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/ 09.03.2018

Is Discrimination Hard Coded? Tackling Unconscious Bias And Empowering Women In Tech

– Luciana Carvalho Se
Head of Partnerships, REWIND

A seismic shift is happening.

Never before has equal opportunity been so high on the agenda. Never before has society been so in need of empowering, diverse and inclusive voices. Never before have women been more ready to lead.

However, there are still more men called ‘John’ leading FTSE 100 boards than there are women, and women are still being paid less than men.

In the UK, women earn 9.4 percent less than men, while only a quarter of board chairs, presidents and chief executives in the UK are women. In 1991, women made up 36% of the tech workforce in the US. Now, that number has decreased to 25%. Gender ratios are as low as 1 female to every 4 male engineers in top tech companies, and women only hold 11% of executive positions in Silicon Valley. A Tech City UK report shows that women as young as 15 are put off by careers in the technology industry and only 21% of females aged between 15 to 16 want to work in the sector.

Even more alarmingly, while tech companies’ commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high, we seem to face a problem of perception. According to the largest study of its kind – a “Women in the Workplace 2017” report by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s and McKingsey & Co – nearly 50% of men think that women are ‘well represented’ in leadership, although only 1 in 10 senior leaders is a woman.

That leads us to the root of the issue: the assumptions and frames of reference that we, collectively and individually, all share – both men and women alike.

An Opportunity

With immersive tech, we have the golden opportunity to reshape, reintroduce, and inspire more gender balance from school level upwards. As Sherry Coutu’s Founders4Schools research has shown, interventions need to happen as early as 10-13 years of age, to effectively shift stereotypes and societal norms.

Timing is everything, and engagement is, too.

VR is fast becoming a medium in its own right, carving a space alongside the cultural heavyweights like music, art, film, and television. Sitting at the intersection of art and science, it has the potential to appeal to, and engage, girls and women of all ages, unlike any other medium before it.

Access to tech and other constraints aside, perhaps we can then, finally – finally – get a chance to address not only the bias of young girls, but our collective bias.

What is Unconscious Bias and Why Should We Care?

Developments in neuroscience now demonstrate that many biases are formed throughout life and held at the subconscious level, mainly through societal and parental conditioning. We gather millions of bits of information and our brain processes that information in a certain way –  unconsciously categorising and formatting it into familiar patterns. Though most of us have difficulty accepting or acknowledging it, we all do it: gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, body size, profession etc., all influence the assessments that we make of people, and form the basis of our relationship with others, and the world at large.

The Problematic Mirror-image Syndrome

If I am similar to someone, I am much more likely to give a positive attribution to them than someone who is different from me.

Similarity is easier for our brains to deal with, while difference is harder, and therefore, more uncomfortable. As such, we continue to employ, vote for, befriend, and revere those similar to us, thereby reinforcing situations in which diversity is limited.

Ingrained… and Limiting

Evidently, this self-limiting and self-perpetuating loop we get stuck on is particularly hard to break. Bias is learnt through experiences shaped by our first-hand POV and, like a single page of an encyclopedia, catalogued and stacked according to a ‘table of reference’. You are not born with this, yet societal patterns are developed as early as primary education – e.g. primary teachers tend to be female. If you haven’t already seen the BBC’s and Inspire the Future’s Redraw the Balance experience, it is a perfect illustration of such gender stereotyping.   

Implicit biases shown by parents and teachers regarding gender roles influence how girls perceive their own ability for certain subjects, and how society dictates and positions the ‘role of a girl’. A study by the OECD showed that once these perceptions are called into question, and the confidence that girls feel in these subjects is raised, their performance increases dramatically.

Controlling Bias

Most people think their decision-making process is objective and rational. However, what we know from neuroscience and social psychology is that most of our decisions are irrational and emotional. If we can be aware of that, we are more likely to control our biases.

“Managing bias is an essential part of building diverse and high performing organisations.” Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook

Only by shedding light on when and how we are subconsciously pigeonholing job roles and personality traits, can we learn how to actually counteract bias. Some of you may have come across the ‘Surgeon’s Dilemma’ before. It can surprise even those who identify strongly as a feminist or idealist just how hard-wired these patterns can be.

This is where virtual reality comes in.

Heralded as the empathy machine, VR is the only medium to truly transport you into the shoes, eyes and ears of another human being (Machine To Be Another being a prime example). Putting a participant in the shoes of a person suffering from prejudice or bias can help to highlight their own thoughts and behaviours.

VR as a Tool for Behavioural Change

VR is very often described as transformative. Its ability to simulate an entire, interactive reality that can be manipulated according to the user’s needs and reactions (an ideal, safe and controlled environment for PSTD therapy), means that its potential as a cognitive behavioural tool is immense. You recall 90 percent of what you engage in, versus 10 percent of what you read. This means that, if used effectively, VR can also be used to transfer and strengthen bias.

A growing number of startups are developing VR programs for companies in order to train their employees to better recognise unconscious bias. Immersed in a realistic situation, a person can better understand the perspective of another – triggering the empathy necessary to change behavior in reality. The applications are endless: abstract, difficult and highly complex topics within diversity are being explored, such as sexual harassment, bullying, gender diversity, disability inclusion, cultural inclusion, and minority stereotyping.

Furthermore, multisensory VR allows developers to add a range of data collection features, such as eye-tracking (to know where someone has looked), and body sensors (to know whether someone was stressed or relaxed during the experience). This data provides users with performance feedback and a comparison to the overall sample group’s responses, stimulating further discussion.

The caveat here is to tread carefully and to treat such sensitive material with an unwavering responsibility to the end user. As creators, that duty of care must be at the forefront of design and narrative storytelling so as to avoid unintended consequences, and even the perpetuation of said bias.

The takeaway here is that VR can not only help to challenge and change bias in both personal and professional settings, but also, as a developing medium and industry, it offers a golden opportunity to craft an inclusive sector that reaps the benefit of hindsight and learns from the mistakes of other industries before it.

If the VR industry is primarily patriarchal, then the social change it propagates will be, too.

We need to ensure that we work against the reinforcement of patriarchy, by growing, nurturing, inspiring and empowering the next generation of girls, women and bias-conscious men, in creative technology. After all, we are all in this together.

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