Achieving greater gender diversity in apprenticeships

Apprenticeships in Scotland reflect longstanding gender norms about careers in the broader labour market. That’s why the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board (SAAB) set up a Gender Commission back in 2019 to examine how to address that persistent inequality, especially from the point of view of employers. Members of the Commission were drawn from industry bodies, employers themselves, academia, education, and the early learning and childcare sector.

The Commission met over a two-year period, mainly during the pandemic, and gathered evidence from many different sources. One of the main conclusions it reached is that the continued acceptance of traditional cultural norms in relation to work and subject choice is at the heart of the challenge to achieve greater gender diversity in apprenticeships and so the response requires a wider societal approach. In addition, the Commission makes practical suggestions for the proactive steps employers can take to ensure their workplaces are inclusive.

The Commission has broadly arrived at three main areas of its recommendations: what employers can do now; how we can ‘influence the influencers’ (teachers, parents, the media, etc.); and what government and its agencies need to focus on in the longer-term.

What employers can do now

The recommendations aim to provide businesses with some of the information and tools they need to build an inclusive workforce, as well as guidance for attracting more diverse talent through apprenticeships.

One of the Gender Commission members, Thomas Wild from the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), said,

“There are inherent misconceptions around apprenticeships and tackling those will be a huge challenge. This Commission can provide that support by offering practical advice and solutions to help address barriers to improving gender diversity.”

Recommendations include:

  • Inclusive workplace: Apprenticeship employers should work proactively to ensure they have the right culture and conditions in place to create opportunities and give confidence to employees of all genders and background.
  • Promote and ensure gender diversity in the workplace: employers should take a proactive approach in order to develop and maintain a strategy for improving gender diversity, including the use of gender-neutral language, a positive recruitment policy, and pay in line with the Gender Pay Action Plan.
  • Engaging young people: businesses should develop a strategy for engaging young people at various life stages and in appropriate settings.
  • Curate and create sector-based workplace information: industry and trade bodies should create content and engagement campaigns about gender diversity in employment, aimed at key and transitional stages, that can be shared with influencers, as well as online and through social media.

How we can ‘influence the influencers’

The role that influencers play on young people’s career choices and the subsequent impact became a central focus of the Commission. Commission members who focused on the role of key influencers heard from a wide range of focus group participants with parents and carers, children, early years practitioners, university and college staff, Scottish Government, and national organisations, as well as careers advisers, teachers, and teaching unions.

SAAB Gender Commission Chair, Natalie Buxton of Weber Shandwick, said:

“It is clear that the lack of gender diversity is not specific to apprenticeships. Instead, it reflects the broader, longstanding gendered norms that exist within the labour market – action is needed from everyone across the system, and much earlier than we previously thought.

“As an employer-led Commission, we wanted to provide clear advice on action that businesses can take and there are some immediate, quick wins that any organisation can benefit from. We would urge employers, those who influence a child’s career choice from the earliest years, and the Scottish Government, to take this work forward and change the way we think about addressing gender diversity in the workplace.”

Recommendations include:

  • Raise awareness of gender stereotyping through career education: education and training providers of professional learning for all practitioners working with children and young people (teachers, careers advisers, youth workers) should improve professional learning by including a specific focus on the impact of gender stereotypes.
  • Increase Diversity in the ELC Sector: The Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) sector should be recognised as vital to the drive to break down gendered barriers to the workplace by all stakeholders.

Broader and sustainable change

The final set of recommendations is focused on longer-term change in attitudes to the world of work. While the Commission recognise that equality, diversity and inclusion awareness, and unconscious bias training, have become commonplace for some employers, we still see a need for a focused approach on gender norms in work for practitioners working with children and young people. The role of focused professional learning on gender norms will be instrumental in opening opportunities, including through apprenticeships, for all Scotland’s children and young people, and in turn in addressing occupational segregation in the longer term.

Gender Commission member and early years expert, Jean Carwood-Edwards, said,

“Attitudes to health, relationships, physical wellbeing, diet and sexuality are formed to varying extents in the early years – gender and occupations are no different. Children will see themselves in a role if they have this presented to them – and this can limit or open up their choices.”

The SAAB Gender Commission report and recommendations are now live on the Skills Development Scotland website. Skills Development Scotland recognises that to achieve sustainable change, there is a critical role to play in ensuring that stakeholders fully understand how recommendations can be implemented.

For more information about the Commission and to become involved in next steps, please contact Fergus McMillan at Skills Development Scotland.