What do Apprenticeships tell us about the gender pay gap?

by Emma Mckay on 09 Nov 2015

At Young Women’s Trust we’ve been heartened by the government’s recent proposals to close the gender pay gap. This now stands at a huge 19.1%, taking both full and part-time work into account. And while it’s at its lowest since the 27.5% reported when records began in 1997, progress has been slow, and we don’t expect the government’s proposals for pay transparency to entirely solve the problem. The following example, of pay for apprentices, shows why.
First some background. The government is dedicated to creating 3 million new Apprenticeships before 2020. Apprenticeships offer a unique opportunity for young people to earn while they learn. As a charity that focuses on employment and skills as a route to young women’s wellbeing and economic security, we want to make sure that young women reap the benefits of this policy. 
We originally became concerned about Apprenticeships during our Scarred for life inquiry in 2014/15. Young women who were not in education, employment or training (NEET) told us that they wanted to develop their skills through vocational education, but were unable to take up apprentices. Minimum entry requirements (often 5 A*-C GCSEs at large businesses), low pay, and uncertain job prospects at the end of apprenticeships stopped them applying. 
As a result, Young Women’s Trust began to investigate how Apprenticeships worked for women in more detail. In August 2015 our poll conducted by ComRes revealed new – yet familiar – findings: on average female apprentices earn just £4.82 an hour compared with £5.85 an hour for male apprentices. That means a young woman working 35 hours a week will be £2,000 worse off over the course of a year. That’s a lot of money and a large wage gap (21%) for a subsection of 18-30 year olds. Before women apprentices are even qualified, they are being paid less than men. Why is this? 
Normally the pay gap is laid at the door of motherhood, once women are caring for children they move out of full-time work and are limited to lower-paying roles. Young Women’s Trust agree that gendered expectations about caring and inflexible hours limit women, but they don’t fully explain our findings. We think that the Apprenticeship pay gap is more likely to be influenced by the sorts of Apprenticeships that women and men do.
Apprenticeships are still divided along stereotypical gender lines. In 2013/14 women starting Apprenticeships predominated in courses like hairdressing, and health and social care – but only 4% of engineering candidates and 1% of electrotechnical candidates were women. The more traditionally ‘masculine’ subjects not only pay better at Apprenticeship level, but guarantee better training, prospects and future pay. 
So what are the solutions? They’re not easy. One widely touted suggestion is to direct young women towards better paid Apprenticeships (and careers) as scientists,  IT consultants or engineers, but this is tricky. It requires employers, careers advisers, teachers and parents to override years of their own unconscious bias about jobs for men and women. It also needs us to challenge young womens’ preconceptions about what jobs they are able to do. 
And then who’s doing the low paid work? Childminders and carers and hairdressers do valuable work. We need them as a society. Perhaps at the same time more men could become childminders or carers. ‘Feminine’ work – and particularly care – is badly paid precisely because women have always done it. If more men move into it, will it become better paid by implication? Feminists talk about revaluing care, but no-one has yet done it. 
We don’t have all the answers, but over the next few months we are developing solutions to help women access good quality apprenticeships in equal quantities with men. Maybe if we succeed in closing the pay gap while women and men are training and starting their careers, then as a society we’ll move towards a fairer, gender-equal job market.
Emma Mckay is Senior Policy Officer at the Young Women's Trust.
*NIACE and UKCES research to mark Equal Pay Day today shows that women are losing out when it comes to workplace training.