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Bridging the Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics sector (STEM) Gender Gap Through Apprenticeships

09/04/2015 09:15 BST | Updated 07/06/2015 10:59 BST

I recently read an alarming statistic in the IET Skills Survey, revealing that only 6% of the UK engineering workforce is female - the lowest in Europe. As someone who works in the energy sector, this is particularly worrying to hear. The idea that science is better suited to males is not only unfair and outdated, but could potentially damage the future of our energy supply. We need the skills of both male and females to be able to make the breakthroughs necessary to deliver affordable energy sustainably, meaning a diverse workforce is key.

I've seen first-hand how female and males complement each other in a working environment. Females tend to tackle problems in a completely different way - they ask different questions and help us to come up with different solutions, bringing a new dimension to a team which is only made up of males. They are also more likely to put themselves out of their comfort zone during projects and push for leadership roles. In fact, over 40% of chair people on the apprenticeship student body forum at EDF Energy, are female - quite surprising given that the programme is 80% male.

So what's going wrong? Research shows that over the last two decades girls have actually improved their performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) areas, but unfortunately this is not always reflected when it comes to making career decisions. It shows that despite them outperforming boys academically, there are clear gender differences in higher education course choices - last year saw an 18% drop-off rate of girls pursuing engineering and technology any further than A-Level.

It also highlights that one of the main reasons is that women perceive engineering as a male-dominated profession and thus don't see it as an attractive or accessible career option for them. This just goes to show that more needs to be done by the sector to better portray career prospects to females and show that it's not all hammers and spanners. There are in fact many different sides of engineering - many of which involve using technical rather than physical skills.

Providing young people with apprenticeship opportunities is one way we can help make STEM careers more accessible to all. We actively encourage females to apply to our programmes and females on our courses regularly visit colleges and schools near to our power stations to talk about their own experiences and hopefully inspire others with the career opportunities available.

As a business we set high standards for our technicians, and apprenticeships provide an effective way to not only meet our growing needs, but they enable young people, both male and female, to get education and training direct from their chosen industry, whilst gaining a recognised qualification and 'earning while learning'. More than this, they act as a gateway to future careers within a company - I for one have seen many people rise through the ranks to senior positions having first started on an apprenticeship scheme.

So what makes a successful STEM apprentice? It's not just about having the right technical skills; possessing enthusiasm and passion are qualities that employers really value. Businesses need team players and leaders who are willing to get stuck into every task - something that our female candidates have been particularly good at. Given the nature of the industry, we also need people who can prove that they can be responsible and trustworthy.

This is another great thing about apprenticeship programmes, they help bridge the gap between formal education and the working world and gives them time to 'adjust'. Understandably its difficult for young people to go straight from school into the big wide world, so providing them with training and a certain amount of hand holding will help make this transition run as smoothly as possible to help them to become ready to face the challenges that working life offers.

In short, apprenticeships are not only a great way of making STEM careers more accessible to both genders, but they also help ensure they get the training and education needed to be successful in their chosen career. But whilst we've seen an increase in females applying for apprenticeships over the years - 20% are females, compared to the 5% national average - we need more to come forward and apply. It's only through employing a diverse workforce that we will be able to make the breakthroughs needed to remain competitive and help secure the energy supply of the future.