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Is there gender bias in work-based training?

8th March 2021

On International Women's Day, Kate Parker looks at data suggesting employers are more likely to invest in men's training. Our Chief Operating Officer, Amy Crawford, commented on a recent piece in TES. 

Kelly and Kieran* both work at the same company. They were hired at the same time, into the same job role. And while, five years later, they are both still doing that same job, Kieran has received work-based training, whereas Kelly has not.

The training Kieran has received means that he has the skills he needs to apply for a managerial role being advertised at the company. Despite working at the same level as Kieran for five years, Kelly doesn’t have those skills – not formally, at least – and so does not apply for the job. 

Why is this? Why did Kieran have the training and Kelly did not? Is it because Kelly was ill on the day the training was offered? Is it because Kieran was the first to say yes, and there was only one place available? New research from training provider Avado presents us with an alternative possibility. 

Avado found that employers are 8 per cent more likely to pay for men’s work-based learning than women's, and when employers do invest in women’s training, they spend 10 per cent less. The research also shows that women are 15 per cent more likely to choose “free” learning, and, taking into consideration both employer spend and personal investment, women lose out by £100 in real terms.

The research is from a small sample size – around 510 learners completing an apprenticeship, module, bootcamp course or qualification, both face-to-face and online – and so should not be assumed to represent the standard across all businesses, but nonetheless, it is concerning.

An 'inherent gender bias' in workplace training

Amy Crawford, chief operating officer at Avado, says she was not surprised by the findings: “There is this inherent gender bias which we know is there – and it's linked to the fact that women are less likely to promote themselves, they are less likely to ask for promotion and therefore they're less likely, probably, to ask for those things which will support that," she explains. "It's the ask of an employer, a feeling of ‘I don't want to go and ask for it, I don't want to self-promote. Maybe I'm not worthy enough.' 

“If you get women who are less likely to ask for the training, they're also less likely to use training to promote themselves. It's one of the many factors which will promote this ongoing gender bias and gap later on down the line, which then affects women in senior roles and women at high pay levels.”

However, Jill Whittaker, chief executive of HIT Training, which offers training for the hotel and catering industry, says she does not recognise a gender gap when it comes to training at all – and, actually, across the training HIT offers, the uptake is predominantly female. She cites her own data set, which shows that out of 12,000 learners between July 2019 and July 2020, 70 per cent of the participants were female. And when it came to outcomes from training, women had a 5 per cent higher success rate than men.

“In the sector we operate in, including at the senior levels, the management levels and inclusion at the board level, we don't see it – and if we did see it, we'd be calling it out," she says. "We're very much an equal opportunities employer, and from a gender perspective, we just don't notice it. We are very heavily invested in both hospitality and care, and they are sectors which are open to people of all sorts of ages and all sorts of backgrounds. They are very open environments."

Does gender bias differ between sectors?

The difference in experience could be to do with different sectors and workforce composition, says Learning and Work Institute's head of policy and research Dr Fiona Aldridge. Avado offers training in HR, digital marketing and data analytics, whereas HIT offers training in hospitality, catering and health and social care, as well as senior management. 

“Things have changed over time: men used to learn more than women but it was about opportunities in the workplace and as more women have moved into the workplace and they've got more senior roles, it has equalled out a bit. It’s more likely to be a combination of all sorts of things: employers generally tend to invest at the top end of their workforce, so where you have men at the top end of your business rather than women, then you are more likely to see men being invested in,” she says. 

“You’re also more likely to see more investment in some sectors which can be male-dominated. Hospitality and health and social care are quite female-dominated sectors and they are sectors where there is some training, although not necessarily at a higher level. It’s really sectorally focused.”

Aldridge adds that there are other issues that can play a huge role in the imbalance. Working patterns is one: employers invest more in full-time staff, and women are more likely to have part-time roles than men. When the training itself takes place is also a factor, she says: if training happens outside of normal working hours, a lot of women are automatically excluded due to childcare and caring responsibilities. 

Gender bias in training: how do we tackle it?

And so in the sectors where women are struggling to engage in those training opportunities, what can be done to help them? Do we need to encourage women to be more proactive about asking for training? Does the training itself need to become more accessible? Or is it around management and ensuring that businesses truly are equal opportunity employers?

Flexibility in training is key, says Whittaker. At HIT, staff always talk to the learner about fitting the learning around their lives. 

“We talk to them about their accessibility and when it suits them to speak to their tutor, and then we work around them. It's how it works with most workplace or non-college based learners. It's not as if they have to come every Tuesday evening. In terms of accessibility, talk to whoever your provider is and find one which will work for you. If you find the first organisation you talk to doesn't quite fit, then go and search around for another one because there are plenty of providers and there will be a delivery model which suits everyone,” she says. 

Crawford calls for government-backed initiatives to encourage women into upskilling and retraining, and says the current level 3 Lifetime Skills Guarantee has “really failed” to support women. 

“The list of things you can apply for is very digital and technology-based, so it's great if it's alongside a campaign which then supports women into those roles – but it hasn't materialised,” she says. 

“There are some examples globally. In Canada, they run programmes specifically to back businesses run by women, and there are some African countries where they have backed schemes to specifically support industries that tend to be more female-dominated because they're conscious women are being more affected by coronavirus. We do need to make sure we don't get the positive discrimination the other way, but clearly, I think we've still got some way to go, and some levelling of the playing field would definitely be supported.” 

She also says employers need to grab the issue “by the horns” and proactively encourage women to take part in work-placed training.

“The onus is on us as leaders to encourage women to participate and to proactively go to them. Women still want progress. It's not that they've got less appetite for learning – it’s just they didn’t ask for it,” she says.

“For example, we run a data science programme, and the average status of women in data science is around 15 per cent. We are doing twice as well – we've got 30 per cent, which is good going. But it's still 70 per cent which are men. We're really interested to dig into what's driving this, and how we can work with employers to support women going into those career opportunities.” 

It shouldn’t take women having to speak out and push for the training, says Aldridge. “We've got to build in opportunity, and deliberately think about gender, and how we systematically build in those opportunities and not rely on individual people, and individual levels of energy or feistiness, to get it through because they will and it's great, but it just it doesn't create enough opportunities for enough people where they are,” she says. 

“It shouldn’t be about people having to go over and above or be really loud or demanding to be equal in training. We should want to have the best people and support in everyone to develop, and we do need to think about people's particular circumstances. And, of course, if you get this right across gender, then it's a massive benefit both for individuals and for businesses to get the best talent, whoever they are.”