Online higher ed prepares women to thrive, lead in workforce

Megan Dibb//November 5, 2020

Online higher ed prepares women to thrive, lead in workforce

Megan Dibb//November 5, 2020

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Megan Dibb

Women are quitting their jobs and not looking for new ones — yet another sign of the disruption brought on by COVID-19. An analysis of recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows of the 1.1 million Americans who left the workforce in September, 865,000 were women; a rate four times higher than men.

The statistics are startling, and the implications will be significant — for individuals, families and the economy. At the start of 2020, women held more U.S. jobs than men for the first time in nearly a decade. Since then, the pandemic shuttered many child care facilities and schools, forcing households to juggle responsibilities and make life-changing sacrifices.

As families decided how to adapt to at-home care and education of their children, women were predominantly the ones shifting focus from careers to kids. Driving those decisions were at least two, significant factors: income and traditional gender roles.

Women still tend to make less money than men and are more likely to work part-time. That means, for many, forgoing a woman’s wages affects a family’s bottom line less. Also, women are already devoting more time to running their homes. Women spend an average of 20 more hours per week on household and caregiving responsibilities than men, regardless of if they’re working or not.

Not only does the exodus of women from the workplace risk erasing recent strides toward gender equality, but it could also be bad for business. More diversity — including gender diversity — among workers provides significant benefits to employers. It fosters creativity and innovation, deeper understanding of consumer behavior and better decision-making. Without diversity, harmful biases and blind spots could develop, hindering a company’s performance and growth.

The advantages of more women on the job are clear; however, the future of the local, post-COVID economy is less predictable. What will the job market look like when women re-enter the workforce? What can women do to ensure they regain their important roles as decision-makers and leaders?

For many, success in the post-COVID environment will hinge on educational attainment. Re-entry into the workforce will likely require new or enhanced skill sets. The terms of art are reskilling and upskilling. New credentials — including college and university degrees — will open exciting doors of career opportunity.

But how can women, already disproportionately affected by the pandemic, possibly take on more — especially something as significant as going back to school? Luckily, there are affordable and effective options online.

A thin, silver lining to this ongoing pandemic is nearly all institutions — including universities, community colleges and tech schools — are expanding their online offerings. A portion of those programs are temporarily online until it’s safe to resume in-person instruction full time. Meanwhile, others will remain online, a signal of the modality’s emerging position in modern culture.

In short, options exist to fit almost any lifestyle and achieve any objective. I recently earned a degree from Western Governors University. WGU is a private, nonprofit university offering online degree programs in high-demand fields including business, nursing, teaching and IT. I found WGU’s innovative, flexible model allowed me to study when and where it was convenient — without compromising any of my responsibilities as a mom and wife.

Besides the convenience of studying anytime and anyplace — luckily! — online programs are typically more affordable. For example, College of Western Idaho’s online offerings can cost about half as much as a state university and a third of a private college. At WGU, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs only cost around $7,000 per year.

Affordability matters, especially in tough economic times and when many people aren’t working. Regardless of the school or the cost, all students should investigate financial aid and scholarships — both of which can be surprisingly accessible if students take time to apply. Also, borrowing money to pay for tuition should be done thoughtfully and responsibly.

The COVID crisis has introduced new levels of unpredictability to our world. It’s affected nearly every aspect of our lives and forced far too many out of the workforce, especially women. With an eye toward recovery, it will be important to reintegrate those workers and recognize the value of new skills and knowledge.

Megan Dibb is strategic partnership manager at WGU.