Virtual reality (VR) is changing the way we view the world and each other, literally. Already, the innovation has made advancements throughout numerous industries — entertainment, business, healthcare, etc. — reimagining the way we communicate, learn and work.
Still, critics counter that its software and programming foster sexism and gender bias, evidenced by the traditional power structures that prevail in leadership positions today. However, interest has increased in using the immersive tech for social change, so it’s worth asking: Can we truly realize VR’s potential to help, and not hinder, working women?
The answer, I believe, is yes. While it’s true that programmers must take proactive measures to ensure that VR avoids creating hostile environments for women, groundbreaking VR applications can empower female leaders by nourishing supportive mentorship groups, educating on and preventing sexual harassment and ultimately fostering the empathy that safeguards against workplace sexism.
VR’s Realms of Support and Mentoring
In order for women to thrive at work, it’s important that they have strategic support systems of peers and mentors, specifically those comprised of other women who know first-hand the challenges they face regularly. VR extends the opportunity for women to communicate with each other in networks that help them flourish. One great example is the Lioness app created by the integrated ad company Ogilvy in partnership with Google and UN Women. Due to the lack of female representation within the advertising industry, the app was created to foster a platform where women can share and learn from each other’s experiences. Employing various Google tools, including augmented and virtual reality portals, the app offers features a tour creator to generate visual workplace field trips, inspiring students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to female leaders.
Though some men in leadership positions have reported fears of mentoring women in the wake of the #MeToo movement, more companies are now emerging that focus on creating virtual learning and mentoring environments for women. Take Ceresa, for example, which offers structured programs with virtual mentorship meetings to remove the burden of anxiety and build more lasting mentoring relationships. Virtual reality also allows women to step into the journeys and professional worlds of successful female leaders. For instance, The Female Planet, a YouTube VR series, makes it easier to shadow and learn from global female leaders by tracking the personal and professional experiences of five women from the tech and even entertainment sectors.
As the confidence gap remains a major challenge for female workers, these virtual worlds can build a more empowering reality, offering them the support and learning tools they need to excel.
Virtual Sexual Harassment Training and Monitoring
A 2017 study found that 78 percent of female founders had reported experiencing, or knowing someone who had encountered, sexual harassment at work. However, VR can both train coworkers and monitor the office to safeguard against sexual harassment and abuse.
The key is creating an immersive experience that helps engage trainees and puts the material into a real-life context. Companies like Vantage Point have designed a multi-step, VR sexual harassment training program that essentially transports you to another world. In safe environments, users become educated on how to identify and report sexual assault, practicing the best ways to respond if they find themselves in a similar situation.
Similar to how AI-led companies like Callisto and Botler.ai can monitor and help survivors report sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s worth noting that VR tools with augmented features can identify and monitor when sexual harassment occurs, helping to expose and address its prevalence.
In India, for example, VR is trying to wipe away stigma and deep-rooted fear of reporting sexual assault. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, in partnership with the Rajasthan Police, has created multilingual “Virtual Police Stations” that allow citizens to stay informed on the various laws concerning these issues. By simulating the environment of a real-world police station with 360-degree technology, Google Cardboard and corresponding mobile apps can be used to file a report anonymously.
A More Empathetic Reality for Working Women
Several organizations are already integrating VR to help workers empathize with each other. Nonprofit organizations use it to encourage donor involvement with humanitarian causes, and many companies are using it to create safer spaces and stronger bonds with their employees and customers.
For women, virtual features can help male co-workers in particular, understand how sexual harassment affects them. Recently, the independent filmmaker Jayisha Patel created Notes to My Father, a short documentary that relays the story of a human trafficking survivor. The vivid and uncomfortable presentation demonstrates what it’s like to be the subject of the male gaze.
As VR introduces people to new perspectives and information, we will be able to share and understand more clearly the sexism and discrimination, either blatant or unconscious, that working women and female leaders regularly experience. There are still many fundamental and systemic societal changes that we need to improve, but with a market projected to be worth $33 billion by 2022 and a unique ability to educate and foster empathy, VR could be the missing technology to help us get there. Virtual reality doesn’t merely offer a vision for the future, but puts in place a support system and empowering technology that helps professional women thrive.
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