additionally, the organisation has its own Youth Council and established its Youth Common Minimum Standards to encourage youth engagement and participation (UN Women, 2019).
At the European level, economic empowerment remains a key focus, but there appears to be a limited emphasis on the transition from education to employment (UN Women, 2022e). In Europe and Central Asia, UN Women’s work centres around increasing women’s incomes, employment rights, and access, especially for marginalised groups such as domestic workers (UN Women, 2022f). So far, 2,223 women have taken part in training programmes across the region, with UN Women providing 21 grants to women’s groups (UN Women, 2022g).
More generally, UN Women utilises gender-responsive budgeting, works with countries on national action plans, and works with men and youth groups to respond to the various challenges facing countries in Europe, including the attempts at EU accession by countries in Central and Southeastern Europe (UN Women, 2022h).
Targeted young women’s employment initiatives appear to be either poorly advertised or limited in scope. I found that UN Women held its first virtual regional Women’s Entrepreneurship Expo in 2021, but no examples of programmes specifically targeting young women (UN Women, 2022i).
One such example is that of ‘GirlsGoIT’ in Moldova. In 2016, the programme aimed to encourage more girls into IT, with planned local and summer clubs, in collaboration with government agencies and private companies (UN Women, 2016). The organisation’s Chișinău Facebook page continues to upload occasional posts, indicating the programme is still active. However, it is unclear whether UN Women sponsors similar enterprises in other European countries.
Policy recommendations for UN Women
UN Women itself has documented the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and noted that this group faced particular difficulties in gaining and maintaining employment before 2020. This raises the question of why the organisation does not appear to have established special youth employment policies and programmes in the first place. UN Women should create specific policies targeting young women’s employment opportunities and rights. The organisation should address this group’s transition from education into full-time employment and address the gender inequality they face.
UN Women itself stresses the importance of addressing “the mismatch between education and training and the demands of the labour market,” to ensure girls are prepared for the challenges of post-education and to promote global recovery from the pandemic (UN Women, 2021). The organisation also advocates for intersectional policymaking, the normalisation of remote working to enable women to juggle child-caring and employment responsibilities, and more support for “women in the NEET category,” including help in accessing STEM careers (UN Women, 2021).
Overall, continued collaboration with civil society on youth employment initiatives for girls along with the creation of specific sections for youth employment on its European websites is suggested.