By Betty Vandenbosch
The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a significant blow to efforts to close the global gender gap. The World Economic Forum’s analysis reveals that gender parity will now take 132 years instead of the previously estimated 100 years. The pandemic has been more harsh on women, pushing gender equity an entire generation into the future. But, we can’t give up. If left unaddressed, this impact on women could have wider economic consequences, potentially reducing the global economy by one trillion dollars by 2030.
But how do we close the gap? Equality is often thought to be the solution, as it guarantees equal rights, resources, and opportunities to everyone. While it’s a good foundation, the obstacles women confront in education and work – including pay disparity, mobility, gender bias, safety, and caregiving – suggest that more comprehensive measures are required. Online education is a good place to start.
Online Learning: Fundamental to Enabling Women’s Growth & Prosperity
Online learning has become a critical tool for women who face challenges accessing traditional education, often because of caregiving responsibilities. It allows them to obtain the necessary education to upskill themselves and bolster their salary. Women see online learning as more accessible than in-person education. A recent IFC report shows that 60% of women caregivers would postpone studying or not study at all if online learning was not an option and 26% of women report they feel safer and more comfortable learning online. The flexibility and safety that online education provides has the potential to break down barriers that have historically disadvantaged women.
Within our ever-evolving society, learning opportunities for women are critical. Global Gender Gap Report 2021 underscored the importance of “re-deploying and re-employing women in emerging jobs” to shape a gender-equal recovery.
Online learning can enable new pathways that connect women to high growth jobs. The share of entry-level credential enrolments among Indian women learners on Coursera jumped significantly from 22% in 2019 to 36% in 2022. These certificates are helping women gain skills for diverse, entry-level digital jobs online – from IT support and software development, to UX design and social media marketing – created by top employers like Google, IBM, Meta and Salesforce to fill existing talent gaps.
As work trends evolve, the combined forces of online learning and remote work can help unlock opportunity for women, who now have the means to flexibly develop skills for jobs that can be done from anywhere.
The journey from university to career and beyond
The evolution of high-demand skills, resulting from changing job requirements due to automation and digital transformation have become the norm. To remain relevant in the workplace, adult learners, and particularly women, will increasingly need to commit themselves to the mindset of lifelong learning. Those who embrace online learning opportunities and develop in-demand skills will thrive the most.
WEF research shows that 37% of people reported a positive career outcome from online learning, either by landing a new job, starting a new business, or generally improving performance. Strikingly, however, the IFC reveals women are more likely than men to depend on free courses and are less likely to have access to funding. The absence of a clear funding source could be the reason why women are less likely to pursue long-term, multi-course certifications. Lack of funding, coupled with inequitable access to learning opportunities in these areas could further increase the gender pay gap.
It is for this very reason that governments, businesses and educators must invest in equitable upskilling while cultivating a culture of lifelong, continuous learning: an essential driver to close the gender gap, and strengthen the economy. The Indian government’s thrust on inclusive digital access and push for online learning can help scale learning interventions that empower women learners in the years ahead. We’re also seeing investments by Indian educational institutions and businesses in equitable skilling opportunities to help close the gender gap while promoting economic progress. PSGR Krishnammal College for Women in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu is a prime example of this. They’re integrating industry-aligned Coursera content to enrich their programs in Management, Arts, and Sciences, and have empowered their female student base to enroll in over 33,000 job-relevant courses.
The World Bank recognises that quality education offers significant returns on investment, ranging from higher quality employment and greater productivity and innovation to increased civic engagement and better health outcomes. To reap the rewards of equitable learning, access to online education must be put into motion now, to drive women’s economic empowerment and close the gender pay gap once and for all.
The author is Senior Advisor of Coursera. Views are personal.