Women Breaking Barriers in Augmented & Virtual Reality

Meet the Experts

Women Breaking Barriers is a series celebrating female leaders in traditionally male-dominated occupations. From finance to STEM, women are now opening doors which were historically closed to them. OnlineEducation.com interviewed eight exceptional professionals in the VR/AR industry. They share their career paths; perceptions of the industry demographics; and advice for women seeking careers in this emerging field.

Kimberly Cooper is the CEO and cofounder of Spatialand, an innovative VR platform and toolkit. She cofounded Prologue and Prologue Immersive, companies renowned in the film industry for creating fantastic visual effects in Iron Man, X-Men, Tron, and other blockbusters. Notably, she’s a two-time Emmy nominee for her work on the Academy Awards.

Rachel Rubin Franklin is the head of social VR at Facebook. She has more than 20 years of experience building and launching interactive entertainment. During her time at Electronic Arts, she served as the general manager and executive producer of The Sims 4, one of the top-selling PC games of all time.

Megan Gaiser is the principal of Contagious Creativity, an organization offering inspired consulting services to businesses, including work on VR/AR products. She served as the CEO and president of the award-winning game studio Her Interactive. Notably, she’s the founder of the 21st Century Leadership for Diversity Movement and Summit.

Joowon Kim is the founder and CEO of Amodo Technologies LLC, an interactive technology and VR company, as well as a Biodesign Digital Health Fellow at the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute. She taught game art and animation at the University of Houston and she cofounded the LevelUp Camp, which teaches kids how to build their own VR/AR environments.

Christine Lee is the vice president and general manager of global business development at Immersv, a mobile VR and 360 video advertising company. She’s an expert in mobile entertainment and monetization, having served as a media solutions lead in gaming at Google; the general manager of Chartboost; and an account executive at Microsoft.

Leisel Madureira is an animator at Gunfire Games, an Austin-based game studio behind VR titles such as Chronos and Herobound: Spirit Champion. Prior to joining Gunfire, she worked as an animator with KingsIsle Entertainment and Vigil Games. She studied 2D and 3D animation at the Art Institute of Dallas.

Cynthia Rando is the CEO of Sophic Synergistics, a cross-industry consulting firm in Houston which works with various VR/AR companies. She served for 12 years at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as a human factors engineer, as well as an innovation and strategy coordinator. She holds a master’s degree in human factors engineering and an MBA.

Cy Wise is the studio director at Owlchemy Labs, an Austin-based games developer recently acquired by Google and renowned for its VR titles. She serves various roles from business development and operations to community support. She earned her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from the University of Texas, focusing her studies on gaming and internet communities.

Virtual and Augmented Reality: An Industry Without a Glass Ceiling?

“In all things tech, I’ve been one of the only women in the room many times. That’s why, as I build my team at Facebook, it’s my top priority to make sure all types of people are represented. I want to build a diverse group so that there’s never only one woman at the table, and more importantly so that we can build better VR products for everyone.” (Rachel Rubin Franklin)

Are virtual and augmented reality companies better for women than other tech subfields? Or does the nascent VR/AR industry—one which sits at the intersection of video games, the Silicon Valley, and Hollywood, three cultures notorious for their misogyny—present the same old barriers? The truth is it’s a little of both.

Recently, sexist scandals erupted at two prominent VR/AR companies, but it’s clear that there’s something different here for women—an opportunity to construct a more inclusive culture. Ms. Franklin pointed out that having more women at the table helps companies “build better VR products for everyone.” Ms. Lee echoed this optimism, sharing, “I feel like the industry is pretty open-minded, welcoming, and excited for different opinions—diverse opinions…I feel very lucky there, and I hope that it’s the same for any woman that is coming into the industry.”

Do VR/AR businesses see where the original PC and video games companies went wrong? Do they recognize that twenty-first century products with wide appeal shouldn’t exclude women from their target market, workforce, or C-suites? Those decisions fed the myth that women don’t like tech—a misconception that repelled some people from the industry for two generations. Well, that myth is dead. Women do like tech, and they’re forging an inclusive VR/AR industry with the potential to uplift humanity.

Women in VR/AR: The Numbers

“People grow up with the stereotype that women aren’t good at math, science, or technology. So you may have these beliefs about yourself, which are reinforced by others. If your abilities are constantly questioned, it becomes harder to maintain motivation.” (Cy Wise)

While there are few reliable figures on the VR/AR workforce specifically, the gender disparity in technology and computing has been well-documented. The Atlantic reported that only 17 percent of Google’s technical employees were women, compared to 15 percent at Facebook and 20 percent at Apple. Similarly, the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT 2017) found that even though 57 percent of professional positions in the US were held by women in 2016, they comprised only 26 percent of all computing occupations. Even more alarmingly, only five percent of the computing workforce were Asian women; three percent were African American women; and two percent were Hispanic women.

While the current percentages of women in technical occupations leave much to be desired, there are some signs that the imbalance is shifting. In 2017, 135 percent more young women took the AP Computer Science exam than last year, and there was a 21 percent increase in the number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in CS between 2000 and 2015.

VR/AR: The Future Juggernaut of Technology

“Imagine games and MR experiences that respect, rather than denigrate human life, that fill us up rather than dumb us down. Imagine being enriched rather than manipulated by media and technology products. Imagine developing multi-sensory experiences using our innate wisdom as the language to drive the underlying code. Imagine shaping the emergent mediums of virtual and augmented reality through the lens of both genders.” (Megan Gaiser’s essay in Women in Game Development: Breaking the Glass Level-Cap)

The VR/AR industry is expected to generate $7.2 billion globally by the end of 2017 and be worth $150 billion by 2020. In 2016, the sector attracted $2.2 billion in investments, a 300 percent increase over 2015. The overall number of VR companies swelled 40 percent in 2016. The excitement surrounding the applications of VR/AR has been likened to the Gold Rush, and it’s not hard to see why: every industry is considering how the technology can revolutionize the experience of their product or service:

  • Education:Students can visit the Parthenon, an art gallery, a simulation of an important historical event, or the solar system.
  • Healthcare:Patients can meet a medical specialist 3,000 miles to walk through 3D diagnostic images of their own bodies.
  • Business:Professionals can prepare for salary negotiations. Christine Lee mentioned that Variable Labs, a California-based VR startup, developed training exercises to instill confidence in employees prior to asking for higher pay. Considering that only only one in eight female MBA graduates negotiates her salary (compared to half of males), this could be especially useful for women in the workforce.
  • Real estate:Potential buyers can complete immersive home and land tours from thousands of miles away.
  • Communication:Companies and individuals can create multisensory VR spaces. Ms. Cooper shared, “My vision is that we are creating these tools and building these destinations for brands and enterprises; once those big destinations are made, consumers are going to want to build their own destinations to share with their friends.”
  • Military:Soldiers with PTSD can complete exposure therapy to help them heal.
  • Retail:Consumers can try expensive products before buying them.

This is only a handful of the potential uses. Most importantly, VR/AR can help people develop empathy and compassion by communicating a stranger’s intimate point of view. Through film (Hunger in Los Angeles) and simulations (Across the Line), people can walk in the shoes of others—a step toward understanding the horrors of police brutality, sexual assault (Perspective), and war (The Displaced). Notably, at Sundance’s New Frontier VR exhibit in January 2017, a record 13 of the 32 lead VR artists were women.

Barriers to Women Working in VR/AR

“A lot of it is this: if a woman is involved in tech, she doesn’t have to be as good as her male counterparts—a lot of times, she has to be better.” (Cy Wise)

The recent behavior of two prominent VR/AR companies was palm-to-face-inappropriate. UploadVR—a San Francisco-based media company—was sued for sexual harassment and sexual assault. The office had a “kink room” with a bed, where employees were encouraged to have sex. The plaintiff, former employee Elizabeth Scott, alleged that prostitutes and strippers were invited to company parties. She also stated that the founders tried to secure “submissive Asian women” for a fundraising trip to Asia. Taylor Freeman—still the company’s CEO—kicked Ms. Scott out of her room in an UploadVR-rented house so he could use it to have sex. Female employees were reputedly referred to as “mommies” and asked to serve the various needs of the men.

Magic Leap—a Florida-based augmented reality company backed by Google and other influential investors—recently was sued for sex discrimination and retaliation. The plaintiff, Tannen Campbell, was the former VP of of strategic marketing who had been brought in to make the product more appealing to women. She claims she was fired for speaking out about the company’s deeply entrenched misogyny. One IT lead allegedly stated, “In IT we have a saying: stay away from the Three Os: Orientals, Old People, and Ovaries.”

The barriers to women aren’t limited to a couple of bad actors. In fact, there also have been some concerns about sex biases in the hardware. Motion sickness has affected women more than men using VR equipment. To convey 3D images, most modern VR systems employ motion parallax, a perspective trick which is relatively easy to program. Shape-from-shading, the other main technique to suggest distance in VR, is not as common even though there’s evidence that women prefer it. Furthermore, the headsets, lenses, motion capture rings, and haptic suits are typically built to fit men—not women—which also affects the experience.

Another area ripe for improvement is content. The biggest investments in the industry are being channeled into pornography and experiences for adrenaline-junkies. Last September at the Tokyo Game Show, men were asked to stop groping a mannequin—a busty anime character when viewed through VR goggles. Another game called Dead Or Alive Xtreme 3 encourages players to ogle and grab women on a beach against their wishes; Engadget referred to it as “sexual assault, the game.

Finally, “booth babes” are common across tech—attractive (and often scantily clad) women who encourage mainly male conference attendees to test the latest gadgets. While marketing is arguably cosmetic, it’s clear that booth babe supply agencies such as Models in Tech—a former contractor for UploadVR—aren’t trying to appeal to heterosexual female customers or tech workers. As of September 2017, 139 of the company’s 168 models were women—85 percent.

Overall, immersive virtual environments engage multiple senses and mimic the experience of reality; if content consumers are mistreating or objectifying women without consequences in VR, they may become desensitized to their own bad behavior in real life.

VR Companies and Investors: A Call to Action

“I never want to design or create something in a bubble because it’s a pretty hard fall once you’re out there in the public and nobody really likes it or gets it. It is important to get all points of view and all sides.” (Kimberly Cooper)

Virtual and augmented reality companies are at a crossroads: they can root their target market and workforce in the white, male demographic and course-correct in the future, or they can build inclusively from the beginning. Not surprisingly, the second path is better for business. For example, companies with women in 30 percent of C-suite roles were 15 percent more profitable on average than those with no women in high leadership. A recent McKinsey study found that gender-diverse companies were 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians, and for ethnically-diverse companies, it was 35 percent. Finally, First Round Capital found that tech companies with at least one female founder performed 63 percent better than those with with all-male founding teams.

With these opportunities in mind, here are some tips for diversity-minded industry leaders:

Use VR to make hiring blind.Not only should names be removed from resumes, but you can create a VR job interview process with avatars devoid of gender or ethnicity. You might be surprised whom you hire.

Recognize that women in tech are stronger because of the headwinds they’ve faced. Women in this industry often need to be more committed, more passionate, and even more skilled than their male counterparts to achieve the same position. Passion is what drives innovation and results in VR/AR.

Make equal pay for equal work your company standard, and publicize it. As with most industries, there’s a significant wage gap between men and women working in tech. Removing the wage gap at your company is not only a great opportunity for publicity, it will also make your company more competitive in recruiting diverse talent.

Be mindful of how women and other minorities in tech are evaluated.Ms. Wise, trained in sociology, brought up an important difference between the way men and women are assessed: “Women tend to be associated with relational clusters. A lot of the positive traits ascribed to women tend to be relational or defined by other people, whereas males are generally associated with competency clusters—things they do themselves. In other words, women aren’t defined in terms of how good they are at something; women are often defined by how much everyone else likes them.”

Make sure that hardware is inclusively designed.Don’t forget about one half of your potential market for products.

Have clear HR protocols to deal with allegations of harassment or discrimination. It’s difficult for employees to come forward and express discomfort with the behavior of their colleagues. Ensure that a comprehensive process is in place before issues arise to avoid legal trouble, as well as to make employees feel safe and supported at work.

Recruit from Women in VR’s Expert Directory. Some VR/AR leaders have stated that they’d like a more diverse workforce but they don’t know where to start. This directory is filled with experienced professionals in all niches of the industry.

Join 21st Century Leadership for Diversity. Megan Gaiser, one of the game industry’s most influential women, reiterated that having a diverse set of decision-makers isn’t a “moral imperative” but rather a business opportunity. The group’s manifesto is worth reading in full.

Keep in mind that even the most respected tech firms make mistakes. As Kristel Kruustük points out, Apple’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue in NYC installed a glass spiral staircase—a feature poorly designed for female customers wearing skirts. In short, more diverse workforces lead to smarter, more inclusively designed products and save companies the hassle of rebuilding.

Advice for Women Seeking Careers in VR/AR

“It’s going to take some time, but I hope that we can really come together because it takes a village to make a difference.” (Joowon Kim)

While the lawsuits at UploadVR and Magic Leap demonstrate that sexism is still a problem, this shouldn’t deter anyone from joining—and shaping—the nascent VR/AR industry. The eight awesome leaders who interviewed for this story offered their advice for women who want to thrive in this emerging tech sector:

Don’t dignify baseless criticism; learn from the people who matter and brush off the rest. There are bigots in every industry and they’re not worth your time. Ms. Kim shared, “There are certain guys that just disrespect me because I’m female…By responding to them, you give them more power.”

Find your people through groups, conferences, and hackathons. As with other Women Breaking Barriers stories, the most oft-cited advice is to seek out support. Ms. Franklin, who has more than 20 years of experience in the tech industry, stated memorably, “Early in my career, it wasn’t always easy to find people I could open up to, discuss challenges, and get advice. As a leader, I try to provide this openness and support for my team, and I see many other leaders doing the same. I think that’s a really encouraging trend.” Ms. Cooper added, “Go to a conference; make friends; meet people; talk; figure out who’s doing what; and that’s where you start.” A few groups of note include Virtual Reality Girls, Women in Virtual Reality, Women in XR, and 21st Century Leadership for Diversity.

Let your passion shine through. As with any profession, those who truly love what they do will are bound to be the most innovative. Ms. Cooper described this beautifully: “I’ve fallen in love with something I can’t quite see.” Ms. Franklin conveyed the importance of doing what moves you: “You’ll be most successful if you align your efforts with something that sparks your passion. If you can’t wait to jump out of bed in the morning and get to work, you’re doing the right thing!”

Find your outlet. Everyone needs a way to let off steam. Ms. Lee teaches aerial conditioning and flying trapeze every Sunday in San Francisco. Ms. Kim explained how meditation totally transformed her life: “[A ten-day silent meditation course] gave me an enormous amount of strength and maturity. Spiritually it leveled me up…You end up listening to yourself with your eyes closed and you identify a lot of things; you become your own guru, gaining the wisdom by going through your own experience and learning how to manage sensations in your body.”

Pay it forward. Just as Ms. Franklin mentioned that she provides “openness and support” for her team, Ms. Rando highlighted the importance of giving back to shape industry culture and the next generation of leaders: “I like to work with the local universities…to give [the students] a chance to test themselves out in these waters, and also get exposed to other things.”

Keep in mind that VR/AR is new industry you can shape. Having the courage and focus to act as if there were no barriers is important. Ms. Kim underscored this point: “Putting some data out there that says, ‘You have more of a chance of failing’ is discouraging…I don’t want media to shape the future of what we are capable of. It’s important to focus on the positivity.” Ms. Lee embodied this ethos with confidence, sharing “I’m equal to every single person that’s on the panel; I don’t want to just sit and talk about being a woman in gaming. I’d rather talk about what we do. Our value is our action; our value is what we contribute, so for any woman who is seeing these articles and hearing how terrible some of these completely incorrect opinions have been…just challenge it. Be yourself and actively break the social mold or change the paradigm.”

Surround yourself with the people you want to become. Several of the interviewees expressed the importance of being around the right people. Ms. Rando put it bluntly: “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you…Put yourself into groups that are far beyond where you think you are currently, but are on the trajectory of where you want to go, and that will help you through.” Ms. Franklin extended this to surrounding oneself with the right influences: “Educate yourself. The more you immerse yourself in something, the more impact you can make—whether it’s learning a new technology, reading up on industry trends, or building relationships with interesting people. Invest in developing your expertise. “

Love yourself, and most of the world will follow. Particularly for young women, having confidence in oneself is a great elixir for success. Ms. Kim mentioned, “If girls learn to love themselves, they can make a difference to the society and to the whole world. Learning that was hard for me.”

Transcend your demographics. Above all, these women focused on what really matters in the industry: their work. Ms. Lee advised, “Don’t come in with a self-handicap…There’s a lot that we can do on our own just to change that paradigm directly.” Ms. Franklin acknowledged the headwinds but highlighted the importance of persistence: “Be resilient. Understand there will be setbacks, but never let them dampen your greatness.”

Having diverse voices shaping the VR/AR industry is central to creating the best products, but there’s so much more to be gained. Megan Gaiser—the founder of 21st Century Leadership for Diversity—shared her favorite quote from Betty Sue Flowers: “Becoming a real human being is the primary leadership issue of our time, but on a scale never required before.” It’s a meaty quote that deserves some thought. Men and women in VR/AR have the opportunity to build an industry that reflects their values and culture. The question is: what kind of industry is that going to be?

About the Author : After graduating from UC Berkeley, Jocelyn Blore traveled the world for five years as a freelance writer. She lived in Japan, Brazil, Nepal and Argentina. In 2015, she took an 11-month road trip across the US, finally settling into Eugene, Oregon. She currently serves as the managing editor for several websites on distance-based programs in nursing, engineering and other disciplines. When Jocelyn isn’t writing about schools or interviewing professors, she enjoys satirizing global absurdities on her blog, Blore’s Razor.