ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Gender Differences in Online Learning: Insights from recent graduates

By Melissa Venable / June 2021

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Editor’s Note: The author is an employee of BestColleges. 

The latest report from BestColleges provides insight into potential gender differences among online students [1]. A survey was conducted of 505 individuals—295 women and 210 men—who graduated from online programs between 2015 and 2020. This is part of a larger, ongoing research initiative seeking to provide long-term tracking and identification of trends related to online learning demographics, online program marketing and recruitment, and design considerations for new online programs. This article provides highlights of the study’s findings with a specific focus on online learners who identify as female. Details are presented here in three main categories: student demographics, the challenges of online learning, and supporting student success. 


Why study gender in online education? This has been a topic in recent years with student success as the focus. Morante et al., for example, found evidence that level of engagement by gender can affect learning in specific subject areas [2]. Lin’s study of adult female college students revealed challenges related to managing multiple life roles, finding support, and building confidence [3]. Other research indicates women, in particular, may be prepared for the demands of online education as they relate to organizational skills and experience juggling multiple life roles [4]. Understanding how men and women perceive their online learning experiences may add to future discussions about gender roles—at home, work, and in school—particularly amid societal and employment-related shifts happening in the wake of COVID-19 [5, 6, 7].

Data Collection and Context

BestColleges conducted a web-based survey in August 2020 [1]. Participants were 505 individuals who graduated from online degree programs between 2015 and 2020, including 295 women. In this survey, online degree programs were defined as "programs in which courses take place predominantly online with no required face-to-face sessions, but may incorporate on-site activities such as residencies, fieldwork, and practicum requirements."

Students responding to this survey were asked to identify their gender as male or female. Participants could also select other as a response to this survey item. This restriction to binary gender categories is a limitation, as addressed in the conclusion as a recommendation for future research. The categories as presented in this study may include transgender male and female students, as well as students who identify as gender-fluid or non-conforming. No participants selected other in this particular survey.

The survey respondents were fielded by Lucid LLC. Lucid’s consumer panels and census-balanced approach included participants from the four U.S. regions (i.e., midwest, northeast, south, and west). Survey development was a collaboration between BestColleges and Lucid as a survey partner and derived from the BestColleges annual online education trends survey [1]. All participant data was self-reported.

Generalizability of the findings of this report may be limited to student populations with characteristics similar to those of the study participants. A complete demographic profile of study participants can be found online [1]. Higher education professionals working with dissimilar students may benefit from an awareness of broader trends and recommendations to explore the potential impact of gender differences in their courses and programs.

Online Student Demographics

Of the online students surveyed, almost 60 percent identified as female. A majority of these women were also enrolled in their courses as full-time students (73 percent) while also working full-time (50 percent). Of the participants identifying as male, 78 percent were enrolled full-time and 64 percent were employed full-time. More than half of the women surveyed (58 percent) indicated they were motivated to enroll by career-related goals (i.e., career advancement, transition to a new field), compared to 63 percent of men.

The biggest differences in demographic characteristics across gender were in the areas of degree level and academic major, income, age, ethnic diversity, and marital status, as detailed below. Some gender-based stereotypes were perhaps reinforced in this study while others show signs of change.

Degree level and academic major. This survey found 59 percent of all participants graduated from undergraduate online programs and 42 percent graduated from graduate-level programs. Women, however, were enrolled predominantly in undergraduate degree programs (i.e., associate, bachelor’s) compared to men (65 percent versus 46 percent) particularly at the associate level, while there were more men (54 percent) than women (35 percent) enrolled in graduate degree programs (i.e., master’s, doctoral, professional).

Overall, the top three fields studied by the students participating in this study were: computer and information sciences and related majors (20 percent), business and related majors (20 percent), and health professions and related majors (14 percent). However, men and women were not equally represented in all majors. For example, differences were found in computer and information sciences majors, with 38 percent of male participants enrolled compared to 7 percent of females, and in healthcare-related majors, with 20 percent of female participants enrolled compared to 6 percent of males.

These findings, particularly those related to area of study, align with prior research in the field. A report from the American Association of University Women shared that “men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of [STEM] professions,” even as more women are choosing to study science and engineering subjects [8]. More recent research continues to track the gender gap in STEM fields, the influence of stereotypes on student perspectives of math and science as masculine career fields, and the lack of access to and participation of females and minority students in STEM courses, all of which occur or begin well before students reach college [9,10].

Age and marital status. Women participating in this study were younger than men when they were online students. Differences were found between the two groups in both age and marital status. In the 18–24 age range—typically associated with traditional college enrollment—34 percent of students participating in the survey were female and 13 percent were male. The 35–44 age range included more men (42 percent) than women (21 percent). In addition to being younger overall, women (35 percent) were also less likely than men (68 percent) to be married while they were online students. Women were also less likely to have children at home while they were online students.

Income and ethnicity. In addition to being enrolled full-time while working full-time, which was the case for most male and female participants, female participants reported having lower incomes than men while they were students. The largest differences between men and women in this demographic category were at the lowest and highest income levels. Forty-six percent of female students reported an annual household income of less than $50,000 compared to 19 percent of male students. Whereas 38 percent of male students reported an income of more than $125,000 compared to 10 percent of female students. 

While a majority of male (77 percent) and female (58 percent) survey participants identified as Caucasian or White, women represented more diverse ethnicities than men. The biggest differences are among African American and Black students—19 percent of female participants and 10 percent of male participants—and Hispanic or Latinx students—9 percent of female participants and 4 percent of male participants. 

Income, ethnicity, and educational achievement are not unrelated. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics shares that “in 2016, the percentage of adults age 25 and over who had not completed high school was higher for Hispanic adults (33 percent) than for any other racial/ethnic group,” including 17 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Native and 15 percent of Black adults, compared to 8 percent of White adults [11]. Data published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in general, higher education attainment equates to higher earnings [12]. This makes the connection of minority students to the support and resources required to successfully complete college and advanced degrees important in many ways, especially in terms of economic equity.

Challenges of Online Learning

It may be no surprise that a majority of both men (76 percent) and women (66 percent) shared that the biggest roadblock to reaching graduation in their online degree programs was related to financial concerns—paying for higher education while minimizing student debt. Other areas of concern for a majority of both male and female participants were maintaining a desired GPA, staying on track with classes, and managing unexpected life events.

There were several other challenges identified by each gender. The largest difference was in technology and internet access, which 72 percent of men but only 44 percent of women identified as challenging. This could be attributed to the finding that more male students are enrolled in STEM majors (i.e., computer science, engineering), potentially requiring different or more complex technologies.

Online Student Support

Participants in this survey project shared their thoughts about which skills and characteristics were most important to their success as online students. Overall, both men and women cited time management, self-direction, and persistence as critical to student success. These reflect an individual approach to reaching success. Participants also shared the sources of external support that they relied on most as online students, as well as areas in which they wished they had received more support from their academic institutions.

Primary sources of support. When asked which category of support they relied on most, the top response for both male (20 percent) and female (24 percent) students was “financial,” which could include financial aid as well as other monetary resources. There were several significant differences between men and women in other areas of support, however. Men (14 percent) were more likely than women (8 percent) to say they relied most on “career planning (e.g., career counseling, coaching)” and “employer (e.g., time, encouragement, tuition assistance)” support as online students. Women (22 percent) were more likely than men (14 percent) to say they relied most on “family (e.g., encouragement, childcare, finances)” support. Financial support, from multiple sources, and its importance to all students, seems evident throughout these categories.

Additional support needed. In what ways do online students wish their schools and programs had helped them more? The top response for both men (44 percent) and women (32 percent) was “time management.” Both men (36 percent) and women (27 percent) also wanted additional assistance “building confidence” as online students. The biggest difference between genders in desired support was in “technology skills and computer literacy” cited by 42 percent of male participants and only 14 percent of female participants. While women were less likely to say they needed additional support at all, they also indicated a need for help with oral communication skills (22 percent). This need could stem from their pursuit of majors and careers in which communicating with others in person is important, such as healthcare and education. 


While there are some differences between the online learning experiences of men and women, every student brings a unique perspective and demographic profile to the virtual classroom. They also need multiple types of support in their pursuit of higher education goals. As existing online programs are reviewed and revised, and new programs are designed and developed, it’s important to consider learner characteristics and integrate tailored support services when possible.

Exploring differences across genders is one way to learn more about your institution’s students and the best ways to help them reach graduation. As this study found, female students may be younger, at lower income levels, pursuing low- to moderate-paying careers, and relying on multiple sources of financial support. Colleges should work to meet their needs through programs that connect them with a wider variety of support services, funding options, and career development opportunities.

Making a positive impact on your institution’s female students may also mean review and revision of curricula and faculty professional development opportunities that promote inclusive pedagogical practices. Biases related to race, class, and gender in higher education may contribute to continued stereotypes and expectations related to gender roles that negatively affect the achievement of female students [13]. Implementing feminist pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching strategies—such as selecting texts by diverse authors, focusing on building relationships, encouraging knowledge co-creation, connecting the curriculum to the contexts and communities of diverse students, and understanding student needs in more holistic ways— may not only reduce biases among faculty members but also provide positive examples and opportunities for our students to see themselves represented in course content [14,15].

Future research should include recognition of non-binary gender identities—including transgender, gender-fluid, and non-conforming identities—to better understand the online learning experience and the need for support from a wider, more diverse range of perspectives.

Additional research is also needed to continue to track trends in online student demographics and needs. As we experience societal changes and shifts in hiring and employment trends, those planning educational programs should be aware and ready to revise their support for students as needed. 


[1] Venable, M. A. 2020 Trends in Online Education: Gender Differences. 2020.

[2] Morante, A., Djenidi, V., Clark, H., and West, S. Gender differences in online participation: examining a history and a mathematics open foundation online course. Australian Journal of Adult Learning 57, 2 (2017), 266–293.

[3] Lin, X. Barriers and challenges of female adult students enrolled in higher education: A literature review. Higher Education Studies 6, 2 (2016), 119–126.

[4] Dennon, A. Women poised to reap benefits of online education. November 19, 2020.

[5] Alon, T., Doepke, M., Olmstead-Rumsey, J., and Tertilt, M. The impact of COVID-19 on gender equality. Northwestern University. March 2020.

[6] Carnevale, A. P. Women bear the brunt of the COVID-19 recession: A major setback after decades of progress. Medium. June 24, 2020. 

[7] Linde, A., and González, A. What the COVID-19 pandemic tells us about gender equality. World Economic Forum. May 9, 2020.

[8] Hill, C., Corbett, C., and St. Rose, A. Why So Few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. AAUW, 2010.

[9] Fletcher, C. L. and Warner, J. R. CAPE: A framework for assessing equity throughout the computer science education ecosystem. Communications of the ACM 64, 2 (2021), 23–25.

[10] Makarova, E., Aeschlimann, B., and Herzog, W. The gender gap in STEM fields: The impact of gender stereotype of math and science on secondary students’ career aspirations. Frontiers in Education 4, 60 (2019).

[11] National Center for Educational Statistics. Indicator 27: Educational Attainment. In

Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups 2018. U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences. February 2019.

[12] Torpey, E. Data on display: Measuring the value of education. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. April 2018.

[13] Cimpian, J. How our education system undermines gender equity: And why culture change—not policy—may be the solution. Brookings Brown Center Chalkboard. April 23, 2018.

[14] Graham, C. Effective strategies for culturally responsive teaching. December 8, 2020.

[15] Onufer, L. and Munoz Rojas, L. Teaching at PITT: Introduction to feminist pedagogy. University Times 51, 14 (2019).

About the Author

Melissa A. Venable, Ph.D., is a principal writer and education advisor at Red Ventures where she leads the research initiative reporting annual trends in online education. Her professional background includes work in higher education instructional design, curriculum management, and student support services. Melissa currently teaches online courses in instructional design as an adjunct professor for Saint Leo University. She is also a certified career coach and serves as an associate editor for Career Convergence web magazine. Melissa earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction—instructional technology from the University of South Florida, with research interests in distance education and career services for online students.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for components of this work owned by others than ACM must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, or republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee. Request permissions from [email protected].

Copyright © ACM 2021 1535-394X/2021/06-3460821 $15.00


  • There are no comments at this time.