A woman sits at a desk with headphones looking at a laptop while taking notes, engaging in online learning.
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Why online learning could be key to closing the STEM gender gap

26 Mar 2021

Coursera’s Anthony Tattersall discusses the importance of closing the gender gap in STEM industries and how online learning could help.

STEM subjects have long-standing problems with proper gender representation. A recent report by the World Economic Forum highlights that just 30pc of STEM researchers are women, men publish more than their female colleagues and women are paid significantly less.

Closing this gap is vital. Careers in STEM are critical in shaping the world we live in. But how do we get there?

Experts say the way academic curricula are designed can make an important difference. With the rise of online learning as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, we should look at how this particular medium can help. Here are a few ways in which online learning can support us in closing the STEM gender gap in higher education.

Providing flexibility and accessibility

Online learning can happen any time, anywhere, helping students juggle studies with careers and other personal commitments. This flexibility can be especially attractive to women, whose working hours are often reduced because of childcare reasons. The chances that they continue learning during this time are likely to be even lower.

In turn, STEM courses delivered online could encourage more women to study while raising children or after their children have left home.

Offering stackable and modular content

Short courses in STEM subjects allow students with no background in the field to explore new skills in shorter time frames. Students can earn smaller credentials which can be stacked and count towards larger qualifications or degrees.

This stackability and modularity can be particularly helpful to break with stereotypes in STEM subjects, which can often be seen as ‘difficult’ or simply ‘for boys’.

Hands-on learning

Research shows that students respond better when STEM courses and careers are positioned as a way to solve problems and improve lives.

With many online courses, students can gain skills in the context of different real-life scenarios such as machine learning for predicting cervical cancer risk or Python for simulating viral pandemics. These courses generally take less than two hours to complete and are offered with step-by-step guidance from an instructor.

Creating safe spaces

Research from the University of Cambridge shows that women are two and a half times less likely to ask questions in seminars than men.

Online learning that uses resources such as video office hours and Slack integrations can help combat this challenge by providing a ‘safer space’ for women to communicate and collaborate with teachers and peers.

Scaling under-represented experts

Having inspiring women mentors teaching STEM courses can provide women with a view of what their future careers may look like in the field and how studies can lead to real, tangible success.

Online learning can help provide an opportunity to improve the reach and access of more diverse role models like these. The more this happens, the more women are likely to engage with STEM courses and excel in them.

Boosting gender equality in STEM subjects can help improve the skills gap, increase the employment and productivity of women and reduce occupational stereotypes.

We know that change begins in the classroom and that the current pandemic, while incredibly challenging for educators, provides a crucial opportunity: to harness the power of online learning to inspire and engage women with STEM subjects and broader careers in the field.

By Anthony Tattersall

Anthony Tattersall is the vice-president of enterprise for EMEA at online course provider Coursera.

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