International Women's Day 2024: How working women are scripting flexible futures - Hindustan Times
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International Women's Day 2024: How working women are scripting flexible futures

By, New Delhi
Mar 08, 2024 06:40 PM IST

For many women, industry micro-credentials have become entry ramps to lucrative tech fields that were previously closed to them.

When 18-year-old Krishana Chhokar completed 12th standard last year, she didn’t want to go down the “traditional theory route,” with three years of college, followed by a job.

Flexibility has emerged as a top priority for Indian women in the workforce, not just in how they learn, but also how they work.(Pixabay)
Flexibility has emerged as a top priority for Indian women in the workforce, not just in how they learn, but also how they work.(Pixabay)

She wanted to be financially independent while she studied. Krishana applied to HCL TechBee, a unique program by the IT major that allows class 12 students to start their careers early. She simultaneously enrolled in IIT Guwahati’s online BSc (Honours) in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence.

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“I was interested in their curriculum and study structure. As importantly, this online degree gave me the flexibility to learn anytime, while I worked full-time. My shift changes every month, so my study schedule changes accordingly,” she says. Krishana learns mainly on her mobile phone, watching course videos during her work commute from Faridabad to Noida.

“I study everyday, but with the flexibility I need. I’m hungry to learn and really enjoy my life this way,” she adds.

Women in Digital India are discovering they can go beyond conventional learning and work choices, to progress on their own terms. They are embracing the idea of learning from anywhere and the possibility of working from anywhere. From better prospects to second chances, this is an exciting moment as women learn and work in a way that fits their lives.

Geography is history: The flexibility to learn from anywhere

Several considerations restrict how and where women learn in India. A survey by the International Finance Corporation and Coursera found women’s learning choices are impacted by factors like mobility, safety and family obligations.

Girls often can’t apply to colleges outside their town, or even travel far from home. As digital access spreads, these students are overcoming barriers through top-quality online learning programs that align with their interests and aspirations.

When BITS Pilani launched an online BSc in Computer Science a little over a year ago, it broke multiple barriers. Mobility. safety and family obligations were suddenly no longer considerations for women students, who could enroll for this in-demand degree from anywhere, learning anytime.

Heather Herman, a housewife, mother and market research professional in Delhi, initially has concerns about the time commitment required. “How was I going to do this, as a person with a whole different life? But when I read that the program required 25-30 hours a week, a lightbulb went on in my head. It told me, ‘I can take that much time from my other duties. This doesn't seem unattainable.” The access story has been compelling since, with 190% more women learners enrolled in this program than on-campus women learners.

Small to big: Stacking skills to success

Women in India are pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) courses at a much higher rate than before the pandemic. The share of women’s enrollments in STEM courses on Coursera jumped from 22% in 2019 to 32% in 2023. At stake are booming technology jobs, with higher earning potential, Indian workers with digital skills earn ~2x more than those without these skills.

For many women, industry micro-credentials have become entry ramps to lucrative tech fields that were previously closed to them. These micro-credentials, created by leading employers like Google, IBM and Meta, are preparing women without prior work experience, to develop skills online for entry-level tech jobs. They can complete a micro-credential in six months or less.

As a learner shared, “By learning online, I didn’t have to leave my current job, or relocate. Even without a STEM background, I am now on the path to becoming a data analyst.” The modular nature of online learning feels less intimidating for women learners, who can stack and pace their learning, to balance work and home.

The freedom to work-learn-work

Flexibility has emerged as a top priority for Indian women in the workforce, not just in how they learn, but also how they work. As a Deloitte survey found, the lack of flexibility around working hours is one of the top three reasons women in India leave their employers. LinkedIn data has shown significant increases in women applying to remote jobs globally, and India is no exception.

The good news is, that many of the digital skills women can build online, prepare them for digital jobs being offered remotely. As demand for digital skills drives remote work across Europe, US and Asia, talent mobility is increasing across borders.

With the right skills, this can be a game-changer for women, widening access to lucrative jobs. Remote jobs come with built-in flexibility and notably, no long commutes! For employers, supporting flexible ways to learn and work will be key to attracting and retaining women employees -- helping their re-entry into the workforce, reducing burnout and increasing productivity.

Getting ready for the AI age

A recent UN study warns that women may be disproportionately at risk of having their jobs automated by AI. In India, it’s encouraging to see women learners taking the lead to future-proof their careers by building GenAI skills.

There has been an increase in women enrolling for AI courses, with the top 5 courses for women learners here including Introduction to Generative AI, Prompt Engineering for ChatGPT, Generative AI with Large Language Models, Generative AI for Everyone and Introduction to Large Language Models. When AI for Everyone launched, it quickly became the most popular technology course for women, taken by millions of female learners in India.

For employers, hiring women employees can contribute to diverse AI development teams -- diversity will play a key role in reducing gender bias in AI, in the training of datasets, and in AI-generated decision-making.

From education to employment, the ability to work and learn flexibly is helping Indian women rewrite their futures, on their terms. On a broader level, these breakthroughs will be pivotal to increasing women’s contribution to the digital economy and sustaining their participation in a diverse workforce, one that serves India and the world.

(Authored by Marni Baker Stein, Chief Content Officer at Coursera, Views are personal)

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