Young women are shut out of male-dominated apprenticeships early on, with A Level results showing a significantly lower number of women taking up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. In our recent Young Women’s Trust report, ‘Equality At Work?’ we ask: is it time we take more direct action to recruit more females into male-dominated sectors?
Men are far more likely to enter industries like construction, engineering and IT, which give trainees higher pay, more training and better job prospects than areas dominated by women, such as hairdressing and beauty.
Take engineering as an example. The UK government desperately requires up to 50 per cent more science and engineering graduates to meet the needs of the economy, so how do we recruit and retain more women engineers? In 2015, only 3 per cent of engineering apprentices were female, a 1.5 per cent drop from a decade earlier.
Recruiting women into male-dominated sectors needs to come with the understanding that education stereotypes start at an early age. As one employer told us, “We have to start opening up the eyes of girls to the fact that they can do this kind of work and they can do it well.” This year just 8,384 young women studied physics at A Level compared to 29,422 men – a prerequisite for most engineering degrees.
Three in five employers think that positive action is needed to achieve workplace gender equality. Positive action involves special measures to redress disadvantage to achieve ‘equality of opportunity’, such as targeted advertising, mentorship and training.
With this is mind, we recommend that the government leads by example and uses public sector procurement to promote positive action in the supply chain. This should be backed up by funding, training and resources.
Business size is no excuse for inaction. With big firms such as PWC implementing 50:50 gender ratio shortlists, there are small steps that all employers can take throughout the recruitment process to make the sector less exclusive of women. Even the smallest of companies can take steps to recruit more women such as using blind CVs, disclosing salary bands, including women on interview panels and promoting positive role models of women industry leaders.
Employers can also use the little-known tiebreak provision, Section 159 of the Equality Act to recruit women into traditionally “male” sectors. This legally enables a recruiter to appoint a candidate over others as long as they have a protected characteristic and are “as qualified as” the best candidate.
We know that recruiting more women into construction and engineering is only half the battle. The other half is retaining the women who do enter the sector. As Glynn, one of the young women we work with, told us:
“I started an apprenticeship with City and Guilds…from the moment I stepped onto the building site, I was automatically treated differently...I experienced constant sexist remarks like ‘get us a cuppa’ or ‘be careful you don’t want to break a nail’. “I approached my course coordinator but the general response was ‘it’s only banter’, or, my favourite, ‘don’t be so emotional’.”
Without making the workplace a space where women feel comfortable and accepted – a place free of harassment and gender stereotypes, employers will fail to recruit and retain women in male-dominated industries.
But getting more women to the table and accessing their untapped potential, could translate into huge financial gains, economic growth and bring an end to decades of the long-standing prejudice that engineering is a “man’s job”.
Nicole Dulieu is Research & Evaluation Manager at Young Women's Trust