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Inspiring women VR pioneers

Suhad  Aljundi

Immersive technology, the sector which includes virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality, is booming. Could it also be bucking the gender gap trend in technology? Suhad Aljundi, Jisc future technologies developer, talks to some of the women at the forefront of this new tech field.

At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, women took centre stage when it came to the realm of immersive experience. In the Storyscapes award, which recognises achievement in storytelling via technology, four of the five virtual reality experiences up for the award were made by women creators, with projects ranging from escape-room thrillers to a mixed reality piece about a queer Egyptian couple seeking asylum.

Is this a hopeful sign that, in one area of technology at least, the gender gap is not quite as dire as throughout the rest of it?

Admittedly, it’s not a high bar to scale – only 19% of the digital tech workforce is female, compared to 49% across all UK jobs, according to research from BCS and Tech Nation which shed light on diversity and inclusion in UK tech. A recent Unesco report looking at gender bias in voice-activated assistants1 found that just 12% of AI researchers are female.

In from the get-go

The Women in Immersive Technology Europe group is an initiative that aims to connect and support women and allies working or interested in virtual, augmented and mixed reality across Europe.

What it believes is different in this sector is that women have recognised that, since the industry is in its infancy, there is a significant opportunity to be grabbed to play an active role in leading where and how it goes. In that way women can ensure that it doesn’t become male-dominated in the way that computer programming did after its female boom years in the 1940s and 50s.

Through working with female entrepreneurs, storytellers, filmmakers, researchers, developers and directors, the group argues that

“the start of a new medium provides an unprecedented opportunity to structurally improve the industry from the get-go. XR innovation happens today, and we need to ensure diversity, equality and inclusion are cornerstones of this booming new industry.”

The sector certainly is booming. Nesta reported last year2 that there are around 1,000 immersive specialist companies in the UK employing around 4,500 people and generating £660 million in sales, potentially representing as much as 9% of the global market share.

“The main distribution platforms mainly focus on gaming which is generally created by men for men”

What role are women playing? It may not be quite as rosy as the Tribeca snapshot suggests.

According to Alexandra Hussenot, CEO and founder of Immersionn, an immersive tech startup focusing on VR content,

“there isn’t a level playing field for how VR content is distributed or accessed at the moment. The main distribution platforms mainly focus on gaming which is generally created by men for men, which is disappointing considering 52% of gamers are women.

The majority of content created by women focuses on topics such as documentaries, education, arts and culture and health, but this isn’t being distributed in the same way and therefore only reaches a limited audience.”

Fighting back

However, women in the immersive tech industry are responding to this and fighting back against the bias and unconscious bias in order to shape the industry in a way that women become an integral part of it.

“In the same way that cinema was initiated by women, we believe that women have great talent in the immersive technologies space and we have a new chance not to get it diluted,”

says VR writer, director and producer Ioana Matei.

One intriguing way in which this is happening is through the immersive stories themselves. VR is a great medium to “experience in situation” and one that director Nathalie Mathé has made the most of with her award-winning VR film UTURN.

Swapping roles

The premise is that a young female coder joins a male-dominated floundering startup that's deep in an identity crisis. The film explores themes of gender discrimination and sexism within the workplace through interwoven stories that allow viewers to embody either a female or male character.

Viewers can choose what perspective to follow at any time and then swap roles, offering a chance to experience both sides of the gender divide and understand each other’s realities.

Reactions to the film have been intriguing, explains Mathé.

“Most reactions from male audiences are very diverse, from a few total deniers saying this can't be real because it's not a documentary or asking to justify how we created it, to a large majority recognising this is problematic, unjust, saying they will pay more attention from now on, to a small percentage who gets quite upset and want to ‘punch these guys in the face’.

For women, it's more uniform, 90% of them say ‘Oh my god, this is so real and so much like my life at work every day!’

Although women were not my primary target audience, many of them have thanked me for giving them a voice. And several shared insights they got from this experience, changing their perspective on their personal problems, saying they feel it's a lot less about them and more about men being ignorant or totally oblivious to these gender issues most of time, it's part of a larger cultural issue of gender bias, which gave them a different approach to deal with it.”

While not created as a training app – Mathé is keen to emphasise that it is an engaging and entertaining live-action piece – it has been used as part of diversity awareness workshops at universities and companies.

VR as empathy agent

The potential for VR to act as an empathy agent has been seized on by Equal Reality, a company co-founded by women, which recreates important scenarios within the workplace, showing the world from the eyes of a female, and demonstrates the ubiquitous nature of unconscious bias.

Users can interact in the scenarios and learn to identify the bias, but also learn the behaviour to deal with it from multiple perspectives.

For Mathé – perhaps surprisingly, given the success of UTURN – a VR film alone is not enough.

“It is a great starting point as a personal experience and as an accelerator for having conversations about gender issues, but more conversations and then concrete initiatives need to happen around it to create cultural change.”

Both cultural and structural change also needs to take place in the immersive industry if it is not to go the same way as film or any of the other male-dominated tech industries.

Barriers to entry

“The same people are involved in term of decision power, gate keepers and who's got the funding! The main difference is that women, especially women creators or entrepreneurs, have been very active to jump into this new field from the start and to build support networks, because they saw it as an empty page where they could get a chance to get their voice heard.

But the same barriers to entry are still there: having access to the right network, access to support and funding, selection committees and so on,”

comments Mathé.

There is a role for schools, colleges and universities to move the gender equality conversation forward and to think critically about gender roles, stereotypes and diversity.

While there are positive signs, there is a need within the immersive technology industry itself to amplify women’s voices, stories and content so virtual reality becomes a positive space in which to execute those stories.

It is everyone’s responsibility to help make the immersive technology industry the most diverse form of entertainment it can be – and one that can be truly reflective of society.

Alexa, Siri and female robots: can education help women to fight sexist stereotypes?

With their female voices and names, many consumer-focused artificial intelligence products have been accused of reinforcing stereotypes about a woman’s role. These stereotypes help to maintain long-term problems of a gender imbalance in the tech workforce. Does it matter and, if so, what can be done about it?

Catch up with this thought-provoking session from Digifest 2019 in which Serrie Chapman, founder, Women’s Tech Hub – Bristol, Miranda Mowbray, lecturer in computer science, University of Bristol, and Jisc’s Suhad Aljundi tackle one of the most pressing tech topics of the moment.

Footnotes