‘The challenges facing young women in apprenticeships’

Alison Fuller & Lorna Unwin

In I. School & J.S. Eccles (eds). 2014. Gender Differences in Aspirations and Attainment: A Life Course Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 182-199.

The book is available here.


It is recognised that there are stereotypical gender inequalities within UK Apprenticeship schemes. Literature concerning gendered stereotypes within education and training programmes has largely focused on social injustice. The authors in this book chapter, however, offer a fresh insight by viewing gender imbalance in Apprenticeships through an economic lens. They argue that if young men or women are cautious about crossing typical gender boundaries then employers are losing out on the opportunity of recruiting potentially talented individuals.

Arguably, experiences of young women in Apprenticeship schemes are reflective of wider gender segregation in the labour market. Trends suggest that women experience horizontal segregation – being typically concentrated in a relatively small number of occupations and industries. Women are also restricted by vertical segregation, as they are often limited to certain levels within organisational structures. This is despite academic abilities of girls consistently measuring higher than boys. Regardless of these barriers, reported career aspirations of young girls have been rising – which may pose later issues when facing the realities of the labour market.

Within the field of UK Apprenticeships, the authors present figures from 2010/11, showing the majority of Apprentices have become women. This reflects a change in the UK from manufacturing industries towards a service-based economy. Women are most likely to dominate these service Apprenticeships, where pay, qualifications and career development prospects are comparatively low. Women represent the majority of participants for the three lowest paid Apprenticeships (hairdressing, health and social care, and early childcare and early years education), while men dominate the highest paid; representing significant pay gaps between men and women. The appropriate distribution of females across all sectors of Apprenticeships remains an area of concern.

Starts in the 10 most populated Apprenticeship sectors by gender (England 2010/2011)

 Total startsFemale% female (rounded)
Customer service22,50033,38062
Business Administration18,10029,71076
Children’s Care17,20025,73094
Construction16,8002301
Hospitality16,80015,30051
Hairdressing16,20015,03091
Engineering15,3009405
Health and Social Care12,30044,32083
Retail10,90028,03068
Management9,90017,74060
Total158,700210,41065

Source: SFR February 2012.

The authors studied the perceptions of 14 and 15 years olds in England and Wales through qualitative and quantitative data collection methods. The chapter recognises the strong UK focus to the research but the authors argue that salient messages can be drawn for international research more generally. Methodology entailed distribution of a telephone survey of employers (n=162) and a questionnaire survey of 14/15 year olds (n=1,218) across eight schools. The authors also conducted eight focus groups, one per school, and two ‘events’ with young people, apprentice employers and other key informants.

The results found young people holding entrenched opinions on the suitability of different Apprenticeships for different genders. Specifically, boys appeared to be more fearful and cautious of crossing typical gender boundaries – 63% of boys stated that they did not want to ‘stand out from the crowd’ by working in a characteristically female Apprenticeship. Results found that 80% of girls would consider entering non-traditional jobs, while the same can be said for 55% of boys. Within focus group discussions, young people stated that they were not actually seeking these roles, despite considering them, because they ‘did not want to’. The authors suggest that career advice and guidance within the UK has been ineffective in allowing young people to pursue the range of roles available and help to break down these stereotypes. It is also suggested that the earlier that young people are exposed to gender-awareness activities then existing attitudes can be confronted effectively and encourage girls and boys to try Apprenticeships they may not have considered otherwise.

The results led the authors to suggest that schools and colleges must take responsibility in challenging preconceived ideas amongst young people relating to gender roles in Apprenticeships. They suggest adopting a holistic, whole-curriculum approach that combines the following methods:

  • Bringing ‘role models’ (adults working in non-traditional roles) into schools and colleges
  • Developing work experience (or ‘taster’) opportunities that allow young people to try out non-traditional jobs
  • Developing short programmes that allow young people to sample different types of Apprenticeships
  • Encouraging schools and colleges to use their partnerships with employers to ensure teachers and careers guidance practitioners are up-to-date with their knowledge of the world of work.

It is argued that combining such methods in a multi-faceted manner could positively alter young people’s attitudes concerning career and education choices.

The chapter concludes by acknowledging that gender imbalance within UK apprentice schemes is a reflection of wider labour market inequalities, and suggestions made cannot provide remedies for broader societal structures but would crucially provide greater support for young women in accessing Apprenticeship schemes that have better rates of pay and opportunities for career progression.