Online learning will level the playing field for women

With the ongoing evolution of technology, new opportunities for learning and economic participation have emerged. One of the most notable is online learning, which has proven to be a boon for women

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By Betty Vandenbosch

Published: Thu 9 Mar 2023, 9:04 PM

In the last few decades, countries across the world have initiated significant measures to address gender inequality, increasing women’s participation in education and employment. However, progress towards gender parity has slowed globally, due to multi-layered crises including the pandemic. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) recent Global Gender Gap Report warns that it will now take 132 years to close the global gender pay gap — up from an estimated 100 years, just two years ago.

Several countries across the region have reversed gender gaps in education, with females outnumbering males in universities. However, this does not always translate into a balanced representation in the workforce, highlighting a clear mismatch between the prevailing skill sets and evolving labour market needs.

So, how do we close the gap? Digitisation offers a powerful solution. With the ongoing evolution of technology, new opportunities for learning and economic participation have emerged. One of the most notable is online learning, which has proven to be a boon for women. They have been able to leverage its advantages, including flexibility, affordability, and safety, to achieve their goals. New modalities of e-learning are not only narrowing gender education gaps but also preparing women for in-demand jobs in the digital economy by connecting them to vocational training, reskilling, and upskilling opportunities.

As countries in the region aspire to build knowledge-based economies, addressing the growing skill and gender anomalies will be critical. This is where online learning comes into play not only as a supplement to a broader educational experience for women but also as a vital aspect of growth for female professionals in the fast-evolving work realm.

Here are 5 ways online learning is empowering women

Equitable Learning: Online learning provides a sustainable model for everyone to learn the subject of their choice, thereby offering equitable learning opportunities. The range, cost, and accessibility of online courses also encourage more women to enter underrepresented fields, supporting their learning and career growth. Governments, businesses, and educators must therefore invest in equitable upskilling to ensure women have the tools to close the gender pay gap and actively participate in the economy. The ‘Hybrid Education’ model implemented at the Higher Colleges of Technology, the UAE’s largest applied higher educational institution, aims to do just that, enabling students to develop in-demand skills and equipping them with career-relevant qualifications so that they are better prepared for the modern workforce.

Removes Socio-Economic Barriers: Women who struggle to access traditional educational institutions — often because of caregiving responsibilities — can achieve the education required to upskill themselves and bolster their salary through online learning. With its flexibility, affordability, and safety, online learning effectively removes the socio-economic barriers women often face. The WEF report shows that 60 per cent of women caregivers would postpone studying or not study at all if online learning was not an option and 26 per cent of women report they feel safer and more comfortable learning online. Therefore, online learning options have become a lifeline for many women for whom in-person learning has not been possible.

Accessibility to Industry-Recognised STEM Courses: Historically, technical courses and STEM learning were seen as unconventional career choices for women. In the evolving digital economy, technical skills are no longer a choice but a necessity. Although 57 per cent of STEM graduates across MENA nations are women, and in the Gulf state women comprise about 60 per cent of engineering students, gaps persist in the workplace with STEM fields across the GCC considered the sectors with the largest gender gaps. Online professional certifications in this area could help as they provide the opportunity to gain industry-recognised qualifications from leading companies like Google, Meta, and IBM — building confidence in them to join the workforce and excel in technical jobs.

Supports Upskilling and Lifelong Learning: The evolution of high-demand skills, resulting from changing job requirements due to automation and digital transformation has become the norm. Digitisation across industries has shortened the skill shelf-life, making it necessary to quickly replace them with upgraded skills. Saudi Arabia’s Flexible Learning Pathways initiative, for instance, enables students to stack up micro-credentials across 10,000 courses and an array of subjects ranging from arts and science to business and entrepreneurship. To remain relevant in the workplace, adult learners, particularly women, will increasingly need to commit themselves to the mindset of lifelong learning. The flexible and affordable online learning helps women to do just that along with gaining in-demand skills.

Supporting Career Growth and Career Switch: Online learning has become a lifeline for women for not only career growth but also for a career change. If someone is planning a career change, they no longer have to take degrees through the traditional route. Online learning provides access to hundreds of courses and learners have the freedom to try the course for free to get a sense of what it entails. They are also provided with choices of different types of courses, from degrees to professional certificates or guided projects — whatever best suits them in their career switch.

WEF research shows that 37 per cent of people reported a positive career outcome from online learning, either by landing a new job, or generally improving performance. Online professional certifications that offer the opportunity to obtain industry-recognised qualifications from leading companies such as Google, Meta, and IBM are also critical in encouraging more women to enter the workforce, close the gender gap, and contribute to a prosperous, developed economy.

(Betty Vandenbosch is Senior Advisor to the CEO, Coursera.)

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