There has for some time been a significant gender gap in terms of young women accessing STEM opportunities across Scotland. As an example, Renfrewshire Council’s Modern Apprenticeship Programme has worked hard over many years to encourage young women to apply for the craft and construction apprenticeships it has available, with limited success.
But now a programme initiated by the council, and led in partnership with DYW West and West College Scotland, is offering an alternative approach to attracting young women into STEM careers. Working with local business, the partnership has delivered awareness raising events, supported young women with work experience opportunities and assisted them when taking subject choices.
Michael Moran, assistant manager on the council’s employability programmes, said that the breakthrough came by changing the approach to engagement, from ‘push’ – employers and organisations going into schools, to ‘pull’ – where teachers and pupils co-designed the engagement.
It was agreed a ‘positive action’ approach was right, delivering a programme aimed at young women only. The proposal was discussed with two kinds of focus group – one comprising teachers, the other senior phase female students. Their views were taken into consideration in devising the programme outline and content.
“The focus sessions were absolutely brilliant,” said Moran. “I outlined our idea to teachers first and they said: ‘Ok, but young women are not necessarily attracted to the same things as young men; you need to widen the horizon of what is being offered, they need to understand how they will make a difference and view the roles on offer as a career – not just a job!”
“So, the teachers helped us form the nucleus of a draft programme and then we did three focus sessions with groups of young women. And that was transformative; they kind of ripped it to shreds! It was about them being honest about what made them insecure about accessing the sector, finding out how we could provide support and how we could put forward complete, or even partial solutions. We could see the barriers to young women considering a particular career and then work on ways to instill confidence in them so that they were no longer such big issues.”
For example, it could be ensuring that pupils meet female role models in traditionally male environments – either studying construction at college or enjoying a successful career at a building firm. Another example was making sure that young women felt comfortable going on site by providing modern female specific personal protective equipment.
“And it’s not just overcoming those initial barriers; it’s not just about the number of young women entering apprenticeships ,” said Moran, “it’s about young women being able to see a career pathway beyond the apprenticeship as well.”
Last October, phase one of the programme, an awareness raising event for S3-S6 students, took place as part of the STEM fortnight for Renfrewshire’s High Schools. 48 places were offered out, eventually 91 students from nine schools attended. Attendees heard about the range of opportunities available within the sector, including renewables, professional disciplines such as quantity surveying and estimating, as well as the traditional trades.
Each attendee participated in two short practical exercises, in areas such as renewables, painting and decorating, carpentry and joinery and bricklaying. They also attended two further workshops to discuss with local businesses the opportunities available and to meet female role models who had experience of working within the sector or who were working towards gaining qualifications allowing them to begin their career.
Following evaluation of phase one, the second phase – more detailed follow up STEM sessions – will be delivered to over 100 students this week as part of Scottish Modern Apprenticeship Week and International Women’s Day. Bob Davidson, Programme Director DYW West commented. “ This is an excellent example of partners in our region working together to help young people into employment. We would like to thank the many organisations involved who are offering a fantastic arrange of opportunities.
“They include a week’s work experience in quantity surveying with Clark Contracts, a tour of a local Ashleigh Construction building sites, a visit to Renfrewshire Council’s building depot as well as tours of British Airways’ engineering hanger at Glasgow Airport, Rolls Royce’s Inchinnan engineering plant and the Royal Alexandria Hospital’s engineering department. In addition West College Scotland is providing skill enhancing sessions in renewables, carpentry and joinery, bricklaying and painting & decorating.”
The Renfrewshire STEM Awareness Programme for Young Women was supported financially by Skills Development Scotland, through its Equalities Action Fund. The fund has supported seven projects across Scotland which aimed to encourage innovative and proactive approaches to increasing uptake of Modern Apprenticeships amongst young people who are either from an ethnic minority community, are disabled, care experienced or underrepresented by gender.
SDS Head of National Training Programmes Development, Karen Murray, said: “These employer-led projects are a great example of good practice which can be shared more widely across industry. Working with partners SDS is committed to improving equality and diversity in apprenticeships and it is encouraging to see the range of positive outcomes of each of the projects supported by the Equality Action Fund.”