Skip to content Skip to navigation

Gender Considerations in Online Learning – Part 1 of 2

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 

"In many countries over the past 10 years, mature (over age 40 years), single-parent, minority, and low-income women have become the largest group among adult learners.  Increasing numbers of these women are studying online, and in some countries females constitute the majority of online learners.  In the United States at the turn of this century, 60% of the students studying online degree courses were women (Kramarae, 2001), most of whom were over age 25 years."


The posting below, a bit longer than most, and thus in two parts, examines gender considerations in online learning. It is from Chapter 12, Gender Issues in Online Learning, by Colin Latchem in the book, Culture and Online Learning: Global Perspectives and Research, edited by Insung Jung and Charlotte Nirmalani Gunawardena. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC. 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright @2014 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. [] All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
UP NEXT: Gender Considerations in Online Learning - Part 2 of 2



Tomorrow's Academia

---------- 1,980 words ----------

Gender Considerations in Online Learning Part 1 of 2

Kanwar (2013) observes that gender refers to both men and women, and in open, distance, and online learning, the focus must be on promoting equality, whichever sex is disadvantaged.  There is clearly a need for more understanding of the gender dimensions of online learning to ensure equality in online course design and provision (e.g., Bidjerano, 2005; Price, 2006; Rovai, 2001; Rovai & Baker, 2005).

This chapter examines gender considerations in online learning.  As indicated elsewhere in this book (see chapters 2 and 4), there are inconsistent or contrary findings in regard to gender differences in online study.  Some studies have concluded that gender is irrelevant because online learning systems are nongendered.  Others have concluded that online study can actually favor women.  Although these findings do not provide definitive answers to the questions of gender and cross-gender communication in cyberspace, they do help to make the issues clearer and alert readers to the fact that females and males may have distinct learning needs and there is need to ensure gender equality and flexibility in the online learning environment.  This chapter also shows the ways in which women can not only gain from but contribute to online learning.

Gender Considerations in Online Learning

In many countries over the past 10 years, mature (over age 40 years), single-parent, minority, and low-income women have become the largest group among adult learners.  Increasing numbers of these women are studying online, and in some countries females constitute the majority of online learners.  In the United States at the turn of this century, 60% of the students studying online degree courses were women (Kramarae, 2001), most of whom were over age 25 years.  Curiously, despite the fact that students' main reasons for taking a massive open online course (MOOC) are advancing in their current job and satisfying curiosity, a number of studies (e.g., Christensen et al., 2013) have shown that significantly fewer females than males are currently signing up for MOOCs, especially in developing countries.  Martin and Walter (2013) said that U.S. universities are missing a great opportunity to export gender equality, powerful female role models, and classes taught by women that could profoundly influence how young people around the world think about the roles women play in society.

Gender Neutrality and Gender Predisposition

Margolis and Fisher (2002) suggested that online learning environments are gender neutral and provide a democratic and equal environment.  On the other hand, B. Anderson (2006) observed that simply moving a learning community online does not mean that it automatically becomes democratic, less aggressive, or free of the gender-related problems that plague traditional classrooms.  Gunn, McSporran, Macleod, and French (2003) suggested that online learning may have the same asymmetrical gender and power dynamics as traditional face-to-face learning environments, with male students displaying dominant, controlling, arrogant, and other deviant behavior.

Kramarae (2001) pointed out that for many women, online learning is a "third shift" in which they grapple individually and often in isolation with time constraints that hinder them in fitting distance learning into their already packed work and family lives.  Muller (2008) found that female online students have to cope with the multiple responsibilities of being an income provider, parent, and student; insufficient interaction with faculty; and problems or frustration with the technology.  Given that researchers such as Cooper and Weaver (2003) have suggested that women tend to avoid technology, their extensive involvement in online learning seems surprising.  However, according to cyberfeminist Sadie Plant (1996), the Internet is quintessentially "female technology," allowing the free exchange of information, the lessening of hierarchy, the nurturing aspects of virtual communities, and the ending of patriarchy.  At the same time, women may well find that this mode of study demands more motivation, determination, and time-management skills than traditional classes, and their ability to cope will depend largely on how connected they feel with their tutors and fellow students.

Discussion forums, chat rooms, blogs, and tweets provide female online learners with opportunities to share their concerns, experiences, and learning with their fellow learners and join self-help groups. Asynchronous text-based online discussion may well suit women who are shy or reticent or who prefer to have more time to digest a variety of viewpoints and express themselves without verbal interruption (Gunn et al., 2003). However, the 24/7 stream of messages adds considerably to the amount of required reading time and may be daunting for students who are unused to writing, are self-conscious about their writing skills, or prefer face-to-face contact. And the relative anonymity of online study may encourage some other students to post remarks that they would not make in person, which can upset or alienate.

"Voice" and Online Communication

Although it is important to avoid gender stereotyping and acknowledge that there can be considerable variations within each gender and particular context, there is a considerable amount of research on psychological gender differences in communications.  In general, men are held to construct and maintain an independent self-construal (Cross & Madson, 1997).  As a consequence, men tend to be more independent and assertive, use language to establish and maintain status and dominate in relationships, and transmit information and offer advice in order to achieve tangible outcomes.  By contrast, women tend to be more expressive, tentative, and polite in conversation, valuing cooperation and using dialogue in order to create and foster intimate bonds with others by talking about issues they communally face (Basow & Rubenfeld, 2003).  Confirmation of these gender-related differences in online course communication patterns was found by Rovai (2001), with the majority of men (and some women) exhibiting an "independent voice" and the majority of women (but also some men) using a "connected voice" in their written messages, indicating a higher sense of "belonging."

Women are also less likely to swear or interrupt than men and more likely to be uncertain and give the impression of being subordinate to men.  Men cope with stress by withdrawing from conversations or situations, whereas women cope by reaching out and talking about the causes of their stress (Gray, 1992). In online discussions, males are more likely to post longer messages, begin and close discussions in mixed-sex groups, assert opinions as facts, use insults and even profanity to get their way, and in general manifest an adversarial orientation toward their interlocutors.  Females, by contrast, tend to post relatively short messages and are more likely to qualify and justify their assertions and express support for others (Herring, 1996).  All of these socially constructed behaviors have the potential to cause misunderstandings between males and females engaged in online learning.

Gladys We (1993) observed that there are as many ways of communicating online as there are individuals and that online communication has the potential both to be liberating and to duplicate all of the misunderstandings and confusion that arise in interactions between men and women in everyday life.  She did find that when the contact is professional, communication tends to be relatively free of gender cues, whereas when the contact is social, for example, in a newsgroup, women may be more aware of gender differences, be more guarded with men than women, and feel freer about expressing their feelings and talking about own life experiences.  Some men felt that it was easier to get to know women online; others distrusted the shifting nature of online personas.

D. M. Anderson and Haddad (2005) found that female voices that might not be heard in face-to-face teaching and learning because of gender-based role socialization, cultural differences, or individual personality traits can be more commonly heard in online courses.  They also found that female students in online courses were more willing to reach out to their professors than they would be in face-to-face environments where again role socialization inhibited them from speaking out or even seeking help.  As a consequence, they concluded that these females experienced deeper perceived learning in online courses than in face-to-face courses.

Female users can attempt to minimize discrimination and conflict in online exchanges by adopting gender-neutral usernames, but their message style and content may still display features of culturally learned gender styles (Bruckman, 1993).  It might be thought that in countries where gender relations are highly regulated and cross-gender communication is strictly limited, online forums where there is no call to reveal name, age, marital status, and so on might provide opportunities for dialogue with fewer prejudices and misunderstandings.  However, Madini and De Nooy (2003) found that in the case of a public discussion forum involving expatriate Saudi students, clues to gender were considered essential to all but the briefest exchanges, and the communication still remained largely gender segregated.  Another study into online education involving Arab Gulf students in the United States by Al-Harthi (2005) also confirmed the persistence of gender segregation in online interaction.  The female students tended to be very careful of what they said with the men, particularly those who knew them and their families, and even log off a chat with an instructor and other American students when any Muslim man joined in the group discussion.