International Women’s Day celebrates the unique contribution that women make to communities worldwide. This annual celebration has never been more relevant than it is today. The #MeToo movement of recent months was a reminder of the discrimination that women face daily, and their struggle to overcome and turn tyrannical behaviour into a means of empowerment and strength. At WorldSkills UK, we put the emphasis on the role of young women across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in achieving their potential through education and skills. We support the UN’s HeForShe movement which is currently organising a national roadshow where women are more and more involved.
But today is also a chance for us to concentrate on motion and proactive behaviour. The National Audit Office estimates that the participation rate of young women in STEM apprenticeships is 8%, despite the fact of women accounting for some 50% of the total number of apprenticeship starts. This is a problem. The only way to achieve the post-Brexit growth ambitions the Prime Minister presented, is to use 50% of our talent to the fullest. It implies pushing far more young women towards STEM.
Achieving equality means starting in schools: it’s at this stage that the youth gets an idea of what it wants to pursue later. We have recently published research in partnership with The Careers & Enterprise Company that sheds some light on the fact that, in this National Apprenticeship Week, 92% of STEM apprentices are male: young women do not think STEM careers are ‘for them’. Our research – Closing the Gender Gap – shows how, with respect to STEM careers in areas like IT and engineering, young men are 18 percentage points more enthusiastic about these careers – even though young women are equally as qualified. This is probably because women can’t seem to find inspiring female figures in the STEM: around 80% of such jobs in the economy today are jobs done by men. What we particularly need right now are more young women to be STEM role models. Young women like Betsy Crosbie.
Betsy was a member of Team UK who competed in the Abu Dhabi Skills Olympics last October. She took home a medallion of excellence in mechanical engineering, and being one of the only two women out of 26 did not discourage her. Betsy’s journey from college student to international medallist is truly inspiring to other young women studying STEM in colleges, not just in the UK but in the whole world. It’s the kind of inspiration which needs to be heard. As Betsy has said: ‘When I was at school there was no one who came in to talk about skills. You need to give young people the information about the options. It was all focused on the university; I went back to my old high school and told them about my journey – I think it gave people a feeling that you can do that too and end up competing in WorldSkills’.
More and more women like Betsy will go into schools to inspire young female students in the context of our collaboration with The Careers & Enterprise Company. Already this programme has reached 4,500 young people in more than 115 schools and colleges in England over the year, with 73 per cent of those young people being inspired and motivated by meeting a skills champion.
School is not the only institution influencing young women’s views. Parents do too, as they shape young people’s career choices. As our research with the Careers & Enterprise Company shows: ‘young people feel that their mothers and fathers remain the biggest influences for life decisions across all ages’. Every year at The Skills Show, we meet with parents from across the country and broaden their perspectives towards STEM. I have had countless conversations with parents who expressed surprise about the high-tech, high-end, male-and-female-friendly nature of STEM careers having engaged with engineering employers like BAE Systems and Dyson at the Show. Their thinking that STEM are grim places for male workers trickled down to their young daughters, and making them discover the cutting edge, technologically advanced, gender-neutral reality of everyday life of STEM employers really shifted their perception. This is shown in our results: after attending The Skills Show, 60% of parents acknowledged the fact that their own knowledge of technical careers had improved and two-thirds were more likely to push young women and men to consider apprenticeships. Winning the parental battle of hearts and minds, and demonstrating how STEM careers are open to all, is crucial on the road to gender equality.