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Where are the women?

I’ve been taking massive open online courses and blogging on MOOC business education for over two years. In that time, I’ve followed the research on MOOCs with great interest.

One thing that I continue to find perplexing, and which comes up in all the stats on MOOCs, is that far fewer women enroll than men. It was reported last year that men were 71% of the general population of MOOC users. In computer science courses, the numbers were even more skewed, with women accounting for less than 20% of enrollment.

A few months ago, I started a business providing group learning and networking opportunities for MOOC business students, and this gender imbalance really hit home. When customers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 were men, I started to wonder what was going on. Finally some women began to sign up, but my clients are still far more likely to be male than female.

While many research papers and articles have noted the MOOC gender gap, I have not come across any that has sought to explain it. I don’t think it has to do with lack of interest in learning, and it certainly has nothing to do with ability to complete higher level coursework. In fact, on regular college campuses, women now outnumber men significantly (57% - 43%).

So I’m still scratching my head as to why fewer women than men are using MOOCs. And it’s really starting to bother me.


Women, MOOCs, and a career boost

As a woman who has used MOOCs for career advancement, not just to satisfy an intellectual curiosity (though MOOCs are good for that too),  I believe that MOOC education can be particularly good for women. Which is why I find it troubling that so few women are taking advantage of the opportunities for career advancement that free online learning presents.

Here is why I believe MOOCs can be a boon to women looking to get ahead in their careers.

MOOCs build confidence

When I first started my project to get an MBA-equivalent using MOOCs, I remember feeling like I was playing catch-up. Part of the reason I wanted a business education was that it felt like everyone in the world know more about business than I did. I had the sense that everyone could read a balance sheet, that everyone know what acronyms like MVP and ROI stood for, that it was just me who didn’t have a solid grasp of business vocabulary.

As was reported in The Atlantic  last year, this is an experience common to many women. The “confidence gap” leaves many women feeling like imposters at work, which in turn causes many women to shy away when it comes time to put themselves forward for promotion or other opportunities.

While men may be more likely to take risks at work, women can use MOOCs to build up their confidence before volunteering for a new assignment.Because MOOCs are so low stakes, they can prepare you to take risks in other professional or academic settings.

As I started taking business MOOCs, my confidence began to grow. I stopped feeling that I was lagging behind my colleagues in terms of my understanding of business. As I progressed in my coursework, I even began to see opportunities for my team to improve our operations based on the business concepts I was learning, and I became confident enough to propose new initiatives.


MOOCs allow you to try something new

The most popular MOOCs are in technical fields, such as computer science, programming, and data analysis. The gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - the so-called STEM fields - is not unique to MOOCs. But the MOOC environment is actually the perfect place for women to try out something new. At the price of $0.00, the stakes couldn’t be lower.

Carolyn McIntyre, who now runs MoocLab.club, found a passion for coding through MOOC coursework. “Back then I had zero coding knowledge, had no idea what lay behind a web page and had never heard of the acronym MOOC,” she said. “ Now I live and breathe MOOCs and coding and I’m loving it!”

For women who have wondered if they might benefit from building a tech-based skill set, MOOCs are the perfect place to start.

MOOCs and work-life balance

The New York Times reported this year that a 24/7 work culture takes a heavy toll on women in particular. At the same time, women are more likely than men to use formal flexible working arrangements, while men are more likely to simply take the time they needed without asking for it. Perhaps a similar preference for formal agreements keeps women from exploring educational alternatives that have not yet been established as clear pathways to career advancement.

Given the fact that MOOCs are so much more flexible than traditional educational programs, they could be a huge boon to women (and men) seeking to preserve work-life balance while continuing to build skills.

For example, Nick Switzer, a medical device engineer from California, turned down the opportunity to get a formal business education at his company’s expense, opting instead for a MOOC-based business education. In large part, this decision was based on a desire to spend more time with his young children and to keep a more flexible schedule in the evenings.

Likewise, Hillary Strobel owns a media business and is taking MOOC courses to improve her knowledge of business. She finds that MOOCs allow her to work around her toddler’s schedule. Nap time guarantees her at least an hour to watch online lectures, though she may not know exactly when that hour will start. With MOOCs, that isn’t a problem.

How to get started

For women interested in exploring MOOCs as career enhancement, there are a lot of great resources to help you get started. The Washington Post published an article last week with some great tips. But the best thing to do is to simply log into one of the MOOC platforms - Coursera and edX are my favorites - and start browsing the course listings. You’re almost guaranteed to find something both piques your interest and has a direct application at work.

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