Gender-neutral language in apprenticeships

The government is set to trial using gender-neutral language in apprenticeship advertisements. Hollie Ryan looks at whether it could increase diversity

The UK government’s trial of gender-neutral language in apprenticeship adverts aims to encourage more female candidates to take up male-dominated science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) apprenticeships. While this attempt to boost gender diversity is positive, the pilot is unlikely to increase the number of female apprentices, as the government still has not addressed the underlying flaws of the apprenticeship levy scheme. Until the government properly addresses the key criticisms of the Scheme and lack of employer engagement, it will struggle to improve apprenticeship diversity.

What is the scheme?

The Scheme was introduced in 2017 with the aim of creating 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020. Employers with an annual wage bill over £3 million contribute an amount equivalent to 0.5 per cent of their wage bill (less a £15,000 annual offset allowance) to the scheme each month. Scheme funds to pay for workplace training are accessible to eligible employers through an online account.

Why is it failing?

It was hoped that the scheme would assist employers by allowing them to address skills shortages and to develop their talent pipeline. However, recently published statistics suggest that the scheme is not on track to achieve these aims. It has instead been subject to widespread criticism, including:

  • the time-consuming and complex process that employers must follow to access their scheme funds;
  • a lack of clarity and guidance about the scheme, its benefits, and how employers can best use the funds to their organisation’s advantage;
  • inflexibility caused by a relatively limited choice of courses available under the scheme; and
  • a perception among business owners that the scheme is simply a tax on employers.

How could gender-neutral language help? 

Gender equality in apprenticeships was not one of the specific objectives identified at the outset of the scheme. However, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfA), a government body that sets the standards for training under the scheme, has been criticised by the National Audit Office for its unambitious diversity targets. In response, the IfA announced that it is to trial the use of gender-neutral language in 12 STEM apprenticeships where women account for just less than 9 per cent of apprentices. 

The gender-neutral adverts will remove references to ‘his’ and ‘her’ and will instead use more gender-balanced language. Certain words, which have been judged to be more masculine, such as ‘determined’ and ‘boasting’, have been replaced with wording that is regarded as being more feminine, such as ‘co-operative’ and ‘empathetic’. As the pilot will only apply to 12 apprenticeships, it will have a relatively limited focus compared to the 400 apprenticeships approved by the IfA since the scheme began. 

Overcoming the real issue 

The government’s focus on gender diversity is positive, but it remains to be seen whether it will successfully improve the chronic under-representation of women in STEM apprenticeships. While it is hoped that the pilot may go some way to increase diversity, the largest barrier to the scheme’s overall success is a perception amongst employers that it is overly complex, inflexible, and even costly. 

If the government is going to have any hope of reaching three million new apprenticeships, it first needs to tackle this, and significantly increase employer engagement. It has made some attempts, including a number of reforms in April 2019, such as the ability for an employer to transfer a quarter of its training funds to another organisation in the supply chain. However, it is clear that neither gender-neutral language (though commendable in principle) nor the reforms made to date go far enough to remedy the fundamental flaws of the scheme and the root causes of poor engagement.

Hollie Ryan is a senior associate at Stevens & Bolton LLP