Were no women available? Comments on a Scotland Policy Conference

In December I attended the Scotland Policy Conferences Keynote Seminar: 'Developing the Young Workforce' - next steps for skills development and apprenticeships in Scotland. The briefing document is now available for purchase and has been distributed to delegates, contacts in government, the Scottish Parliament and other stakeholders. I contributed a short article to the briefing document, which is published below. For reference, a full list of the conference contributors can be downloaded here.

There was much discussion at the Keynote Seminar of the need for diversity and consideration of equalities within apprenticeship provision. Reference was made by the Cabinet Secretary and Damien Yeates to the recently launched Skills Development Scotland Equality Action Plan for Modern Apprenticeships. Equalities should be seen to lead the development of apprenticeship provision in Scotland.

My specialist area is gender bias in Modern Apprenticeships and for me, it was interesting (and as ever, demoralising) that aside from the Minister, a lone female voice (Geraldine Wooley of Equate) was to be heard amongst the presenters and chairs. Look at the delegate list for a more accurate representation of the gender split of those who work in this sector at a policy and practice level across Scotland. Indeed, it is a more accurate representation of the working age population of the country.

In talking about models of success and possibility, as drivers of change and catalysts to reduce inequality in vocational education and training, it is important for organisations to lead by example. While there were no poor speakers amongst those who presented at the Keynote Seminar, for the organisations who took part I have a simple question: were no women available? Are there women working at the same senior level as yourself who could have attended and delivered the same message? These are workplace issues that are replicated time and again. Consider even the words in the job titles of the male speakers: senior, head teacher, chief executive, head, leader, manager. Geraldine Wooley’s job title, despite her position of responsibility within her organisation is that of “advisor”. Visible senior level males and women with job titles that hold much less prestige; how often do we see this in our work? What message was reinforced, however subtly, to those who attended?
Gender bias often passes under the radar as an accepted norm. For those of us working in gender equality it is a visible issue that must be challenged. Likely there are senior women within your organisation who could have presented at this Keynote Seminar. Likely there were apprentices from underrepresented backgrounds who could have joined you on stage and told their story. Speakers and delegates must consider and question why these groups were not visible at this event and others like it.

Emma Bolger is a PhD student at Heriot-Watt University, studying gender and occupational segregation in Modern Apprenticeships, using career development theory to inform her research. Her project is co-funded by the ESRC and Skills Development Scotland. Emma is also a National Training Programmes Equality Adviser for Skills Development Scotland. 


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