The FE sector has a key role to play to support gender equality in the workplace

Kirstie Donnelly sets out the case for going further to support young women into higher-earning careers, and three steps to start delivering gender equity.

15 March 2023

This article was originally published in FE WEEK

In the wake of International Women’s Day, it’s important to remember the debates, conversations and celebrations of this one day should inspire us to continue striving to resolve the societal inequalities faced by women. Bringing about positive change is year-round work. In the further education sector, we work with many young women during crucial, formative years as they develop skills and forge careers. This means we have a great potential and opportunity to influence their lives for the better and promote a more equal society.

Certainly, there’s still plenty of progress still to be made. Our recent research, Youth Misspent, surveyed 5,000 18- to 24-year-olds and found that despite having high ambitions, young women are often left trailing behind men when it comes to achieving them. And this only entrenches as time progresses. Structural barriers embedded into our current careers, employment and childcare systems limit the earning potential of women and their ability to achieve their ambitions.

Our research found that amongst 18- to 24-year-olds, inequalities are already emerging. While young women (23 per cent) are more likely to already be working than young men (20 per cent), men are more likely than women to have already purchased their own home (11 per cent vs 6 per cent), and are more likely to already be earning above the average salary of £28,000 (17 per cent vs 8 per cent).

There are many reasons why these inequalities start to appear so early on in young women’s lives and careers. One area the FE sector should pay close attention to is the tendency for women to choose lower-paid industries compared with young men pursue careers in higher-paid sectors such as financial services and construction. This has a huge impact on future careers and salaries and exacerbates the gender pay gap.

In fact, recent research published by the Living Wage Foundation found that jobs held by women account for almost 60 per cent of all roles paid below the real living wage. Women are also more likely to be on zero-hours contracts, trapped in low-paying, insecure and precarious jobs.

Equal opportunity to education isn’t enough; we need to go further

Providing equal opportunities to education isn’t enough; we need to go further than that. We can and should play an important role to support women into higher-paid careers and industries where they are currently under-represented and unlock their full economic potential. There are several ways we can do this.

First, we should ensure colleges are equipped to provide supportive careers advice and skills mapping to help women understand all the opportunities in front of them and encourage them to defy stereotypes and expectations – considering jobs in better paid but often male-dominated sectors. Providing this early on in their education journeys – and even working with local schools to reach younger students – will ensure they are equipped with the skills and confidence needed to progress and flourish in their later lives.

Second, it’s important to recognise the power of strong mentorship. In colleges, consider reaching out to networks of previous alumni to set up mentorships with current students. These mentors can be male or female – what’s important is that they can be a valuable role model and help aspiring young women by providing advice, counsel and a support network for their development.

Third, we should work with employers to make industries less gendered and support those in typically ‘male-dominated’ industries to make their roles more appealing to female candidates. That could be through careers education events, changing recruitment processes, improving flexibility, offering paid internship programmes for young female talent, or bespoke training opportunities. We can also support employers to put in place specific support for women as they begin new careers in these sectors.

Ultimately, to support women in their careers and tackle these inequalities, we need to think about equity rather than equality. That means recognising the structural barriers women face and ensuring they have access to tailored support to help them to enter high-earning careers, embrace their full potential and balance the gender success scales for a fairer future.