Female labour market participation is higher than ever before and modern adult apprenticeships are being embraced by women in the UK - even in traditionally "male" professions. Yet women are still a rarity in the jobs at the top and few will ever reach the boardroom. In this comment piece, Lewis Silkin asks one simple question: why?

An ageing workforce and increasing demand for higher skills means apprenticeships are now high up on the strategic agenda for many employers tackling current and future skills gaps in a variety of sectors.

Apprenticeship vacancies increasing

Figures released by the National Apprenticeship Service show how successful the take up of apprenticeships has been. The number of vacancies posted online on the apprenticeship vacancies website increased by 24% between August and October 2013 to 37,410 vacancies (a jump from 30,230 places during that same period in 2012).

Interestingly, the figures also reveal that apprenticeship schemes saw 55% more women apply for roles in 2013. With record numbers of women attending college and graduate schools, surely this is good news for female participation in the labour market?

Good news for workplace diversity?

Although latest statistics show the percentage of women in work is at its highest since records began (67.2% in December 2013), other statistics published last autumn suggest gender stereotyping is still widespread.  Sectors that have traditionally employed men still experience low levels of female participation, such as skilled trade occupations (10%) and roles within manufacturing such as process, plant and machine operatives (11%).

At the other end of the spectrum, traditionally lower-paid roles remain overwhelmingly dominated by women, with 82% in "caring, leisure and other services", and 77% in administrative and secretarial roles. Further, while new research reveals that “one in five employers currently have former apprentices working in senior, board level, positions”, this does beg the question - how many of these successful rank climbers are women?

Breaking the glass ceiling?

Statistics on female board members speak for themselves. The latest data from the Professional Boards Forum show that women made up 20.4% of FTSE 100 Directors and 15.1% of FTSE 250 Directors in January 2014. Although there has been a steady increase in these figures (12.5% and 7.8% respectively since 2010), there is still a way to go before women are satisfactorily represented in the boardroom.

Equality between women and men in senior roles has been increasingly in the spotlight in recent years. The furore last year in Europe on the controversial issue of quotas ended up with a modified plan for “transparent and fair selection” procedures, rather than a fixed, quantitative quota. The proposal is subject to the approval of the European Parliament and Council members. Latest news is that the Council held first discussions on the draft proposal in December, with further discussions due to be scheduled in June under the Irish EU presidency.

This all highlights the need for employers to review their talent pipelines by challenging cultural barriers and attitudes to support female entry to the workplace – so enabling their progression to senior positions. Failing to take such steps risks missing out the skills women can bring to the boardroom table and the proven benefits that diversity in the workplace can bring.   

By Katie Honeyfield, Lewis Silkin


Do you agree that employers should be proactive with their pipelines of female talent? How should employers be helping women at the start of their careers ensure they're able to maximise their chances for leadership and senior roles? Share your thoughts on glass ceilings and women at work in the comments below.

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