Chief People Officer FutureLearn
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Why gender equality relies on more learning and development for women

In recent years organisations have worked hard to close the gender opportunities gap but the pandemic has set this vital work back substantially. As we celebrate International Women's Day this year (8 March 2021) and work towards recovery, we should be looking to learning as a tool to help women thrive once again.

5th Mar 2021
Chief People Officer FutureLearn
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African american young woman using laptop working studying online, serious black girl student worker looking at laptop making notes typing busy on computer research, search information in internet
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Between 2018 and 2019, the gender pay gap in the UK fell by 0.5% and was on a continuous decline according to the Office for National Statistics. There’s also been some encouraging progress in representation of women at board level. Women now hold a third of board roles in FTSE 100 companies, a target hit almost a year early, with The Hampton-Alexander Review reporting that 349 women currently sit on boards at FTSE 100 firms. Fast forward just 12 months, and all the unforeseen disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic has taken us many steps back on the road to gender parity in the workplace.

Increased access to affordable and flexible resources can prove invaluable, especially for women who have found themselves having to juggle additional home responsibilities. 

The statistics now are worse than they’ve been for years. It’s been widely reported that women are disproportionately bearing the brunt of Covid-19’s financial impact, with women’s jobs being 1.8 times more vulnerable to the crisis than men’s, according to consultancy company, McKinsey. Despite the fact that women make up 39% of the global workforce, the same report found that they account for a staggering 54% of overall job losses.

There is so much more ground to recover in order to get back on track to where we were once headed, especially in order to ensure that every woman has the best chance possible at maintaining her career and achieving her goals. Countless solutions have come to the fore throughout the pandemic, but at FutureLearn we’ve seen that online learning has played a particularly strong role in empowering female professionals.

In fact, our data from the start of the first lockdown in 2020 showed that the number of women enrolling in online courses tripled, with a 250% year-on-year increase in female enrolments across our business and management courses. We’re seeing more women taking the initiative in using online learning to combat the impacts of the pandemic on their careers. It’s not just the responsibility of individuals to make up lost ground, however. Employers must take the initiative to support their female talent, while making sure that equality gaps are not widened further.

How L&D teams can support women in the workplace

Learning and development professionals have a big part to play in ensuring that progress continues to be made in spite of current challenges. It is essential that learning interventions are tailored to the individual and the environment we find ourselves working in now. Providing bite-size learning opportunities and ‘nudging’ to ensure that learning is prioritised and ensuring that opportunities to practice these new skills are being incorporated into day jobs is just one simple but effective step that can be taken.

Increased access to affordable and flexible resources can prove invaluable here, especially for women who have found themselves having to juggle additional home responsibilities on top of their jobs. For example, at FutureLearn we launched a number of ExpertTracks, including one on How To Supercharge Your Career by female professional network the AllBright, in order to give women the tools they need to reach their personal development goals – all at their own pace. Businesses can actively incorporate and prioritise resources such as these into their L&D offerings so that employees feel more able to fit the learning they need around the increased demands of day-to-day life.

L&D's role in diversity and inclusion

Championing reskilling and upskilling

We also know that online learning is a great resource for individuals that are seeking new skills for new job roles, whether that’s in the same company or in an entirely different sector. In this climate, hiring managers also need to be more flexible and adaptable by casting their nets wider to attract talent from different backgrounds and with transferable skill sets or experiences.

In this way, businesses can remain dedicated to enabling equal access to opportunities across their hiring processes. Our data shows that employers in the US are more open to this as 75% of them are more likely to hire people with online education since the pandemic. This is incredibly encouraging and is a stance that as many companies as possible should also be looking to embrace.

Learning how to manage mental health

Online learning hasn’t just helped people to build their career skills alone.  We’ve also seen a sharp increase in demand for courses on mindfulness and managing work/life balance whilst working remotely. Mental health and burnout are challenges that both women and men face, even more so 12 months into the global crisis. The responsibility of managing the wellbeing of young ones and caring for the wider family especially during lockdown, however, does now tend to fall primarily on women. Therefore, equipping them with practical skills to manage their own mental health and to help others as far as they feel able to is just as crucial as empowering them to develop workplace skills.

Whilst these interventions apply to anyone, regardless of gender, it is worth pausing and assessing if the HR and learning teams are leveraging all the tools available to support women to navigate this crisis, and whether they’ll allow us to come out stronger on the other side and use these new skills to continue smashing the glass ceiling.

Interested in this topic? Read Gender diversity and leading women: one size does not fit all.

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