USA & UK employer round table – creating gender diversity through apprenticeships

In a recent round table held with a panel of employing companies committed to change in the equality, diversity and inclusion space (EDI), the question was posed at the onset of the discussion: do we have a global skills pandemic? This is particularly timely as economies across the globe are caught up in the conundrum of jobs without people, and people without jobs.

06 December 2021

The round table, a collaborative event held by USA- and UK-based participants via Zoom on 25 November 2021, centred around the topic “Building Gender Diversity through Apprenticeships”. The discussion answered some questions around how we can do better to fill empty roles with eager, qualified individuals with the capacity to grow and develop, by tapping into the largely-overlooked female talent pool.

Hosted by City & Guilds’ Kirstie Donnelly and Franklin Apprenticeships’ Kim Nichols during National Apprenticeship Week (USA), the round table drew on the insight of leaders in organisations that pioneer both gender equality and professional apprenticeship programs.

  • Diana Elliott - Principal Research Associate, the Urban Institute
  • Mike White - People & Transformation, Talent Acquisition, NatWest
  • Christina Arnone - Senior Program Manager, T-Mobile
  • Joanne Gogerly - Head Professional Education UK and Northwest Europe, Siemens

Where are we now on gender equality in STEM industries?

In the UK, FTSE 100 companies employ more male senior or executive roles than there are women and groups of other ethnicities in similar roles, combined. Ongoing research also shows that men typically enter positions of leadership from a much earlier age than women.

In the USA, tech apprenticeship numbers are considerably lower than in the UK, with USA apprenticeships at 3,000, and the UK at 18,000. In the USA, only 9% of all apprentices are women, while the UK has achieved near gender balance at 49% female apprentices – albeit within industries which are typically dominated by women.

The event participants explored the possible reasons as to why it’s still such a challenge for women to enter roles in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The reasons postulated by the panel are far more complex than simple prejudice from male-dominated industries, but include cultural beliefs, social pressure, home-life pressure and family responsibility.

Pointing out that equality starts at home, Diana Elliott stated, “If you don't have an equal partner at home, you may get discouraged from pursuing a career in these types of careers, as they’re considered more demanding, time-heavy, and STEM roles often require a period of study or internship that’s simply too much for a primary caregiver to commit to.”

When speaking of NatWest accomplishing its goal of having 30% of the company’s top global roles filled by women by 2020, and its commitment to total balance by 2030, Mike White highlighted the importance of female role models in successful roles, saying, “People need to see someone like them in the organisation to believe that they have a chance at a successful apprenticeship and career, too.”

Driving gender equality through deliberate apprenticeships

Some of the key areas that emerged during the discussion are advocacy, ambassadorship and allies. “It all begins with driving advocacy and education,” says Christina Arnone. “T-Mobile’s programs empower women and their allies to lead, grow and use their voices to create a more equitable society for everyone. We share ideas on career development, education on how women brand themselves and handle microaggressions, and we educate allies on how to support women when facing microaggressions and prejudice.”

The round table discussion uncovered practical, intentional ways that organisations can build on their gender diversity agendas, while filling apprenticeship roles:

  • Role models work. Establish female leaders to act as ambassadors to schools and apprenticeship programs, to educate and inspire confidence in girls and women on their potential and the opportunities available to them.
  • Balance the interview room. Where interview panels are made up of one gender, invite someone of the gender that matches the candidate.
  • Practice advocacy. Rather than testing candidates or trying to catch them out on shortcomings, advocate their success and find ways to accelerate their success.
  • Promote gender diversity as a company value. Promote collaborative values and mindsets by helping colleagues to identify their own personal blind spots, in order to change the way that they think and behave in response to women in their sector.
  • Adjust marketing message and vacancy advertisements. Help female candidates overcome the stereotype that “girls don’t belong in this industry”, by having a more inclusive brand message and inclusive language on job descriptions.
  • Set goals and measure outcomes. The organisations that progress faster with equality, diversity and inclusion are those that have set clear and measurable goals, and actively gather data and feedback on their progress.

Speaking of the successful actions that Siemens has taken to develop diversity in their workplace, Joanne Gogerly said, “Our programs have ingrained diversity in leadership values, and we’ve created a steady, long-term focus on achieving goals by responding to transparent data.”

What do female apprentices say about their experience in STEM industry apprenticeships?

Also present at the round table, two apprentices and one pre-apprentice shared their personal experiences of entering male-dominated industries through apprenticeship.

Jade Walker – Successful Pre-apprentice, IBM Z;

Jade Walker completed the IBM Z pre-apprenticeship program with Franklin Apprenticeships and is now actively interviewing for apprenticeship roles with Franklin employers.  She advocated for platforms that create community and that allow prospects to see people that look like them, saying that it makes applying for the apprenticeship less daunting.

Jade admits that while most of her interviews have been with panels of men, she does not feel disadvantaged because of the incredible support she’s had during her pre-apprenticeship and the training she’s had on how to respond to a male-dominated industry.

Saima Hamid - Apprentice, NatWest;

When Saima made the decision to embark on her apprenticeship in the finance industry, she received resistance from her family and, in particular, other women. She was faced with criticism for working with men and encouraged to choose a career “more suited to what women are good at doing”.

Saima emphasized the importance of female role models in the industry and encourages young girls at school to pay more attention in their IT classes, and to never give up or believe that tech (or science, math, construction, engineering…) is “not for girls”.

Megan O'Donnell - Business Improvement Apprentice, Siemens;

Megan believes that the stigma around women entering STEM workplaces amplifies the general anxiety and self-doubt that all young people face when starting a career. As a result, many young women choose to play it safe by going into less daunting industries.

Megan has found that inclusion forms part of the company values at Siemens, which has helped her to build a sense of belonging and confidence in her own abilities.

However complex the matter of gender equality may be, as well as diversity and inclusion in other areas, City & Guilds and Franklin Apprenticeships believe that setting clear goals, deliberate actions and long-term commitment is what’s needed to rectify gender, ethnicity and other minority imbalances in all industries.

The session highlighted many areas that warrant further discussion, and more sessions will be scheduled for 2022 with details to follow soon.