How women are falling behind in the race for apprenticeships

The government must do more to prevent women being shut out, says Sue Nye.

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Earlier this week I had the privilege of delivering a speech in the House of Lords on the eve of International Women’s Day, celebrating the achievements women have made in the 150 years since the first petition for women’s suffrage was presented to Parliament. 

However, whilst we have come a long way in the UK there is still so much that needs to be done, especially with regards to women and work.

Just this week the TUC published research on the motherhood penalty, which found that women who become mothers before the age of 33 earn 15 per cent less than their peers who have not had children. Moreover, even in the Department for Education, headed by the Equalities Secretary Nicky Morgan, the pay gap between men and women is some £3,000 a year.

Although women appear to be achieving better educational outcomes than men and more women are in the workplace than ever before, behind those figures lies another story.

On Monday, to coincide with National Apprenticeships Week, the Young Women’s Trust, of which I am a trustee, will launch a new report ‘Making Apprenticeships work for young women’.

Although there are now more women than men starting as apprentices, the report finds that young women apprentices are missing out on the benefits that apprenticeships can bring. Women apprentices get paid an average of £2,000 less per year, are twice as likely to receive no training and are almost three times more likely to be unemployed at the end of their apprenticeship than their male counterparts.  

A key reason for these differences is the continued occupational segregation by gender which persists at apprenticeship level, with women largely concentrated in sectors with low pay and poor career progression. 94 per cent of childcare apprentices are women but women make up only four per cent in engineering. There are 74 men for every woman apprentice in plumbing. But while women’s progress in male dominated sectors has stalled, men are now moving into the more female dominated sectors. There are 10 times more male apprentices in health and social care than in 2002.

Employers need to take a more proactive approach, including through positive action, to increasing the representation of women in sectors such as engineering, IT and construction. Apprenticeships can provide an excellent route into this. But much more needs to be done to make apprenticeships flexible and to ensure young women can afford to do an apprenticeship by increasing pay and offering support with costs such as travel or childcare.

While a lot of attention is rightly given to breaking the glass ceiling for women, it is important not to overlook the needs of young women whose careers are less advanced and who face a lifetime of disadvantage because they remain locked out of opportunities which could transform their lives.

If the government is to meet its laudable target of three million apprenticeships by 2020 without sacrificing their quality or outcomes for apprentices, urgent action is required.

That’s why I would like to see the government set up a review to look at what action needs to be taken to increase diversity in apprenticeships in the public and private sectors. This could replicate the approach taken by Lord Davies when reviewing the under-representation of women on FTSE 100 Boards.

The review would look at issues such as different ways of attracting women to sectors where they are under-represented, the provision of careers advice, support for apprentices with caring responsibilities and how to ensure we are capturing the right data. And, unlike the Davies review, a review into making apprenticeships work for young women absolutely should be led by a woman.

Improving apprenticeships won’t just benefit young women. When apprenticeships work for young women they will better serve our businesses and our economy.

Sue Nye is a Labour peer and a former adviser to Gordon Brown at the Treasury and at Number 10.