On the 20 October I attended the CSI Summit on Virtual Reality, where I spoke about VR in broadcast. It was a nice day and I really enjoyed myself – being in a room with the smartest, most keen pioneers in VR was inspiring, and hearing their thoughts on the industry was nothing short of fascinating. There is a stark difference between the baseless gurus of armchair critics, and those who make a difference in our industry.
Yet I also noticed that, though instructive, it was not diverse. Alia Sheikh was one female speaker, yet the rest were men, and only men were listed as featured speakers on their website.
In an industry where talented women work tirelessly to provide quality work, a board of white males masks their impact
This is not an attack against the quality of the speakers, or my enjoyment at the Summit. Nor is it the statement that the industry itself is not diverse – there is a lot of great female talent actively working in the industry which we are all aware of.
Rather, it is a remark that the delegates have not seen the full diversity of VR. In an industry where talented women work tirelessly to provide quality work, a board of white males masks their impact. While the industry is diverse, its representation is sometimes not. To look further into this, I dipped into the community to investigate why the disparity exists.
Nina Salomons, Producer at Jellybeefilms, is passionate about the gender divide: “Women are fighting an age-old patriarchy, wherein they come second to man… Look at Silicon Valley, Gaming, Film and TV. Most men also take bigger risks and start their own start-up companies, whereas women often take supporting roles within them.
“A huge gender gap exists within these fields, which naturally translates to new technologies such as VR. [These fields] are dominated by men, and instead of thinking about equal gender representation at conferences, they just want somebody talking about VR – they want experts. Those expert roles are often not given to women, especially in the tech start-up world.”
Nina raises excellent points. The patriarchy is a strong element across many segments of society, and generations upon generations of societal norms crush the hopes of many aspiring females who join the industry. It is hard to tackle a young industry when it is bagged by centuries of silent sexism. Yet the tech world is changing, with many initiatives designed to increase the acceptance and progression of women working in technology – we will come to one example later.
Instead of thinking about equal gender representation at conferences, they just want somebody talking about VR – they want experts. Those expert roles are often not given to women, especially in the tech start-up world
Nina was not the only person who was passionate about the topic. VR / AR World took place on the same day and, again, there were few female speakers who took the stage. Catherine Allen, a freelance Producer and Director, had a few thoughts on why this may be:
“VR and AR conferences tend to be pretty male-heavy, especially when they are hardware or software related, rather than content centric. This is a shame. The reason why it is this way, I am assuming, is because VR is still in its early stages, and perceived as derivative of other industries, rather than as a distinct industry and communication medium in its own right.
“VR offers us a fresh start. As a society, we don’t need to bring the baggage of the past with us – all those assumptions, unconscious bias and the default male perspective. If we are conscious, now, that it *can* be different, and strive for diversity in every part of the VR process, we can make a huge difference, not only from a career opportunity perspective, but also in terms of the change we can foster in society as a whole.”
The key word Catherine highlights here is ‘unconscious bias.’ These organisers are not deliberately selecting men over women out of conscious choice – such outright displays of sexism are now very rare. But these divides do unconsciously happen, and though harder to detect, they happen everywhere.
There are many groups out there who are seeking to reverse the bias across the industry. Catherine is one such person, and another is Luciana Carvalho Se, a Chief Evangelist who organises the UK meetups for Women in VR. Otherwise known as WiVR, it is a networking and advocacy body dedicated to increasing the visibility of women working in the industry, with a very active body of people. In particular, they now have an Expert Directory where thought-leaders can be more easily found and contacted.
We are talking about inclusion, not just diversity – we are talking about talent and equal opportunity, not just diversity for diversity’s sake
Luciana is hopeful for the industry: “I do think there is a group of women paving the way for greater female representation – and doing so in a way that is more collaborative, welcoming, supportive than any other tech vertical I’ve seen. Nonny de la Pena (the “godmother of VR”), Helen Situ, Julie Young, Jenn Duong and in the UK, Sarah Jones, Tanya Laird, Sammy Kingston among many of the amazing women I have the pleasure of sharing WIVR meetups with, are all, in their unique way, beating the drum for female involvement & making sure that VR/AR has a female voice.”
At the heart of all these issues, Luciana believes that the solution is through teaching others: “There are so many cultural-social shifts we need to take place, and I think one of the most important ways we can do that is through education, and confront stereotypes about women in tech/VR with campaigns like
#heforshe and #Ilooklikeanengineer… But then again we are talking about inclusion, not just diversity – we are talking about talent and equal opportunity, not just diversity for diversity’s sake.”
After years of built-up sexism which manifests as unconscious bias, followed by the number of men who work in the industry, it is important to make sure industry practitioners are educated on the great women who work alongside them. As Luciana states it is not ‘diversity for diversity’s sake’; it is vital to highlight the strong figures who have always played an influential role for the last few years.
Another star player in the industry is Samantha Kingston, Client Director at Virtual Umbrella, who fell into the industry by accident and flourished. She is also very hopeful in the industry: “I feel that we done well to grow the representation of Women in VR over this past year. VR events and conferences have improved massively in making sure that there is balance of women and men on stage. My company has run many VR events and I know that this cannot always be easy. Sometimes it’s hard to approach companies and say ‘We would love you to come and speak at our event, but can you send a woman?’ – there is a big pressure on conference to make sure there is a balance.”
At its heart, Samantha believe that visibility is vital in a fast industry where talent is hired quickly: “For example, making sure that we share job opportunities within all our networks, there are several great Women in VR Facebook groups across the world that offer support and share information which is great place to post opportunities. It’s just making sure that everyone can be a part of the wide network and we can all share together.
“On occasion, we can accidentally show in-equality especially in tech industries. I don’t believe that companies go out of their way to just hire men or just women. Talent and diversity in this industry is important and we just must make sure that all opportunities are visible to everyone.”
I have been in positions in the past where I didn’t want to speak up, as I was afraid of my own opinion sometimes. The UK VR community… [has] offered me a platform and now in return I hope I can continue to offer a platform to others.
The VR industry is one of the most exciting to work in. Nina, Luciana, Samantha, Catherine – all are talented individuals in their own rights who have made an impact. Their points are also powerful ones as well. Education and visibility are two ways which progression can be made, as the first stepping stones towards greater representation. With the sudden influx of conferences making their rounds in the industry, it is vital to make sure that the broad talent is made plain for all to see.
Samantha remarked on the topic’s difficulty: “Speaking out about these issues can be hard sometimes, I have been in positions in the past where I didn’t want to speak up, as I was afraid of my own opinion sometimes. The UK VR community, the women and men I have met have offered me a platform and now in return I hope I can continue to offer a platform to others.”
The CSI Summit was a great event. I enjoyed my time there, and the people I have met will be people I will follow and respect through the lifetime of this blog. Yet I am also aware of the narrow perspective I have seen, and the great talent which lies beyond the open stage.