The Covid period has generally speaking been a difficult one for women. While labor market participation among women had been steadily rising in the decades leading up to the pandemic, it fell dramatically during it, with participation rates in America falling to levels last seen in 1987.
What’s more, data from UN Women highlights how the pandemic set back equality in other ways too, not least due to a care burden that the organization argued created a real risk of reverting to gender stereotypes seen in the 1950s. This was on top of a situation in which the agency argue that women were already doing around 75% of the 16 billion hours of unpaid work done every day around the world.
It’s a trend that is not echoed, however, in new data from the online learning platform Coursera, which shows that women have enrolled in courses at higher rates than before the pandemic. Indeed, whereas women made up 47% of learners in 2019, this had jumped to 52% by 2021.
The company believes these results confound the narrative that women were leaving the labor force due to the rise in external pressure, and were indeed increasing their investment in new skills despite the challenging circumstances.
“Our research suggests that gender gaps in online learning narrowed during the pandemic, even as gender employment gaps widened,” Jeff Maggioncalda, Coursera CEO, says. “We are encouraged by how women are embracing online learning to develop new skills that can help accelerate their return to work and promote economic mobility.”
Bridging the gap:
The data also suggests that women were especially keen to gain professional certification, with enrollment in courses from companies, such as Facebook, Google, and IBM, soaring from 27% in 2019 to 43% in 2021.
The enthusiasm with which women were enrolling in these digital courses was matched by their enthusiasm for STEM courses in general, with enrollment up from 35% in 2019 to 42% in 2021.
The desire for professional development was not confined by technical disciplines, however, with Coursera noticing a balanced investment in soft and hard skills, with strong demand for courses in areas such as communication and entrepreneurship alongside data science and computer programming.
“I earned my computer science degree with only a handful of women alongside me, and while a great deal has changed since then, we still have important work to do to increase women’s representation in technology and leadership,” Betty Vandenbosch, Chief Content Officer at Coursera, says. “Access to flexible, job-relevant education can help women learn the new skills they need to enter high-demand roles and achieve better gender balance in the workforce.”
Flexibility is key:
The flexibility of online learning seems to be crucially important, as the British online learning platform FutureLearn produced similarly positive data earlier this year. They found that more women were likely to take an online course in the coming years than men were, with the pandemic exacerbating the appeal of online learning opportunities for women.
As with Coursera, the FutureLearn data also reveals a strong interest in STEM topics, with female students helping to drive a 350% increase in sign-ups for courses in tech and software development over the Covid period.
Of course, while these results are positive, it would be a mistake to assume that the concerns about the wellbeing of women during Covid were ill-founded. Indeed, research from King’s College London shows that women reported being more depressed, anxious, and were more likely to suffer from sleepless nights during Covid.
“Strikingly, both men and women worry more about their family’s financial adequacy than about their health, although the difference is not significant.” the researchers say. “Almost 82 percent of women felt anxious or nervous about the current situation, compared to 64 percent of men, and more than a third of both women and men reported having trouble getting adequate sleep.”
More support needed:
This was mirrored in a study from Compass and Autonomy, in which women were 43% more likely to have suffered from mental health issues as a result of raising their working hours, with a staggering 86% of working mothers reporting feelings of burnout as a result of juggling work and childcare.
As research from De Montfort University illustrates, if equality at work is to be truly achieved then employers need to give more thought to providing the kind of wraparound services that allow women to find the time for professional development. It’s great that enrollment in online courses is up, but their data shows that women still take the lead in organizing children’s activities, planning meals, and cleaning the house.
“The majority of mums who took part in the study said they felt lockdown duties limited their ability to network, attend online events or professional development and this left them feeling disconnected from colleagues and decision making,” the researchers say.
In: Wellbeing at Work:, Gallup’s Jim Clifton and Jim Harter argue that this “whole life” support is increasingly something that employers will need to consider if they want to get the best out of their staff. The Coursera data clearly shows the strong demand for learning and development. Employers need to make sure there is time and energy to satisfy that demand.