'All boys' careers advice sparks Twitter storm

One girl's thwarted bid to find out about engineering apprenticeships speaks volumes about our gender assumptions

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

engineering stem apprenticeships training FE careers advice

It is not often I get really, properly angry at something I see on Twitter. But this week it happened. And I wasn’t the only one. At the time of writing, more than 1,200 people had commented on the tweet by Kelly, recounting her daughter’s experience at a careers event yesterday.

The teenager, who has just started Year 11, had signed up to an engineering talk, as part of a careers event with an apprenticeship provider about post-16 options. Apparently, when she arrived, the woman in charge told her she had been switched to attend a childcare talk instead because the engineering event was “all boys”.

The mother said she was “so effing angry”. Many of those commenting were as well. They questioned whether the careers event was taking place in the 1950s. The teenager, it was later revealed on Twitter, sought out the staff member responsible for engineering and got another chance to attend the talk.

I was angry that Kelly's daughter had this experience. While I believe it is probably not a common occurrence, especially with many providers and employers aware that they need to boost the number of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) careers, I also don’t believe it hasn't happened before. Or that it won’t happen again.

Too many assumptions

We are all too keen to make assumptions about what is right for our young people – especially for girls. I wonder how many boys were redirected to a different talk. There is nothing wrong with attending a talk on careers in childcare – and, of course, there is also nothing wrong with pursuing a career in that field. But we cannot simply assume we know what is right for a learner. We certainly cannot do so on the basis of gender.

Otherwise, how will we ever close the gap in terms of the number of girls who choose those careers? This Friday’s Tes FE feature shows one of the consequences of this – the long-term effects that women’s absence from sectors such as engineering can have, and how beneficial an apprenticeship can be to them.

I was also angry because these kind of experiences, and the fact they are shared, reinforce the prejudices that already exist about Stem industries – especially engineering and construction – not being welcoming to women. I have never worked in these industries, but I am told that, by and large, it is not true.

Treated differently

For Friday’s feature, I spoke with Kirsten Bodley, chief executive of the Women’s Engineering Society, who told me that, often, female engineering apprentices are treated differently to male apprentices.

There are also lots of initiatives and support schemes out there. For every outraged comment the Year 11 student’s mother received on Twitter, there was another with advice or contact details for an organisation to help her daughter pursue her dream career. It is one of the reasons I am sure she will be fine. She is clearly a determined young woman who is likely to be spurred on by this event rather than put off. She also, obviously, has family who are supportive and keen to help her burst through any barriers that arise.

But not everyone has that luxury. And it is those who I worry about. I fear that the next time this woman working for the training provider sends a girl to the childcare talk, it won’t be someone with the strength to question that decision. And that the young man looking for a career in childcare will also be put off by the barriers put in his way.

So we need to shout about every success story we can, about every young person who swims against the tide, so we can make sure stories like these are not the only ones young people and their parents hear.

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