Female online students, who far outnumber their male peers, face more challenges than men in online education but continue to excel academically.

Women Poised to Reap Benefits of Online Education


  • Many female online students bear the brunt of family and household responsibilities.
  • In a new BestColleges survey, 42% of online students felt women face more challenges.
  • Despite these extra challenges, women continue to excel in online education.
  • Online degrees could fast-track women's entrance into male-dominated fields.

More women pursue higher education than men, and they're holding their lead. Over the last three decades, the percentage of college-enrolled women aged 18-24 gradually overtook the percentage of enrolled men in the same age range.

Among online learners, the ratio of female students to male students is even higher. Many women choose online education over in-person classes so they can better balance work and family.

Many women choose online education over in-person classes so they can better balance work and family.

According to BestColleges' 2020 Trends in Online Education: Gender Differences report, over 40% of online students think women face more challenges than men as online learners. Despite these challenges, female students continue to dominate the online education space — and excel in it, too.

These days, a growing number of women are choosing online education, not as a backup plan after having children, but as a first step toward their career goals. What's more, the diversification of female learners in terms of marital status and age suggests that women of all backgrounds can glean special benefits from online education.

Online Education Offers Women Flexibility, Convenience

Female students today predominate in online learning at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Many women choose to learn online because of the convenience factor.

Historically, online education acted as a career-training avenue for working mothers. Women's studies scholar Cheris Kramarae calls online education women's "third shift." After a work shift, many women return home to perform a "second shift" of household duties. Online education — turning on the computer at the end of a long, laborious day — makes up the third shift.

“Online degree programs provide opportunities for female students — particularly in minority ethnic groups and at lower income levels (and perhaps at a younger age) — to pursue college degrees.”

— Melissa Venable, Ph.D., BestColleges Trends in Online Education: Gender Differences

But a new BestColleges survey reveals that not all female online learners are married, working mothers. Forty-four percent of the women surveyed reported having no children, and the same percentage identified as single. Additionally, more than three-fourths (76%) of female respondents were aged 18-34 when they earned their online degrees, compared to just 53% of male online students.

Even though female online students are increasingly likely to be young, single, and childless, women continue to shoulder more family responsibilities than men. In the survey, 25% of women — but only 12% of men — said they spend 11-25 hours per week on child/family/elder care.

In an interview with BestColleges, Dr. Darcy W. Hardy, a higher education leader with Blackboard, explained that for many women seeking degrees, online education is "less disruptive to the family environment."

Female Online Students Take Extra Challenges in Stride

Based on the gender differences described above, it may seem obvious that women face more challenges than men in online programs — and many online learners agree. According to the BestColleges survey, the majority of respondents (65%) said male and female online students face different challenges. Furthermore, 42% believed women experience more challenges than men.

Both men and women were more likely to think female online students face extra challenges. But when respondents were asked to rate the difficulty of various obstacles to graduating — such as staying on track with classes and maintaining a minimum GPA — women were more likely to perceive the challenges as being less difficult to handle.

Across the board, more men rated common obstacles to reaching graduation as more challenging, while more women rated the same obstacles as less challenging.

Challenges to Reaching Graduation, by Gender
Challenging Neutral Not challenging
Male (n=210) Female (n=295) Male (n=210) Female (n=295) Male (n=210) Female (n=295)
Paying for higher education while minimizing student debt 76% 66% 11% 21% 13% 13%
Scheduling on-campus visits to support my program 76% 48% 9% 23% 15% 29%
Maintaining minimum GPA 68% 46% 9% 18% 23% 36%
Maintaining desired GPA 70% 58% 12% 15% 18% 27%
Staying on track with classes 76% 55% 11% 19% 12% 26%
Access to required technology and internet 72% 44% 10% 16% 17% 41%
Managing unexpected events/personal life 71% 57% 16% 21% 12% 22%

One challenge that's ubiquitous among all college students is being able to pay tuition. Amid the ongoing college affordability crisis, both male and female online students rated "paying for higher education while minimizing student debt" a top obstacle in the BestColleges survey. The majority of participants (56%) were employed full time while pursuing their online degrees.

In a surprising twist, however, more men — who, as a whole, reported making significantly more money per year than their female peers — rated paying for college more challenging compared to women (76% vs. 66%). Nearly half (46%) of the women surveyed reported making south of $50,000 a year, whereas a large chunk of men (38%) earned over $125,000 a year while enrolled in their online programs.

One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that more male online students than female online students reported being married (68% vs. 34%) and having children (68% vs. 55%) while in their programs — two factors that could potentially bolster men's financial burden and lead them to view paying for online education as more difficult.

More women reported seeking associate degrees than men (22% vs. 7%).

Another reason could be the different types of online degree programs in which men and women were enrolled. In this survey, more women reported seeking associate degrees (22% vs. 7%), while more men reported pursuing professional degrees (10% vs. 2%).

"Women were more likely to be enrolled in associate-level programs, which may be less costly, and require less time to complete, than master's and professional degree programs in which more men were enrolled," said Melissa Venable, Ph.D., principal writer of the BestColleges gender differences report.

It could also simply come down to women's perception of challenges. Individuals who bear the brunt of household and family duties may be more adept at balancing their time, leading them to perceive common obstacles for online students as less difficult to tackle.

In Spite of Challenges, Women Excel in Online Education

Despite having to handle more responsibility on tighter budgets, women have been found to be more academically successful in online classes than men. A growing body of research suggests that women may be particularly suited to online learning.

A study of community college students found that women are generally confident independent learners and are more likely than men to be proactive and self-regulating when it comes to online assignments. The BestColleges survey mirrors these findings in that many female online students prioritize skills like time management (86%) and self-direction (84%).

Women are generally confident independent learners and are more likely than men to be proactive and self-regulating when it comes to online assignments.

As online students, women seem to have a clear sense of how to organize themselves to get work done on time. Outside research shows that women in online courses perceive that they learned more than their male peers, which could owe in part to how they prioritize online learner skills.

Women have also been found to communicate effectively online. Asynchronous courses provide time to reflect and contextualize new learnings, and female students tend to feel more connected to other students in online courses: They spend more time posting on online forums and engaging with their instructors and peers.

According to Hardy, online discussion boards and small group exercises can help women build confidence by allowing them to prove what they know. In other words, the digital environment is less intimidating and more accessible to women than your typical in-person classroom. "If they're in a classroom with male dominance," said Hardy, "a lot of women won't even raise their hand."

Online Education Could Push More Women Into STEM

Both women and technology are charting steep upward trajectories in higher education. The upswell in female college enrollment is helping to fuel the growth of online learning, whose 9.7% growth rate far exceeds the 1.5% growth rate of traditional education.

Online learning is poised to become the educational norm, and research has proven that its structure is advantageous to women. Online courses offer female students more opportunities to build confidence, exhibit subject mastery, and establish a sense of belonging with their peers. As a result, more women could begin to enter male-dominated majors and career tracks.

Online learning is poised to become the educational norm, and research has proven that its structure is advantageous to women.

Several high-paying education tracks, most notably in the STEM fields, have a notoriously hard time attracting and retaining female students. The BestColleges survey found that significantly more male online students than female online students (38% vs. 7%) pursued a major in computer and information sciences and support services.

Women's continued success in online education could help turn this trend around, though. With more conducive academic pathways, more female students may soon start to graduate with these high-paying degrees, making real progress toward closing the gender pay gap.


Feature Image: Ivan Pantic / E+ / Getty Images