How apprenticeships can get more women into STEM

13 April 2017 -


The director of the National Apprenticeship Service explains how increasing the number of female apprenticeships in STEM industries is essential for economic growth and workplace equality

Jermaine Haughton

Inspiring, attracting and retaining more women in managerial and technical positions has been proven by a vast series of studies to boost the innovation, competitiveness and profitability of companies.

Gender diversity is particularly important in the leadership positions in the science, engineering and technology sectors, as services and solutions are likely to be better designed to reflect the experiences of both male and female customers.

However, CMI’s The Missing Middle research found many women are being prevented from moving into senior positions at their employer. Currently 73% of junior managers are female but only 41% in middle management, and the CMI has calculated that the UK will need 1.5 million new female managers to close the gender gap in middle and senior management by 2024.

This gender disparity is also reflected in remuneration. The Mind The Gender Pay Gap report found the gender pay gap is far from being narrowed, with average full-time working women earning £8,964, or 23%, less than their male counterparts.

Speaking at the latest CMI Women event, Sue Husband, director of the National Apprenticeship Service at the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), explained that apprenticeships are a valuable way to encourage more young women to maintain their interest in STEM subjects from school to the workplace.

“We really believe that apprenticeships are for everyone,” she said, “and that's regardless of your background, your age, your gender and circumstances and one of the things that we know is we need more women to undertaken stem apprenticeships because increasing the number of female apprenticeships in stem industries is not only vital for our economic growth but it's also part of how the Government can accelerate its ambition to eliminate the gender pay gap.

“The Government is actively playing its part - it's supporting girls to choose STEM subjects and STEM careers by improving the quality of teaching and increasing the proportion of girls' A-level entries into maths and science. We are also boosting awareness of just how exciting and valuable STEM careers can be for women through STEM ambassadors and new online guidance called Your Daughter's Future.

“At the moment we're seeing success in getting girls to take STEM subjects at GCSE, where the rates for girls and boys are broadly comparable so we need to strengthen careers advice to encourage these girls to follow those paths through to a career and ideally through to an apprenticeship.”

Typical apprenticeships, especially in science, technology, engineering and science fields are perceived as being ‘male-dominated’, and can discourage some young women from choosing it as a potential career path.

Managers, particularly male bosses, have a key role to play in the helping break down the taboo, and Husband explained, through her own experience, how encouraging women to embrace women to understand and appreciate the different perspectives they bring to technical careers and industries is essential.

“I went to my first job in a very male-orientated organisation that was very much about hitting targets, etc, and when I first became mid-management my boss said I was very fortunate,” she said. “I had a fantastic boss, Tim, who I still keep in touch with now and the thing that he did and he taught me very early on was to be myself.

“He had three women working for him and three men and regardless of our gender he played to our strengths so the lesson he taught me very early on was don't be embarrassed about things that you have as strengths. I particularly worry about people and I want to make sure everybody's all right and I like to spend a lot of time developing people and in a very results-driven environment that wasn't always valued.

“But what he did was he found out what each of us was good at and let us play to our strengths and we supported one another as a team to do things that might have been our weaknesses, so it taught me a really good lesson.”

Case Study: EDF Energy

Husband pointed to the efforts and success of utilities company EDF Energy in making sure their apprenticeship schemes are inclusive of female employees as an excellent role model for other companies to follow.

“[EDF Energy] runs four apprenticeship schemes in engineering maintenance apprenticeships, smart metering apprenticeships, a business apprenticeship and a commercial contracts apprenticeship,” Husband said. “21% of the engineering apprentices at EDF Energy hired in 2016 are female and that's six times the UK average, and five of the 20 EDF Energy degree apprenticeship students are female.

“It also runs a programme called pretty curious, and it aims to boost female STEM numbers and more than 7,500 girls have taken part to date. EDF is also a founding member of a campaign aiming for 40% of middle managers and 30% of executive board members in energy companies to be female by 2030.

“Other employers need to be inspired by these organisations and to reach out to persuade more women to join their organisations, which means revising marketing strategies, not as an exercise in corporate social responsibility but as a really smart business decision that makes good commercial sense.”

CMI’s Management Apprenticeships

Similarly, the CMI’s array of management apprenticeships have been a growing success in pushing talented women into managerial positions. Some 46.5% of the starters on the Charter Manager Degree Apprenticeship are women, and across all SFA apprenticeships 53% of apprentices are female.

As well as offering a degree-level qualification and hands-on work experience, Gemma Strain, a management apprentice for business process outsourcer Sitel, explained how her CMDA gave her the confidence to be herself and succeed in her job.

“The main thing I’ve learnt through doing my diploma is confidence,” she said. “I now have faith that what I am doing is correct. Confidence is so important and has a knock on effect in so many aspects of my job, not least my role in motivating the team.

“Without doing the diploma, I certainly wouldn’t be as confident, it’s given me the kick up the butt I needed! I’ve never been good with words, English was my downfall, but the fact that I’ve had to write essays has really improved my writing. I’ve also been able to practice public speaking in a safe environment, which has given me a real boost when I’m pitching to clients or even talking to the team— I’m the manager of the campaign after all!

“I’d encourage more people to sign up for this course as it’s been so useful in my development,” she added.

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