The government has been urged to set private contractor targets to boost the number of female apprentices in sectors traditionally dominated by men.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee report Women in the Workplace also criticises careers guidance as promoting academic rather than vocational career paths and calls for action to improve female representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

It points to figures, verified by the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS), that show — despite there being 276,200 female apprenticeships from level two onwards overall versus 244,400 male ones — huge gender disparities in certain sectors.

For example, just two per cent (230) of construction apprentices were female in 2011/12 and in industrial applications it was 12 per cent (2,240).

The report, published today, said: “The government should use the opportunities presented by the procurement of goods and services from the private sector to advance equality for women.

“They should produce an annual statement to illustrate the way in which government contracts have been used to achieve this aim.

“The government should make this provision more widely known to employers, with the potential to enable workforces to become more diverse and more representative of the communities that they serve.

“As with the government targets for the number of women on boards, targets should be set by the government to encourage women to explore more atypical work sectors, especially in those sectors that have a skills shortage.”

Adrian Bailey MP, committee chair, said: “The early influences children are exposed to are crucial in informing them about career opportunities. As such, the current absence of comprehensive careers advice is a matter of deep concern. The government must develop an enhanced careers strategy, with careers advice fully incorporated in the work of both primary and secondary schools.

“The government has demonstrated a welcome commitment to improving the representation of women on boards. It must now show the same commitment to addressing their under-representation in certain sectors of the economy. This should include a willingness to set targets and, if necessary, to regulate.”

The report further says that employees should be entitled to ask for flexible working from the outset, not only after they have been in a job for six months.

Additionally, the government should establish a voluntary code of practice to highlight best practice in the provision of quality part-time and flexible working.

“Four decades since the Equal Pay Act, we still do not have full workplace equality. We cannot wait another 40 years,” said Mr Bailey.

“Comprising over half the population, significant public funds are invested in women. Ensuring they reach their full potential is therefore as much an economic argument as one about equality.

“At the heart of the matter is the need for cultural change. Without this we address symptoms rather than causes.”

He added: “Flexible working is not a women’s issue; it affects all employees with caring responsibilities. We must dispel the myth that it is problematic and cannot work.

“The Public Sector Equality Duty is a useful tool in achieving workplace equality. It should be retained in its current form. Far from comprising an unnecessary burden, good employment practices are good for business.

“The government’s stated commitment to workplace equality is welcome. Its actions at times, however, not only fail to live up to the rhetoric, but stand in direct contradiction to it.

“Far from reducing workplace inequality, introducing fees for pregnancy discrimination cases, calling time on Equality Impact Assessments, and repealing provisions for the questionnaire procedure in discrimination cases, all risk exacerbating it.”

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  1. There are a number of colleges and other providers who have been successful in promoting apprenticeships to underrepresented groups which have been highlighted in Ofsted surveys. It is dangerous to pick ‘women’ as a group to set targets for as there is a mirror image of areas where men are underrepresented, such as beauty therapy and childcare. Over the last couple of years I have seen some brilliant examples of strategies that have worked in individual providers. A key common factor is seeing members of underrepresented groups attracted to an industry are role models in the workplace and as assessors or tutors. What is missing is not targets but someone leading on disseminating the best practice of the sector, whether it is awarding bodies, the NAS or Ofsted. Ideally the apprentices of a provider should be reflecting the makeup of the local population as near as possible.