Online Course Provider's Data Shows Low Women in Engineering

Coursera, which partners with major universities, shows female enrollment in science and engineering e-courses is dragging. Its study, however, notes that the proportion of women engaging in online learning is growing overall.

March 8 marked International Women's Day this year. In response to the festivities, Coursera, a for-profit educational technology company offering massive open online courses (MOOCs), released data on female interactions within its MOOCs. The results, for the most part, are promising. Overall, about 40 percent of Coursera's users are female and the numbers are climbing, though work is still needed to bring women to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) courses.

The estimated demographics of female students by country are the result of a survey of over 250,000 Coursera students. The dotted line in this and other graphs represents the estimated number of female users.

Female student percentage of Coursera users and enrollments. Female student percentage of Coursera users and enrollments.

It seems that Romania is an innovator, with a near-50 percent female student ratio. India, however, seems to bottom out the list with a mere 26 percent female student ratio. In North America, Canada leads the way with 45.7 percent, followed by the U.S. at 43.6 percent and Mexico at 39.8 percent.

Coursera's estimated female student fraction by country. Coursera's estimated female student fraction by country.

Interestingly, Coursera found that there is a correlation between female user proportions and a country's Gender Equality Index (GEI). Typically, the better a woman's access to education in the country, as per GEI, the larger that country's Coursera female user ratio. An additional correlation, though weaker than GEI, was seen for a country's female economic activity.

A significant correlation can also be seen between the percentage of female college graduates in a country and the percentage of female Coursera students. However, 95 percent of countries surveyed saw a smaller ratio in Coursera than in their colleges.

One culprit of this discrepancy is the large number of engineering courses in Coursera. These courses will typically have lower female enrollment, as they do on campus. Though the discrepancies between college graduates and Coursera students are smaller for engineering than sciences or the humanities, it is clear that the low proportion of women in engineering and the high proportion of engineering courses likely affected the overall results.

Comparison of college and Coursera female student fraction by field. Comparison of college and Coursera female student fraction by field.

This is particularly clear when comparing enrollment by topic: traditional STEM courses, with the exception of medicine, have an overall lower female enrollment.

The study also hypothesizes that female ratios are affected by age (typically in the child-rearing range) and general Internet demographics.

Median Coursera class female student fraction by topic. Median Coursera class female student fraction by topic.

Gender equality is an important aspect of Coursera's identity. Many of the company's leaders are women, including Co-founder Daphne Koller and President Lila Ibrahim, and Coursera hopes to parlay its female leadership to increase women's education around the world.

As mentioned before, the proportions of women joining Coursera are on the rise overall, which represent a good step forward for MOOCs. There is still plenty to accomplish though, particularly concerning STEM courses.

Access to education empowers women to better their lives, the lives of their families, and their communities. Furthermore, diversity in a field allows for more robust and successful solutions. As the world's problems grow, we will need all hands on deck to help us through the future. So to learners of every age and gender, let's get our thinking caps on.


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