Equal Realities : Addressing the virtual reality gender gap
Only 14% of UK VR companies have any women directors on the board (Kings College & University of Brighton, 2019). If you are a man in the UK or US, you are almost twice as likely to have spent time in virtual reality (Global WebIndex 2019). This challenging situation roughly reflects tech’s status quo, however it doesn’t have to be this way. We are actively trying to reduce this bias within the VR and e-learning industry.
The comparative newness of virtual reality offers a golden opportunity to shape the medium to reflect society’s best self, rather than its worst. At Fenturi, we use VR in our e-learning courses, we believe in the medium and with that belief know that it should be accessible to everyone and not be curated in a bias world.
Fenturi, Limina and VWVR all partnered up to host Equal Realities at the Arnolfini. It was an evening of lively panel discussion and talks exploring the roots of the gender bias we now see in emerging technology industries, using the growth of virtual reality as a case study. From the marketing strategies of early console games, the leisure time gender gap to the gender bias within the e-learning tools and companies expectations. The event took a broad look at the social forces at play that have led to male bias’ in home entertainment and emerging technology.
As well as discussing the roots of the issue, the talks and panels looked to a sunny future to explore ways we can seize the opportunity and address the imbalance. In a bid to continue to raise awareness and provoke discussion we are going share what Sam Freeth presented that evening. Watch the summary to get a feel for the Equal Realities event and don’t forget to read Sam’s thought-provoking speech.
THE EVENT HIGHLIGHTS
The premise behind Sam’s talk was to showcase how Fenturi has been proactively fighting against bias through narrative, visual and audio.
Gender bias is extensive in storytelling and narratives throughout the world. In learning design, we craft stories that are without this bias. This can often be a lot harder than you think.
Stories and narratives often have a gender skew even if the reader or listener doesn’t notice it. Examples are found every day in the language we use. They’re found in occupational references, and other stereotypes and turns of phrase that make up our speech and written communication.
The learning objectives of our designs are gender neutral, and are not based on a person’s identity, sex, race, or religion. We pin our stories around the learning objectives; these are the guidelines that we lean on to design appropriate and effective learning outcomes.
When people are written into our stories, our content designers have the difficult job of matching up suitable imagery to portray what is happening in the scene. Whilst staying keenly aware of gender bias – or any type of bias for that matter.
People form real, emotional reactions and attachments to people from a single photo. They can decide whether they like or dislike someone in the blink of the eye, and these first impressions are hard to break.
We focus on using imagery that is a fair representation of the world around us today. This means ensuring diversity in our imagery. When we consider diversity, we don’t only mean sexuality, race, or religion, we mean diversity in jobs, roles, society, in everything.
To demonstrate the challenge of capturing diversity in imagery, let’s look at an example from a stock imagery site. If you search for ‘male doctor’ on the site, you get over 4,000 pages of results. Same search but for a ‘female doctor’? Just over 1,000 pages. It’s even worse for nurses: ‘female nurses’ make up almost 3,000 pages worth of images and ‘male nurses’? Just 61 pages. The more images we need to source, the smaller the neutral pool from which to choose.
One of the ways in which we bring our content to life is through the use of audio – specifically, adding voice-over. We may use audio to narrate the story, and there may also be characters within the scenarios who need a voice. These voices convey our message and the learning objectives, so the voice we choose is often as important as the content itself.
A decision to trust or distrust a voice happens in an instant, even with just a single word. A female voice can have many positive connotations. The studies show we associate female voices with being trustworthy, soft, believable, more persuasive even.
As a result of this, most virtual AI assistants – Apples Siri and Amazon‘s Alexa – by default have female names and voices. They can come across as stereo-typically submissive and flirtatious, depending on the question posed. According to a report by UNESCO, this problem stems from a lack of diversity within the AI industry. This is reinforcing a problematic gender bias.
Let’s leave you with this quote by Saniye Gulser Corat, Unesco’s director for gender equality: “The world needs to pay much closer attention to how, when, and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them.”
In the last few years, there’s been a real change in perception and more open discussion around subjects that may have once been taboo: such as mental health, LGBTQ rights, and the menopause.
This is being reflected in the training that is required by our clients. Although real-world perceptions are constantly changing, and we think for the better, design lags a few years behind. However, that change is coming.
We’re seeing a shift in perceptions and bias. For example, the LeanIn project at Getty Images which has built a library of images devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls, and the people who support them.
As well as rising demand for training in more varied and progressive topics, we’ve also noticed that our clients are more open to variation in imagery and voice-over selections to better reflect their diverse workforce.
At Fenturi, we will continue to normalise these ‘taboos’ through our willingness to openly voice our opinions and push for the opportunity to break these barriers through the training solutions we provide. We urge all businesses to address issues which they deem imperative, as we can’t stress enough the importance of standing up for issues you know to be right.
Through speech, collaboration and action, change will come.
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