Setting an online example in educating women

With the advent of massive open online courses, students in every country with Internet service will have access to the best scholars and cutting-edge knowledge in their discipline. Above: Iranians surf the web in an Internet cafe in Tehran, Iran.
(Vahid Salemi / Associated Press)

The United States is leading a revolution in higher education. With the advent of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, U.S. universities will be increasingly exporting hundreds of college-level classes every year to the rest of the world. The implications of this are huge.

At the least, students in every country with Internet service will have access to the best scholars and cutting-edge knowledge in their discipline. Go online (often for free) and top classes in statistics, computer science, economics, physics and the humanities are at your fingertips. The result will be dramatic increases in skills, training and knowledge in even remote places.

But there’s a potentially large implication that U.S. universities have missed: the ability to export gender equality, powerful female role models and more. Studies have shown, for example, that educating women leads to a reduction in poverty, fertility and violence, and increases in the health outcomes for families. Exporting classes taught by women could profoundly influence how young people around the world think about the roles women play in society.


Online education is likely to have the greatest influence in the developing world, where access to higher education is limited and the quality of education is low. These are countries where gender stereotypes still dominate, where families still question the value of educating girls and where men and women rarely (if ever) encounter women in positions of power. By having female scholars teaching online classes, U.S. universities could help empower women, which in turn could affect economic development, poverty, governance and more. Signal to the world that the very best scholars from the best universities include women, and you signal to the world that educating women is important.

Major U.S. universities that have joined these consortiums, however, are not doing this. Stanford, Princeton, UC Irvine and the University of Michigan, for example, are offering MOOCs, but their classes are mostly taught by men. One consortium, Coursera, offered 205 courses with named instructors at one point this month. Only 34 are taught by female instructors; 157 are taught by male instructors; the remaining 14 courses are taught by groups of both men and women. Even in fields in which women are a majority of doctoral recipients and recent faculty hires, such as the humanities, the vast majority (72%) of classes at Coursera are taught by men. Udacity, another major provider of MOOCs, has almost no women as sole or lead instructors in its course offerings.

The gender disparity becomes even more obvious when we look at individual universities. At Princeton, for example, 33% of the permanent faculty members on campus are female, yet none of the courses offered by Princeton through Coursera are taught by women. At the University of Pennsylvania, women on campus also represent 33% of the faculty, but they teach only 12.5% of the courses offered through Coursera. Only MOOCs offered by Stanford, which has 25% female faculty, come close to a representative level.

Why are men heavily over-represented among MOOC instructors? The selection process is not transparent, so the reasons are unclear. But it surely can’t be because women don’t want to take advantage of this exciting opportunity and the potential resources that might flow from it. And it does not appear that women are under-represented because MOOCs are choosing only the oldest and most established professors, most of whom are male. The ages of the instructors range from fairly new PhDs through long-tenured professors.

The United States, one of the most egalitarian countries in the world in terms of how it treats women, and the universities have the opportunity to expose tens of thousands of overseas students to a whole new way of viewing and interacting with women, and in so doing, break down long-standing gender stereotypes.

Our nation has an abundance of successful, talented female academics who could lead the way in exporting equality as well as education. They should be showcased in MOOCs.


Lisa L. Martin is a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Barbara F. Walter is a political science professor at UC San Diego.