By Daphne Koller, President and Co-founder of Coursera, former professor of computer science at Stanford University
International Women’s Day on March 8th celebrates social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women – and also encourages action to accelerate gender parity across the globe. Follow #WomenInTech throughout this week to see different perspectives on how to close the gender gap in technology from inspiring female professors who teach on Coursera.
In recent years, we have seen a significant boom in the number of people studying technology. This is not surprising, given that so many jobs now require background in computer science, engineering, or other technical skills. At the same time, however, female representation in technology programs has steadily declined. Today, only about 18% of computer science graduates are women. This is a serious concern both for society and for women: for society, because we all need smart people to innovate and apply technology to solve important problems, and because women offer a unique and valuable perspective on the way that technology is developed and utilized; and for women, because careers in fields like computer science, analytics, and engineering can be incredibly rewarding in terms of not only wages and status, but also in terms of intellectual achievement and job satisfaction.
We need many interventions to reverse this trend, but I believe that online learning can be an especially powerful tool. Online courses, like those we offer on Coursera, can connect women with an unprecedented number and variety of female role models who have succeeded in STEM fields; they can also offer a safer space for women, who often feel intimidated in traditional STEM classrooms, to gain confidence in their ideas and dreams.
Most women studying technology see few, if any, female instructors in their technical courses. In my career as a CS student (Bachelors, Masters, or PhD), I had two female instructors. Some studies suggest that only about a fifth of CS faculty in the US are women, and that number is much lower in many other parts of the world. But role models are incredibly important – seeing an accomplished, successful woman in tech helps a female student realize that she, too, can take this route and succeed. In this week’s series of blogs honoring International Women’s Day, we’re featuring several amazing female professors who are able to teach not only the handful of female students who can attend their on-campus courses, but thousands of women, all over the world, who might otherwise not have been exposed to their enthusiasm and encouragement.
Online courses may also provide a more inviting learning environment for women who have been acutely aware of their status as minorities in face-to-face classrooms, and who are intimidated by the sense (right or wrong) that their male classmates have more advanced technology skills.The uncertainty and hesitation that these women feel can be exacerbated by the fact that women are more likely to be interrupted, and are less likely to be taken seriously by teachers. An online forum, where participants are judged solely by the quality of their contributions, and where one can convey one’s thoughts without interruption, can give women confidence to participate more actively in their learning.
Open online courses have played a pivotal role in opening global access to great teachers and learning experiences. While female representation in STEM courses on Coursera is still much lower than we’d like (women represent 25% of STEM course enrollments globally and 31% in the U.S.), the total number that we are able to reach at scale is large. I am proud that on Coursera, we also have several renowned female STEM instructors demonstrating to the millions of learners enrolled in their courses that women can be leaders in technical fields.
The next generation of female engineers and scientists need to see women at the heads of their classrooms. I hope that online education will open opportunities for more women to enter into technology fields, and that the participation of those women will open technology to a greater diversity of perspectives.
Other blog posts in Coursera’s #WomenInTech series:
- Why Data Science Needs Diversity — Emily Sands, Data Science Manager, Coursera
- “Yes You Can” – Empowering Women Through Education — Priya Gupta, Software Engineer, Coursera
- Finding My Community: From Math Olympiads to Coursera — Colleen Lee, Software Engineer, Coursera
Overcoming Stereotypes in Tech — Richa Khandelwal, Software Engineer, Coursera
- The Unconventional Route to Statistical Inquiry — Jennifer Rose and Lisa Dierker, Professors, Wesleyan University
- The ‘Pipeline Problem’ is Leaky — Christine Alvarado and Mia Minnes, Professors, University of Californa, San Diego
- How can we encourage more women to go into Computer Science? — Colleen van Lent, Lecturer, University of Michigan
- International Women’s Day: Our Weeklong Reflections on Women in Tech — Daphne Koller, President and Co-Founder, Coursera