When it comes to achieving gender equality, the technology industry is behind the U.S. economy as a whole. Women are paid less, receive less VC funding, and occupy fewer leadership and technical positions compared to men. So, for this Women's History Month, I am interviewing real women working in immersive tech, women who challenge the idea that the tech industry lacks visible female role models. Enjoy!
Barbara DeHart, Co-Founder, Sama Learning
Emily: To begin, could you provide us with a little background on yourself and your career?
Barbara: I'm the Co-Founder of Sama Learning, which is a company working to address the math and science education problem we have here in the U.S. We're developing a VR learning platform that even in its early stages is seeing a full letter grade improvement for college freshmen in their first-year STEM courses. Specifically for the validation, we've focused on chemistry, though we're developing a set of courses across the whole STEM curriculum. We believe VR is the ideal environment to design in interventions that have proven to improve learning like active learning, problem-based inquiry, etc. I've spent my career in the technology field, mostly in media and entertainment technology. There, I ran both desktop software and cloud computing businesses, so I love technology and the application of technology to problems, which is what we're doing at Sama Learning. I love new technologies in general because of their disruptive nature on existing markets.
Emily: What was your first encounter with AR/VR and did you immediately think about education?
Barbara: The genesis for the product actually came from my Co-Founder, a PhD in chemistry, who was on his way to teach a class on light matter interaction a few years ago and listening to a podcast on tech coming out of CES, including VR. That's really where the idea came from, like "Wow, just think how much more impactful it would be to teach students who could actually grab an atom!" And as we started digging into the educational research around it, we found that one of the key obstacles in learning is the brain load that comes from having to visualize very, very abstract concepts. So, the whole idea really sparked from "Boy, I'm going to walk into this class and put some math equations on the board and most of these students just aren't going to get what I'm talking about."
For me personally, I'm not a gamer but I've spent a lot of time in broad gaming markets and the media, entertainment and technology space. My own approach has been "how can we change the world using tech?" I've done a lot in my career around social justice, increasing access to students and learners of all types, and I think AR/VR just gives us the opportunity to do so many things.
Emily: What is it like as a woman working in AR/VR?
Barbara: I've sat on a bunch of different panels in my career about women in tech. The industry I came from - Media, Entertainment and Tech - was historically run by white men just as a general rule, so the exciting thing to me is the convergence of big social justice, women's rights, women in the workplace, #MeToo--all of this is happening now and when we have new industries we have the opportunity to really shift how things are being done.
I'm the youngest of five children and I have three older brothers, so I always thought that positioned me well to be the "get sh*t done" kind of girl, so I didn't really see gender as an obstacle, although I'm not an engineer or developer. I'm not a person of color; I'm a white woman, so with that comes a lot of privilege. While I never found it difficult as a woman, I also never deeply understood it at a broad spectrum. Again, there is a big opportunity for us right now to define the industry by different standards than in the past.
Emily: I'm also the youngest, with two older brothers, and it gives you a thicker skin. It's hard sometimes to watch what I say!
Barbara: That's why it's important for us to say "Time out, let's do this differently." We're trying to increase access to really powerful and impactful education. First-generation college students, people of color, LGBTQ...people in marginalized communities have been historically disadvantaged around higher education. If we can build our communities and boards of directors based on diversity, if we can commit to a diverse investor community, everything we do will be richer. I was listening to a podcast of an investor the other day, and she talked about how all the people coming into her company/fund had to go through racial justice training. That was just "wow."
Emily: This is a little off topic, but I was reading an interview with Shirley Manson of the 90s band Garbage in which she responded to critiques that the music industry should single out people of diverse backgrounds and hire them intentionally. We can't be colorblind or any otherwise blind anymore.
Barbara: I totally agree. We have to actively counterbalance what's been happening. I was having an argument about Title IX in universities in which the person was saying it's not fair to take money out of a white guy's bucket and give it to a woman, but you have to understand the reason why, how we got here. We had the GI Bill, which educated tons of white men, and the only way to fix the situation that created is at a systemic level. Oppressive systems also never shift until the oppressor shifts, which is why it's so important to raise awareness.
Emily: What would you like to say to men in the space? What should they be doing to help women in tech?
Barbara: The number one thing men need to understand is that you don't know what you don't know. Unconscious bias is so incredibly powerful and until we increase our self-awareness around that, it's going to continue to be an imbalanced situation. Number two is women are more than 50% of our population, and when you don't have gender balance in your design criteria, your teams, etc. you are innately designing out that customer base. The strongest teams are the ones that are both gender and racially diverse. Diversity is the power of the company and the product, not a weakness.
Emily: What about the user experience for women? I recently wrote an article about how current VR devices don't feel like they're made for my head because men are for the most part designing the hardware.
Barbara: I couldn't agree more. We do large deployments. We'll run 300-400 students through our lessons at a school, so we've had a lot of exposure to this. We're using untethered headsets, which tend to be front-heavy, so I often find women after a few minutes in the experience with their hand holding the front of the headset. I myself have to wear a backwards baseball cap for the headset to fit better. I think this will get better over time, and some companies do it better than others. Design will become more important, but it needs to happen quickly or we're going to lose women in the process.
Emily: What challenges do you face that your male colleagues or peers don't? Have you ever felt judged or overlooked because of your gender?
Barbara: Though I've heard about decisions made in the men's room from male colleagues, I've never really felt penalized for being a woman, especially in the VR/AR industry right now and that may be because I'm older. Then again, if I have been excluded or judged it could very well be that I would never know, which is even more dangerous. I'm sure people have looked at me and thought "Oh, what does she know? She's just a woman" but I don't recall a time it was ever so overt that I noticed it. As the youngest of five, I've probably adopted a way of working in a male-dominated industry that has allowed me to rise above it.
Emily: What is the most critical issue for women in AR/VR right now?
Barbara: As I mentioned, I think it's a window of opportunity to do things differently. When we interview developers, for example, we're seeing a diversity of backgrounds - people who have degrees, don't have degrees, have degrees in history, who are artists - so we're seeing people from lots of different places and it's exciting. I'm a big fan of seeing someone with an art degree and a computer science degree or a psych degree and some other tech or engineering degree. Having those two diverse ways of working and thinking really brings richness to products and teams. As a company we're committed to proactively going after diverse communities. We've been taught that when you hire you hire blind to all of that, but we want to hire from marginalized communities. We don't want to treat everyone as equal; we want to go after diversity.
Emily: Do you believe there is a lack of content for women AR/VR users?
Barbara: I think there's just a lack of content period. I know as many women who love Beat Saber as men, which has been a great spear into the market. That's not a first-person shooter; it's a different type of gaming experience, which is encouraging. Even in our own research, when we look at learning outcomes, we don't see a statistical difference between men and women using VR. We don't know why this is but we're researching further. Is this a technology that can be effective across all genders? Again, with that window of opportunity, women who want to create content should be creating content for VR. What a great reason for women to come over into VR.
Emily: What is your greatest hope for the future of AR/VR?
Barbara: My greatest hope is that we realize the powerful potential of this tech in all kinds of broad and interesting ways - healthcare, education, gaming, architecture, all these different industries - and that we do it with diversity as a first design principle rather than something that happens later. And for us to use this as an opportunity to bring in all our new awarenesses and all the new challenges we face and try to do things differently from a business and product point of view.