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Natalie Buxton is Managing Director of Weber Shandwick, a global communications firm, a member of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board and Chair of the new Gender Commission in Scotland – an employer-led group set up to help improve gender diversity in the workplace through the lens of apprenticeships.

A few weeks ago, I hosted the first Gender Commission meeting of 2020. It was my turn to lead the discussion and the theme of the meeting was ‘Media influence and how it can affect career decisions’.

As managing director of Weber Shandwick, I have always had a keen interest in the media’s role in society generally, and how it impacts our hearts and minds.

It was therefore a great opportunity for me to explore this subject further – this time specifically through the lens of apprenticeships.

The Gender Commission is an employer-led group, set up to understand and advise businesses on how they can help break down the barriers that prevent people choosing a particular apprenticeship because of their gender. 

My gut and professional feeling is that the media can act as both a positive and negative influencer in these formative decisions. Although much has been said recently of social media’s role in preying on the insecurities of young people, I also feel that the media can, and more importantly should, be used as a force for good every day.

Natalie Buxton

A changing world and media influence

The spheres of political and social influence in our lives are constantly shifting. In the past, teachers and parents or carers were cited as the key influencers in a young person’s career choices. Yes, media did play a part in the form of magazines and TV programmes, but these were consumed nowhere near in the same volume as ‘new’ media channels such as YouTube, Tik Tok and, to a lesser extent, Facebook and Instagram, by young people today.

The majority of 7-year-olds own a mobile phone. 76% of them use it to access the internet, with YouTube still holding its position as the top choice for children. This should make us think about how we approach young people, including those making their career choices and how they like to receive information about the world of work.

Gender and occupations

To me, these unsurprising but noteworthy stats offer both opportunity and risk in the Gender Commission’s mission to help businesses reduce the stubborn gender splits in apprenticeships in some industries and sectors.

There are occupations where the figures are pretty stark: despite the push from the Scottish Government to satisfy the need for another 11,000 jobs in childcare to meet the ‘30 free hours per week’ provision, only 3% of people working in childcare are male. We also know that construction, engineering, technology and automotive sectors continue to be highly gendered with low female representation. When we look at Modern Apprenticeships, female starts to construction and related disciplines are only 2%.

The role of the media – a positive force?

So how does the media play into this? There is no doubt that gender stereotypes do continue to be perpetuated through film and television, but from Hollywood to Hollyoaks, a shift is underway, and most producers and production companies are being forced by the media, public and high-profile celebrities to prove that they are taking action to bring diversity onto our screens.

In children’s television, books and media, I can see changes - an effort made to ensure that all children can see themselves reflected on screen or page, more than ever before. In the world of advertising, we have seen enforced change.

In July 2019, new advertising rules around gender stereotypes came into force from the Advertising Standards Authority and the first TV ads – such as Volkswagen and Philadelphia - have already been banned. The regulation stipulates that advertisers are not allowed to indicate in their content that certain jobs or tasks can only be performed by one gender.

It wasn’t always like this. Until recently, cartoons like Bob the Builder and Fireman Sam were deemed reasonable figures to introduce the male-dominated construction and fire service workplaces to pre-school children. And it wasn’t long ago almost every energy sector poster or advert featured a token young woman in a hard hat in an attempt for companies to ‘look’ balanced, despite the fact many companies employed very few female engineers.

Beyond ticking the box of corporate social responsibility

But in the world of media and PR where I have worked with companies, large and small, across all different industries, I’m encouraged to see gender diversity is no longer a tick box, under ‘corporate social responsibility’. Behind every advert or campaign is an organisation with a message or product to sell and many should be commended and recognised for going over and above a single corporate mission to make those messages positive. An example being the RAF’s ‘Women should be defined by actions, not clichés’ campaign, seeking to actively break down barriers across multiple channels. However, this campaign was launched at the same time as a Channel 4 survey found that the main problem with ads featuring women was not the levels of representation, but the roles in which adverts are portrayed.

So, what does this mean for businesses all over Scotland in relation to apprentice recruitment by gender?

This is still under discussion by the Gender Commission, as we explore a different ‘theme’ at each meeting and try to understand what the reality is, and what businesses can do to address gender inequality which is practical and implementable. One thing is certain, when thinking about how we can break down barriers to apprenticeships and to the workplace, we must think about the media as a key influencer. There is opportunity to use these platforms as a powerful and positive force for change.

Over the next few months the Gender Commission will continue to consult the media alongside other influencers, including early years’ practitioners, teachers, careers advisers, parents and policy makers before making recommendations to the wider-business community.

Part of this will be raising awareness of what can constitute media, influence, or a communication channel. Of course, not all businesses can afford high profile media advertising, but most use LinkedIn pages, signage, web pages, press releases, job ads, community engagement plans and marketing materials. All of these are media. Have you asked yourself if these portray your organisation as accessible-to-all, progressive and inclusive?

My mission for the Gender Commission is that we help you to help yourself by giving you the information you need to effect change.

Find out more about the Gender Commission

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