Women are increasingly enrolling in online learning courses and earning STEM certificates during the pandemic, according to the latest Women and Skills Report from Coursera.
Women now make up 52% of new registered users on the e-learning platform in 2021, compared with 47% in 2019. In terms of course enrollments overall, women have nearly reached parity, at 49%, compared with making up just 42% of total enrollment in 2019.
The narrowing gender gap in online learning comes at a time when women have been disproportionately sidelined at work during the coronavirus outbreak. Despite economic recovery in many job market sectors, millions of women remain unemployed or underemployed due to their overrepresentation in in-person service jobs disrupted by Covid-19, as well as ongoing child care challenges over the last 18 months. Unemployment figures also exclude the 1.6 million women who've been pushed to drop out of the workforce altogether since February 2020.
But the growing share of women upskilling and reskilling through online learning could be an encouraging sign about the future of women in the workforce, says Betty Vandenbosch, Coursera's chief content officer.
Between shouldering the burden of household care, and being overrepresented in in-person service or care work, "women come to online learning because it's their only viable option," Vandenbosch tells CNBC Make It.
She's "thrilled" to see that more women are learning through Coursera despite increased work, job-search and care responsibilities in the last two years, especially when it comes to increased participation in STEM courses and certifications.
Women's enrollments in entry-level professional certificates reached 43% in 2021, up from 27% in 2019.
"Women are seeing the writing on the wall that the helping professions that were so devastated by Covid, like retail or health care or child care, it was a disaster," Vandenbosch. "But the place where things are strong is in digital."
Coursera partners with 14 companies, including Google, IBM, Salesforce and Facebook, to design courses and prepare users without a college degree or technology experience for a range of in-demand digital jobs.
For example, Google in 2020 announced three new online certificate programs in data analytics, project management and user experience design via Coursera. The three- to six-month courses are considered the equivalent of a four-year college degree for related entry-level roles at the company.
Certificate programs that accelerate a career change could help get more women into high-growth and high-paying tech jobs.
"Many don't want to get just a little better at what they're doing today," Vandenbosch says of women learning online. "They want to pivot to careers that are automation-protected. They want a career with a future."
In order to encourage more women to access online learning and certifications, e-learning platforms must be designed with women's needs in mind, Vandenbosch says. On Coursera, that means making sure all course lectures are 10 minutes or fewer and can be done on a mobile device, to accommodate women's disproportionate time restraints.
The platform has also increased its use of embedded assessments, like short quizzes, so learners can know if they're on the right track throughout a course.
Another major factor is making sure women are well represented as teachers and instructors across the platform, especially with its STEM-focused classes, as women are more likely to enroll in classes taught by women, according to Coursera's internal research.
"We're very clear with our partners to make sure the people teaching their courses are diverse in terms of gender, racial makeup and economic position," Vandenbosch says, especially for its industry certifications.
Currently, approximately 39% of courses on Coursera are taught by women instructors.
In 2021, women made up 57% of Coursera users who had access to the platform through a government agency, like a workforce re-entry program, and 54% of users with access through their university.
But among users who access Coursera from their employer as a workplace benefit, women made up just 32% of online learners.
In order to further close the jobs and pay gaps, Vandenbosch says businesses must be more proactive in encouraging women to upskill and reskill as a part of their career development within the company.
When businesses offer continued online learning, they can make it clear that graduates have a pathway to a promotion or new job upon completion.
Employers should also make continued learning a business priority without burdening employees, especially women who are more likely to be tasked with additional unpaid and unrecognized work. This could mean incorporating coursework into someone's job tasks and performance goals, and working with them to appropriately set aside time and resources for it.
"When you're doing learning that supports your business, your business should give you time to learn," Vandenbosch says. "Businesses need to encourage women to do this work, and need to have women who are role models who can say, 'I did it, and so can you.'"