Virtual Reality is the place to be for Women in Tech 2017

It’s 2017 and slowly but steadily things are getting better for women in tech. 
But let’s face it, there are still too few females in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field to speak about truly equal opportunities. (cf. ISACA’S 2017 Women in technology survey)

However, in Virtual Reality the situation seems to be different.

This year’s Women in Tech week opened on the 9th October with a panel discussion about VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) at The Shortcut Lab in Helsinki.
 And the panel alone shows: there are lots of successful women in the field.
 There is Emmi Jouslehto, the CEO and founder of Arilyn, a truly pioneering company for virtual and augmented reality technologies; Sonja Ängeslevä, product director of Unity Technologies (Finland) and winner of the lifetime achievement award of the Game developers’ community IGDA Finland in 2014, as well as Katri Meriläinen, Head of Educational Development at Lyfta, a platform that aims to introduce VR/AR technology into educational programs.
Also on the panel: Antti Jäderholm, CPO of Vizor, a platform for WebVR, and a company with a female COO — Anna Rosa Lappalainen.
The discussion was moderated by Olli Sinerma, chairman of the Finnish VR association.

If you’re interested in the talk, you can check it out on Facebook.

Left to right: Olli Sinerma, Antti Jäderholm, Katri Meriläinen, Sonja Ängeslevä and Emmi Jouslehto

We spoke to the panellists to find out why VR has more women than many other tech-related industries. 
Sonja Ängeslevä points out that the perception of VR/AR differs from other technical fields:
“Software development has traditionally been perceived as difficult, code-centric and technical. In other words: the focus has been more on implementation than user experience and design. 
VR and AR do not have a similar stigma and the discussion is focusing more on potential areas of implementation and issues like user experience and interfaces, service design and 3D modelling.”

Olli Sinerma adds:
“VR is more visual. It is also an industry that is very connected to others, like health care, education, trainings — amongst others. All fields that women are involved in for a long time already. And these industries have found and employed VR first.”

Another reason for the many success stories of women in the field could be — according to the panellists — that AR/VR is a relatively young industry with low entry barriers. Or as Antti Jäderholm put it:

“It is such a young field, if you start now you can become a pro in no time. All the information you need is out there, and even the pros are still continuously learning new things. It’s a great field to get started in, no matter who you are, and if you do it, you can actually be a pioneer.”

A point of view that is shared by Katri Meriläinen. 
“As such, VR/AR may strike many as a field where no one has the advantage of a head start. Perhaps women feel that it’s a fairer starting point than some so far more male-dominant field.”

But Meriläinen also challenges the fact, that coding and programming is still widely seen as a playground for men, while women are advised to get into the more visual areas of tech.
“We hold a great deal of cultural stereotypes, and the gender related ones tend to be especially persistent. Girls like to play with Barbie dolls while boys prefer toy cars, right? Obviously, boys make better coders than girls — not. The challenge is to correctly identify the cause and the effect of such stereotypes. “

But how to change that perception? According to Katri Meriläinen we really must start at the early stages of childhood.
“Parents and schools should be particularly aware of their power in constructing gender roles. It might seem completely innocent and sometimes insignificant or even reasonable to buy a toy computer for a boy child and a stuffed cat for a girl child, or to teach boys football and woodworks while girls are learning the basics of ballet and needlework. But repeat these kinds of patterns a billion times all over the world and it’s no wonder girls feel that tech just isn’t their thing. A change in the mindset will be sure to inspire practical change. Just offer girls and women more chances to learn tech and change will follow.”

So while it may take a few more years until females really catch up in numbers on the lead of men in programming, coding and such areas, virtual reality is the field to get involved in right here and right now. All you need is curiosity and a passion for tech.

But let’s not stop there. There is absolutely no reason for girls and women not to get involved with the more technical side of VR as well.
In fact, many companies are actively searching for people from a wide variety of backgrounds and would be happy to employ more women in every department — including programming an co.

Because it really is as simple as Antti Jäderholm says:
“In VR we are constantly looking for new use cases. The more diversity we have in our teams, the better ideas we can develop.”