Ann McKechin, MP for Glasgow North and a member of the Business, Innovation and Skills committee on addressing the gender imbalance within the apprenticeships system.
The glass ceiling is a familiar metaphor; an invisible barrier which stops women, despite their talent and experience, from reaching the same heights as their male colleagues in business and public life.
But since the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee’s inquiry into Women in the Workplace reported last year, I have become more concerned with what we might call the ‘magnetic floor’; the range of factors constraining women at the start of their careers, channelling them into low paid work with few opportunities for progression, and limiting their ability to rise up the ranks into the ‘pipeline’ of executive talent in organisations as easily as their male peers. To me, this is much more important than the overwhelming focus on the upper tiers of corporate life.
Poor careers advice in schools, unhelpful and outdated stereotyping of jobs by society, and ingrained gender divides within the apprenticeship system all hold women back.
The sectoral gender divides in the apprenticeships system struck me as particularly concerning during the BIS committee’s inquiry. Men undertaking apprenticeships – and these figures are broadly mirrored in the Scottish Modern Apprenticeship system – outnumber women by as many as 50 to 1 in the engineering, IT, industrial applications, security systems and rail transport sectors. These all offer good options for career progression, along with rising pay and responsibility.
Women, on the other hand, dominate the beauty therapy, retail, customer service, hairdressing and teaching assistant schemes. Without wanting to disparage any of these sectors, it is clear that young women are being short-changed by enrolling in these schemes over those which will likely pay more, and offer far better opportunities in the long term.
With public money at stake, the Government has a duty to lever its role as training sponsor to create fairer outcomes. Targets should be set to get more young women into the traditional ‘male’ sectors; a measure which would be good for the economy as well as equality.
The idea that there are ‘jobs for girls’ and ‘jobs for boys’ is still widespread. Young women are subject to far greater pressure over their choice of work than boys. Careers advice in schools often does little to encourage girls into traditionally ‘male’ sectors, which could prove transformative for their outlook and future development. Entrenched attitudes, often reinforced by family members, make it difficult for young women to break out of the mould and pursue career paths like science, technology and engineering.
All this must change. It is vital that we address the gender imbalances present at the starts of women’s careers if we want to alter the current status quo of high-skill, high-mobility careers for the boys, and low-pay, low-mobility jobs for the girls. I believe this bottom-up approach would not only be empowering for women and their choices in life and work, but that it would also be hugely beneficial for up-skilling the UK economy.
I welcome the creation of Amplify as a forum for Labour women to campaign for change. As female leaders, we should do all we can to help young women at the start of their careers.