I stood in the center of the room at a VR meetup in Austin, Texas, spinning around, gaping at a sea of young white male faces surrounding me. I estimated that a vast majority of the 300-plus attendees were in their 20s and 30s. I counted only a handful of women in the entire crowd, an even smaller handful of people of color, perhaps only two women of color in the entire building, one of whom was my date.
I already knew the tech world was not known for its diversity, but at this moment, I realized the overwhelming magnitude of the problem. It made me want to start a VR game development company and hire only women of color over 40, simply out of the anger I felt at this injustice. I know I shouldn’t and legally can’t hire people based on race, gender, or age (even if to the benefit of disadvantaged minority groups), but does anyone else in this industry realize that fact? I’m in ultra-progressive Austin, for Google’s sake. What is going on here? What are the implications? More importantly, what can I do about it?
The lack of diversity in tech is nothing new. Facebook, the parent company of Oculus Rift (a major VR headset manufacturer), employs a 90 percent white or Asian workforce in the US, with men accounting for 83 percent of its technical jobs. Other companies in the VR hardware space aren’t any better. Women comprise just six percent of executives at PlayStation, another big VR player. The video game development industry is similarly overwhelmingly white and male worldwide. The thousands of people working in these companies aren’t all overtly or intentionally biased, bad, or evil, so why isn’t there more equality in VR, gaming, and tech?
Roots of the problem
People much more eloquent than I am have explored this dismal state of affairs at length. The roots of the problem are complex, far-reaching, and controversial, including but not limited to “brogrammer” culture, stereotypes, stereotype threat, mindset, code switching, microaggressions, the pipeline problem, income disparity, lack of role models, lack of media coverage, cultural narratives, and the countless -isms (racism, sexism, ageism, etc.). Stanford professors Carol Dweck, Geoff Cohen, Claude Steele, and Deborah Stipek have done important research on these issues, especially stereotype threat, where people feel impelled to conform to stereotypes of their social group (e.g., young women not wanting to be seen as “the smart girl”).
Two fantastic recent films also explore many of these issues. First, Code: Debugging the Gender Gap is a documentary about the lack of women software engineers. Second, Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American female mathematicians who were critical to the early development of the NASA space program.
Hyphen-Labs is “an international team of women of color working at the intersection of technology, art, science, and the future” (quoted from their website), and they’re working on several truly inspirational projects that explore many of these issues. NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is one of my favorite Hyphen-Labs projects.
Because the problem of discrimination is so complex and embedded, no single “silver bullet” will solve it. The “silver buckshot” approach, however, may just work. In other words, many smaller bullets can simultaneously target many different aspects of the problem. I don’t have the space to explore them all in this column, but I do have a few things to say.
What I’m doing about it
Before I offer my solutions to the silver buckshot, I must note that as a white, able-bodied, straight, cisgender, American, middle-class, highly educated male, there are certain things I could and should never say, having not experienced much injustice that directly impacted me. Some perspectives are best shared firsthand. However, I have privilege that others do not, and it’s my responsibility to speak up in ways others cannot. For example, no one will accuse me of being an “angry black man” or a “shrill, bossy woman” for calling out injustice when and where I see it. So how can I use my privilege for positive change? What can I do? How can I be an ally?
Every company I start will be, by definition, owned by a straight, white, male founder and CEO. Great, that’s all the world needs, another one of those, right? Not so fast. Though I can’t do anything to change my status as a straight, white male, and I’m not going to stop being an entrepreneur anytime soon, there’s still a lot I can do and have done in the past.
First, I hire more women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, people of widely varying ages, immigrants, people with different religious or spiritual backgrounds, and people from other discriminated-against groups. For example, because the US is roughly 63 percent white and 49 percent male, I hire white males at a rate below 31 percent—and I often hire far fewer, just to bring a little more balance to the industry as a whole. I also pay everyone equally. Please, please, please do the same. It’s inexcusable not to.
Second, I don’t just hire people different from me; I partner with them, buy from them, sell to them, and collaborate with them. Third, I listen to their ideas, learning from these different perspectives and growing as an entrepreneur and a person. Fourth, I help them propel their careers in the VR, serious games, and eLearning industries, continuing to support them as a colleague, mentor, professional reference, and friend, well beyond their relationships with my companies. Lastly, I can speak up when I see injustice without (much) fear of consequences. If people listen to me because of my privilege, then it’s my responsibility to say something.
I can use my privilege to simply advance myself, or I can use it to lift others up, too. That’s what this article is about. I don’t mention my practices to build myself up—believe me, I have more flaws than most, and have made more mistakes than most—but rather to provide a counterexample for how we can collectively take a new, more just course of action. Regardless of your race, gender, sexual identity, age, religion, place of origin, or body type, I hope you’ll join me.
The financial argument
The argument goes beyond ethics and justice. The financial incentive aligns with the moral imperative for equality as well. Consider a scenario where you have two apparently equal job applicants. One is a white male, the other a woman of color. Their resumes, job experience, and skill sets appear effectively identical. They both interviewed well. Should you flip a coin? Absolutely not. Hire the woman of color. Why? Because she’s the stronger candidate.
While you may not know the obstacles she’s had to overcome to get where she is, the odds are good that she’s had to work twice as hard to get noticed, promoted, accepted into schools, or even to simply gain access to a computer throughout her life. If this were the 100-meter dash in track and field, the white male got to run 100 meters, while the woman of color had her blocks set back, say, an additional 100 meters, having to run 100 percent farther and faster just to get to the starting line. Her lane also had lots of extra hurdles along the way. This woman is not likely to let any obstacle keep her from reaching her goals. At every step of the way, she’s had to be twice as ambitious, have far more and better ideas, and work twice as hard. In many cases, “100 percent more difficult” is a vast understatement of this disadvantage. Leadership maven Seth Godin would say she is precisely the kind of linchpin you need everyone on your team to be. I’m sure the white guy would be fine, would get the job done. Perhaps he’s even talented and ambitious and a really nice guy. But she will help you set the world on fire.
If fairness and financial incentives aren’t enough, there’s yet another reason to hire the woman of color over the theoretically equally qualified white man: Creativity suffers from a dearth of perspectives. If most video games and software projects feel like they are made by 20-something white tech guys for 20-something white tech guys, it’s because they actually are made that way. These teams do not include enough diverse perspectives that would help shape and improve the end products so they could also be purchased and enjoyed by non-young-white-tech-guy demographics. Better yet, diverse teams could even create all-new, highly effective, highly profitable products targeted at entirely different audiences.
What you can do about it
While the VR and game industries are overflowing with young white males, education is the reverse. The education industry in the US is 69 percent female. Although it’s only 18 percent people of color, which is not great, this is far better than the tech world. No one knows how these opposing trends will play out when educators start developing VR and serious games en masse. Will the need for diversity and educational experience win out over the quick-fix solution of simply hiring white male VR game developers because that’s who is easiest to find? The convergence of education, VR, and games is an opportunity for eLearning professionals to have an outsized impact on the VR and gaming industries by hiring, training, and promoting the next generation of leaders with diverse backgrounds and demographics. It’s also an opportunity to bring more voices into the conversation, improving the products and projects that eLearning professionals are creating.Will the choices we educators make change the whole VR and gaming industries? Probably not. But could we make inroads, broadening industry diversity at least a little bit, providing just a bit more equal opportunity for all? Absolutely. Who are you going to hire next? The choice is in your hands.