11 Apr 2019 | Emily Friedman
Women Making History: Meet Ioana Matei
Women in AR/VR

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 Women's History Month this year, I interviewed a number of real women working in immersive tech, women who challenge the idea that the tech industry lacks visible female role models. Enjoy!

Ioana Matei, Co-founder, Women in Immersive Technologies
& Virtual Solutions Leader, Procter & Gamble

Emily: To begin, could you provide us with a little background on yourself and your career, and what was your first encounter with AR/VR?

Ioana: I am currently leading the Virtual Solution space at the multibillion-dollar consumer goods company Procter&Gamble. At P&G, we've used VR for many years to conduct consumer research, engage with our customers, and in manufacturing. On the personal side, I am an award-winning filmmaker - flat film but heading myself to storytelling in VR. Together with my husband Christopher Morrison, who is the professional filmmaker in the family, I am now working on a VR experience, using both of our backgrounds (him on stage choreography, writing and directing and technology for me) to come up with something truly amazing. Looking forward to seeing this baby come to life!

My first encounter with VR/AR was at Disneyland when I was 10, when I first saw a 3D movie (if that counts). My tech encounter with the medium was through my job at P&G, and I've loved it since. 

Emily: What is it like as a woman working in AR/VR?

Ioana: I believe there are a lot of opportunities for women to strive in this space, but looking at history we need to make sure that those opportunities are real. Because of this, I have co-founded Women in Immersive Technologies, a European organization that focuses on networking, learning, mentoring and making sure our ladies have a place on stage (conferences, events, festival entries, job applications). We now count more than 1,000 members and are also proud to partner with AWE and other conferences to open up the floor to more women speakers. We have a directory of women speakers for all countries in Europe, so there's no excuse for not being able to find one. 

Emily: What challenges do you face that your male colleagues or peers don't?

Ioana: In general, we are still battling with unconscious bias. Most of the decision makers in this space are men who unconsciously prefer people who look like them. I can see it when I sit in discussions for venture capital money. The investors are almost exclusively men who end up giving the financial opportunities to startups led by men. I often challenge this, but if you are the only woman in the room it's hard not to be seen as a bellwether. 

Emily: Have you ever felt judged or overlooked because of your gender?

Ioana: I'm often in situations where I need to "prove myself" over and over again to establish a position of strength, like when I have tech reviews and need to pull out my tech jargon to pass the "what does she know" question. It happens when we talk opportunities for the ladies I work with; I need to battle to make sure they have an equal share as we did, for example, during the production of my feature film, where we commited to having parity on set. We need to elevate some of the women candidates to higher positions so they can get the right opportunity and experience points needed for the next job. 

Emily: What about the user experience for women; how do the devices fit and perform for women?

Ioana: In general, I think the AR/VR devices today have some leeway to get to a design that will be comfortable, regardless of gender. At this stage, they're still too bulky, too heavy. But when we get to the right point, the smart designers will need to consider what will be comfortable and appealing to ladies, too, as they are 50% of their audience. Same goes for content. 

Emily: What is the most critical issue for women in AR/VR?

Ioana: Funding. Decision makers on funding need to be diverse in their thinking and choices. If we fix this, I think the rest will follow.

Emily: Do you believe there's a lack of content for women AR/VR users?

Ioana: I think for AR, it's more operational; the content is very practical. I see less of a diversity issue when you talk about how furniture will fit at home and where to find your next Pokémon Go. Still, we need to make sure that the apps are touching areas of interest that are gender neutral.

VR as a storytelling tool is struggling more, as gaming has had a big advantage in VR and gaming today is very male skewed. But I do see efforts to make content more inclusive and the more female creators we have in this space, the better. VR can be a great tool for empathy and we need empathetic minds to get women there, regardless. 

Emily: What is your advice to women working in AR/VR?

Ioana: Don't worry; no one is an expert yet, so give it a try. 

Emily: What would you like to say to the men in the space? What should they be doing to help women in tech?

Ioana: Men can be fantastic allies in bringing this industry to a balanced and diverse level, for the benefit of all. I would give them two pieces of advice: 1) Don't compromise. If you decide that your team, your company needs to have equal representation, don't give up too soon. Put some effort into it, reach out to networks like WIIT and give opportunities to women. Let them have greater responsibilities. Ask yourself who believed in you that first time and do this equally for men and women candidates. 2) Be engaged. Join some of the women groups, learn about women's struggles, sponsor a local event, make sure you stay connected. You will learn a lot and discover great minds. 

Emily: What is your greatest hope for the future of AR/VR?

Ioana: Diversity-wise? That we reach a point where we don't need to talk about diversity anymore. Industry-wise? That dreams come true. It's a fantastic medium; we're just scratching the surface. 

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