Women Now Outnumber Men in College: How Online Education Might Help the Gender Gap

It’s no secret that society’s gone digital. But education remains one of the few fields that haven’t transitioned from traditional models to a unified technological design. (See: classes that happen IRL.) When we think about issues in education, or education gaps across race, class, and gender divides, an inevitable question arises: How would a move towards the digital impact these differences?

It’s naïve to think that education will somehow avoid technological revolution. Distance learning courses and online degrees have steadily grown. Earlier this week, the New York Times wrote an article discussing the rise in popularity among MOOCs, massive open online courses. And websites like Skillshare, which offer online courses aimed at providing a global educational community, are receiving new-found attention.

In the educational landscape today, women now outnumber men in college attendance and graduation rates, generally seen as a great stride for women (and an opportunity for Fox News to declare a totally legit and well-backed war on men). Despite this, women still only make about 77% of what their male counterparts ear and men remain atop the socioeconomic totem pole. Much of this stems from the way certain jobs are valued and paid, reflecting the persistent gap of sex-stereotyped occupations (i.e., females as educators and males in tech).

Most thinking people understand that this isn’t because women can’t do math or men can’t make great English teachers. Rather, this variation illuminates the cogs of our cultural machination, indicating that our socialization inclines us to choose gendered professions. And much of this is reflected in our education system, impacting how the sexes participate. Studies have shown that men are encouraged to be more vocal in school, while women may be rewarded for passivity and deferring to male peers

As the field moves towards the digital sphere, there’s a great potential for gender-equitable advancement. Women constitute the majority of U.S. online learners, and such an environment may cloak some of the negative gender discrepancies of the past. For example, female anxiety about body image has been linked to poorer academic achievement. Without the stress over appearing physically perfect at every lecture, women may simply perform better. Perks in online education, like convenience, flexibility, and the freedom from financial burden will also have a great appeal. Think of the how life-changing such an opportunity could be for single parents of both genders, stay-at-home partners, and those juggling three jobs. Online education addresses the flexibility that’s essential for reforming education as both the nuclear family and conventional career trajectories break down.

Of course, there are a number of kinks still to be worked out. MOOC curricula must take into account how men and women participate in online communities, and design them effectively on the mass scale for thousands of participants. If women generally display more brevity and passivity in online chats, will they be evaluated differently? Will the fact that men are more visual learners be accounted for? A system must be designed with gendered learning in mind, also taking into consideration the experiences and attitudes our society instills in us.

The goal isn’t to pit us against each other like some horrible MTV Battle of the Sexes. Rather, we must thoughtfully design holistic digital instruction in which all genders have an equal opportunity to participate successfully.

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Rachel Goldberg

Writer, producer, feminist, peanut butter aficionado.

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