Women in apprenticeships

The Women in Apprenticeships Conference 2019

Chaired by OneFile’s CEO, Susanna Lawson, and organised by Lindsay McCurdy.

The Women in Apprenticeships Conference 2019

In the FE sector, it’s not often you go to an event described as inspiring - but that’s exactly how attendees described the second ever Women in Apprenticeships Conference.

Chaired by OneFile's CEO, Susanna Lawson, and organised by Lindsay McCurdy of Apprenticeships4England, we heard from 22 incredible women who shared their stories, motivations, and words of advice for women everywhere who want to smash the glass ceiling. 

Beforehand, the event had been described as a “little women’s conference.” But it was far from that. As Susanna pointed out in her introduction, feminism isn’t about being better than men – it's about being equal to men. She polled the audience to find out if they felt women are treated equally to men in the workplace. An overwhelming 83% answered sometimes – which shows that we still have a way to go to achieve gender equality in the workplace. 

Our first speaker was Griselda Togobo, the owner of Forward Ladies. She started by reiterating Susanna’s point – that she hates events that bash men. To huge cheers from the audience, she said she loves men! For Griselda, the gender debate is all about everyone being equal and equally rewarded. Her mother inspired her to get a degree in electrical engineering, then go on to become a chartered accountant – and she hopes her own kids will have the same opportunities as everyone else. 

At the moment, there just aren’t enough role models out there to inspire kids to do whatever they want to do. The people who go into schools to talk about work are too far removed from kids’ reality - they need to be cool, inspiring, everyday people kids can relate to. Griselda’s takeaway for the day was this: have the courage to ask for what you want in life – live a life that meets your values. 

Susanna reflected on Griselda’s talk, saying that she struggled with the idea of wanting to be liked at work – until she had a eureka moment: she wanted to be respected, not liked. After all, you can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, or you’ll be a complete mug. 

Next up, we heard from Lucy Dunleavy, the founder of LearnBox. Lucy’s first experience of sexism was when her dad went to Bosnia for 6 months, and told her younger brother that he was in charge as ‘the man of the house’. She shared 4 stories: some sad, some happy, all inspiring. These stories made Lucy realise what’s important in life – that you shouldn’t be the same as everybody else. Normal is boring – focus on what makes you special and unique.  

Next up was Jill Whittaker, the MD of HIT, who shared what she’s learnt in 20 years of delivering apprenticeships... 

  • Only work with people you like – life is complicated enough without surrounding yourself with people you don’t like 
  • Go with your gut – trust your instincts 
  • Size matters – don’t be a junior partner in your relationships 
  • Don’t be owned – go into arrangements with your eyes open, and don’t compromise 
  • Be a sticker – remember why you started working in FE in the first place 
  • Don’t diss the competition – there's enough business out there for all of us 
  • Smile – don’t be a misery guts! 

She worked with a man who once said the secret to his success was surrounding himself with successful women – they work hard, work smart and spend their time effectively. 

After Jill, Jan Richardson-Wilde, the group deputy MD of NOCN, took to the stage. Jan grew up in the 60s, and only recently realised how much you’re influenced by your childhood experiences. If men do the cooking and cleaning in your household, it really impacts what your children believe. Though she experienced some sexism in her career, Jan said that it’s been the men in her life who have supported her, and offered her opportunities to progress, and helped when she’s felt stressed. In fact, it was women who tried to undermine her in favour of their own promotions. 

Not for the last time that day, the audience was presented with a photo of Margaret Thatcher. Jan said that, though Thatcher didn’t consider herself a feminist, and had only 1 woman in her cabinet, she proved women could be leaders. Jan left the stage with the words: you’re capable of more than you can imagine. 

The last speaker before the break was Alex Miles, the MD of West Yorkshire Learning Providers network. She began by saying that you don’t go to many FE conferences that make you feel warm and fuzzy, which the rest of us felt too. Then she launched into her own story: after a rebellious adolescence, Alex decided to follow in her parents’ footsteps, and decided she wanted to work in STEM. But this story didn’t have a happy ending. After being offered lots of admin jobs in IT, but no IT jobs in IT, she was told she wasn’t going to get an IT job in Leeds – because she’s a blonde woman with a cockney accent. 

Alex caught the apprenticeships bug when she worked at Leeds Training Trust, which ultimately led to her role as MD of WYLP. Alex said that women in business need to pay it forward – to speak to girls in schools and women at colleges to show them they have a voice. She emphasised the importance of inspiring young lads to support women, too. 

After a quick break, we were back with Lucy Hunte, a national programme manager with the NHS. Lucy shared some quite different experiences with us – some hilarious, some heartbreaking. As a child with a white mother and Trinidadian father, she had to explain to lots of people that she wasn’t half caste, but mixed race. After a negative experience with an employer when she had her third child, Lucy moved into the world of apprenticeships. She had an amazing female boss, who stuck a Sheryl Sandberg quote up in her office: I want every little girl who’s told ‘you’re bossy’ to be told instead, ‘you have leadership skills’. 

Lucy’s story ended sadly. Last week, her son confiscated a machete from a 7-year-old boy, who had been told by his brother that he had to carry it to be a man. As Susanna concluded, how many conferences do you go to where you’re laughing one minute, and the next you have tears in your eyes? 

Then followed the first of 2 panels, both compered by Arit Eminue, the founder and director of Diva. In the first panel, we heard from Claire 00000 and Kim Williams, who work for the RAF, as well as Daisy Wells, BDM at ForSkills and a former apprentice. Claire and Kim discussed the opportunities that are now available for women in the RAF – all roles (except Catholic priest) can now be undertaken by a woman. The RAF is a training provider with a 99% success rate, which Kim attributed to the huge variety of ways they teach. They can teach in the field, or on a computer, or in a classroom – it depends how learners want to learn. Despite working in a team of men, Claire experienced nothing but support from her colleagues throughout her pregnancy. Pay in the RAF is also equal – it's based on rank, so there’s no difference between genders. 

In the next panel, we heard from 3 current apprentices: Annie Woodall, Shaida Rahman and Gemma Howard, as well as QA senior lecturer Dr Glenis Wade. They took the stage to the tune of Dolly Parton’s 9-5, and went on to inspire the entire room with their thoughts on gender and apprenticeship experiences. Shaida talked about the importance of creating an environment women want to work in – no matter how well an opportunity is marketed, if a woman arrives at an interview and is faced with a panel of men, will she want to work there? She also discussed unconscious bias, and the importance of educating staff on it, because a lot of people don’t realise the assumptions they’re making about people based on their gender. 

The panel also discussed the practicalities of apprenticeships: in particular off-the-job training. The apprentices agreed that 20% was a good amount of time to spend off-the-job – if they had more time, they’d find it difficult to complete their normal day-to-day tasks. Susanna summed up the session by emphasising how important it is to listen to apprentices’ views on off-the-job training – they clearly really appreciate the time their employers give them to study. 

Just before lunch, we had time to hear from the directors of Weir Training, Sarah Caines and Julie Ridley. Dancing on to the Greatest Showman soundtrack, they celebrated their achievement of the ultimate accolade: being awarded Outstanding across all Ofsted common inspection framework areas. They were the only independent training provider last year to do so – in spite of the shared guilt, loneliness and doubt they can feel when managing their home and work lives. 

After lunch, we heard from Jackie Grubb, the principal of Westminster College and a strong advocate for mental health. She believes it overarches everything we do – and shared the traits that helped her get where she is today: hard work, resilience, confidence, learning and reflection. Jackie echoed points made by some of the speakers earlier in the day: that, as women, we should all be champions of other women. We need to look at challenges as opportunities, because overcoming challenges make us stronger people. 

Then Jane Knight, founder of Successful Mums, took to the stage and made a bold statement: perfect is nothing – it’s much more important to make progress. When Jane became a parent, she realised how difficult it is to be a mum. She was steeped in careers advice, but it wasn’t geared towards women who didn’t necessarily go back to the job they were doing before. So she started Successful Mums to help women get their mojo back. 

A lot of the women Jane speaks to don’t believe they have any skills they can offer employers – but that’s just not the case. So many businesses are looking for people who have transferable skills mothers can offer. And a lot of women don’t realise that other mothers felt exactly the same way – in fact, at the end of Jane’s session, Susanna said that her confidence had been knocked when she returned to her own company after maternity leave. 

Next up was Jenny Garrett – an award-winning career coach. Like Susanna, Jenny has suffered from imposter syndrome in the past – so she encouraged us all to identify and vocalise things that make us remarkable. Some of us found it a challenge – especially when reading them out loud to the table. But it was a great way for Jenny to make her point – that everyone is remarkable, and saying it isn’t bragging if it’s based on facts. 

In Sam Taylor’s session, we looked at photos of successful women: Theresa May, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. Sam deliberately chose these women because they’re not necessarily popular – but we should celebrate the achievements of other women whether or not we agree with what they stand for. Sam asked us all to reflect on the idea of success, and whether we feel we are successful. Ultimately, success means different things to people – it's nobody else’s place to say if you feel successful or not. 

Jacqueline Oughton, the MD of Ixion and MD of Shaw Trust Learning and Skills, showed how apprenticeships can be incredibly important for social mobility and productivity – which benefits the UK’s economy. She suggested that providers should check whether they’re just chasing high funding streams, or driving social mobility to support the progression of individuals. 

Michelle Swithenbank, the chief executive and principal of Hull College, also spoke about how business partnerships in the sector can benefit the UK. She’s revolutionised Hull College’s partnerships and programmes by selling careers, rather than courses, to potential students. They've got 16-year-old apprentices to commit to 5 years of education, with a career at the end; they've helped fill nursing vacancies in the local NHS; and they’ve built partnerships with local universities, too. She emphasised the importance of working with employers to find out where the skills gaps are. 

Susanna lauded Michelle’s approach to selling apprenticeships – in the early days of her career, she was mainly interested in where her next payrise would come from, so to have this mapped out for 5 years at age 16 would be amazing. She then introduced Sharon Walpole, director at Careermap, who introduced the Drawing the Future campaign, and focused on how we can shape kids’ futures and prevent them from having gender career stereotypes instilled in them. All schools are now required to appoint a careers leader, who can explain to students the relevance of certain subjects (particularly in STEM) to future careers. 

Finally, Sarah Dhanda from Semta hit the stage, and discussed the importance of recruiting more women into STEM roles. As 25% of GDP is generated from the engineering sector, it’s simply not true that the UK is no longer a major manufacturing hotspot – in fact, 124,000 engineers are needed across the UK. By not recruiting women, engineering firms are missing a major trick. 

Overall, the day was a huge success. The speakers covered almost every topic that affects women at work – from the gender pay gap to everyday sexism to maternity leave – and we left the day feeling totally empowered to be the best version of ourselves we can be. The conference was a celebration of role models – female and male – and full of ideas of how we can improve the world of work for generations to come. We’re already looking forward to the next one. 

This article includes research and opinion sourced by OneFile at the time of publication. Things may have changed since then,
so this research is to be used at the reader's discretion. OneFile is not liable for any action taken based on this research.