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21 August 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:02pm

Women are still falling behind in STEM subjects. Here’s how we can change that

National targets are needed to close the gender skills gap.

By Carole Easton

In science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) apprenticeships as in A Levels, women are chronically underrepresented.

Plugging the growing skills shortage in sectors like construction, IT, and engineering means giving more women the relevant training. But Young Women’s Trust has found that young women across the country are shut out of these sectors due to gender stereotypes and a lack of support.

78 per cent of physics candidates this year were boys, and for every woman doing an engineering apprenticeship there are 25 men. For every female construction apprentice in England there are 50 men. This gender skills gap is bad for our economy and bad for women, who are far more likely to work in lower-paid, less-valued sectors like retail and beauty.

National targets are needed to improve women’s representation in STEM apprenticeships – which in turn should be used to drive employers to take action.

Despite sector leaders speaking out about shortages and the recent focus on gender pay gap reporting, the proportion of women in engineering apprentices has fallen over time, from five per cent in 2002 to four per cent now. We have a job to do to reverse this trend.

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Employers can act within current legislation to create a more level playing field for women during recruitment and promotion processes, but many are unsure how.

A YouGov poll for Young Women’s Trust found that three in five employers think that positive action such as encouraging women to apply for roles and choosing women over men where they are equally qualified is needed to achieve workplace gender equality. But just a quarter have taken steps to improve women’s representation.

Young Women’s Trust has launched a report with Professor Chantal Davies of the University of Chester, “Equality at work?”, which hopes to change this. It sets out what employers, sector bodies and the government can do to improve women’s representation in male-dominated apprenticeships – and, in doing so, boost both women’s equality and the economy.

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Young Women’s Trust is calling on the government to set time-limited national targets for key sectors to improve women’s representation. Organisations should set their own targets, too, incentivised by linking chief executives’ bonuses to results. If targets are not met, the government should consider imposing quotas.

Alongside that, employers should make use of the “tie-break” provision in law that allows them to shortlist, appoint or promote a woman over a man where they are equally qualified. Lighter-touch methods such as providing women-only work experience, taster events, training days and mentoring would encourage more women to apply for roles.

At present, many employers are not using tools like these, despite the law enabling it, which means women continue to compete on an unequal playing field.

While not sufficient alone, these measures would start to redress the disadvantages women face in the recruitment process – thereby helping to tackle women’s under-representation in crucial sectors.

If the government and businesses act now, they can help to close the gender skills gap, benefit from a bigger pool of talent, and make life better for thousands of young women.

Carole Easton OBE is chief executive of Young Women’s Trust