Is VR The Most Female-Friendly Tech Sector?


Katelyn Coghlan was only twenty-five years old when she became the General Manager of In-It VR, a virtual and augmented reality company for brand marketing based in New York.

Since taking the position, she's overseen the development of Adweek's first Augmented Reality magazine cover, as well as the play experience “Muzebox," which debuted at Toy Fair.

To say that Coghlan is making waves in a male-dominated field would be a major understatement, considering women hold only 11 percent of executive positions in Silicon Valley. Of course, the percentage of female executives in tech who are twenty-five and younger is even lower.

Coghlan grew up about an hour south of Boston in a coastal town called Duxbury, where she attended Duxbury's public schools and later earned her BA in Film, Television & Media Arts at Fairfield University.

To say that Coghlan is making waves in a male-dominated field would be a major understatement, considering women hold only 11 percent of executive positions in Silicon Valley.

As a kid, Coghlan says she was what you might call an introvert/extrovert. “On the one hand, I loved being on my swim team and going for runs on the beach, but I also loved staying in on a Friday and watching movie after movie with one of my five or six best friends. I was always in between being the outgoing jokester and the quiet kid who you'd never notice. It was all dependent on my mood."

Tech was not something that was ever on her radar. In fact, she says, two years ago, working in tech was the furthest thing from her mind. “My fascination with tech comes from my love of movies, TV shows, and storytelling in general. After getting my first job at Nickelodeon, I thought had it all figured out, but I quickly learned how dated linear television is." After working on an experimental project internally at Nick Jr., Coghlan says she realized that AR and VR were going to be the next major mediums in which we consume content. “So, I decided to make the move while I was in my 20s and the industry as a whole was still new." However, she always knew she wanted to entertain people. “I could never focus on what I wanted to do," she admits. "I flip-flopped between actor, novelist, graphic designer, singer, and a whole host of other media-based professions, but could never settle on one. I think that lack of focus ironically helped me out as an adult since it trained me to have an open mind about everything I did."

Coghlan's path to tech began when she was a freshman in college, she explains. She was starting film school, thinking that becoming a director was her destiny. “But after stepping foot on one-to-many bad film sets I thought to myself 'This is stupid, I can run this set better with my eyes closed.'" So, she switched gears from director to producer and that, she says, is where she found her niche. “A few internships later, I found myself working at Nickelodeon as a project coordinator under a manager who immediately saw my potential and wanted to challenge me in ways my traditional entry-level job could not. She suggested that I manage a passion project started by the SVP of Digital Content at Nick Jr. & Noggin, which involved transforming archived preschool shows into interactive, play-along vignettes."

She was only twenty-three at the time, and it was her first shot at managing a team of professionals, as well as creating a development, approval, and delivery process for something that had never existed, she explains.

Contrary to popular belief, Coghlan says, virtual and augmented reality can be a vital part of the human experience.

“After a year of troubleshooting behind the scenes, we demoed our interactive episodes and were met with immediate excitement. Viacom was ready to fund this project fully and make it a company-wide priority, but due to personal bandwidth restraints, I was unable to remain on the project," she said. “I was crushed, not just because I had to let go of a project I had devoted a year of my life to, but also because I knew in my gut that this was the future of media, not television. I did some research into what interactive content was available to the masses, which lead directly into VR and AR. I knew then I had to chase after that industry to stay relevant."

Coghlan's attraction to virtual and augmented reality is simple.“It's new, meaning there are no rules, no biases, and no 'best practices.' I am a part of a generation of minds that are going to write those rules, not just for the software itself but also for the industry that employs the professionals that develop it. That is an incredible responsibility that would not be available to me in any other industry."

Spending days, weeks, and sometimes months educating people, only to hear the word “no," was Coghlan's greatest challenge in terms of getting to where she is today. “When you work at a startup, you are going to have to work overtime to sell yourself, but you need to work twice as hard if you also need to explain what you do.

Over the past year at The Glimpse Group, I have written what seems like hundreds of 'VR/AR 101' type decks and have traversed the majority of the New York tri-state area demonstrating the capabilities of Oculus and HTC Vive. After all of that, I was often still rejected. This taught me how to refine my pitch, handle difficult individuals, and dispel the incorrect assumptions about VR/AR in a respectful way, so it was worth the struggle."

Being promoted to General Manager has certainly been the happiest surprise she's enjoyed in her career. She says she felt confident that she would be able to run her own show at some point. But, she says, “I never thought it would be at 25, and now 26. It's amazing that the team at The Glimpse Group has so much faith in my skillset that they would hand me the keys so soon."

Contrary to popular belief, Coghlan says, virtual and augmented reality can be a vital part of the human experience. “Right now people are glued to their devices, so there needs to be some way to take that construct and improve society using it. I think VR, when done in doses, can increase perspective and empathy in humans in ways that video cannot. Since VR is so immersive, the content being experienced affects the viewer in a way that is similar to experiencing that content in the physical world as if it is 'really there.' Yes, it is that powerful. AR is inherently more social since it's smart device driven, and is not as immersive. By its nature, it forces users to interact with the physical world and other people, making it the perfect pair with VR when improving the digital world we are currently so consumed with."

Coghlan is in a very interesting position at In-It. She has an equal stake in the goings-on of the company she runs together with a man in his 60s who has been working in the virtual reality/game industry since the 90s while at the same time managing a young woman, who is the exact same age as she is.

As for her lateral colleague, she says, “We ideate on projects together and pitch solutions as a team, which is hilarious because I don't think people know what to make of the dynamic we have going on. Honestly, though, I couldn't have asked for a better partner. He brings a wealth of experience and knowledge of the tech and how to create it, whereas I bring new ideas, new perspectives, and curiosity, which pushes the barriers of what we can do for our clients."

She says managing a direct peer who is also a woman is equally interesting. “It's a lot like the director/producer relationship I established with so many in college. She is very open with me about what she wants to do with her career as an artist, and I fight to make sure I land projects that fulfill that creative pursuit. It's nice to have instant mutual respect based on understanding where the other is coming from, and I think that is definitely a product of our age, our gender, and the industry we chose to work in."

Right now, Coghlan says, In-It VR is working on a lot of VR and AR initiatives that enhance brands in a vertical-specific way. “A prime example of that is the AR activation we created for Adweek, promoting the Super Bowl M&Ms spot that they had exclusive rights to air early. We are starting to break into the more experimental and artistic side of VR and AR, which is where my interests lie. I want to create stories and activations that inspire the imagination; be what technicolor was to 'The Wizard of Oz.'"

Perhaps surprisingly, but also happily, Coghlan says she's been lucky enough not to have faced much adversity based on being woman. But, she says, the stereotype that women tend to end up taking care of everyone around them, is all too alive and well. “I definitely have felt that in my young life as a professional. When you are a woman, especially the only woman, in an office, you immediately become everyone's wife, mother, therapist, and secretary. It doesn't matter what you are doing at that moment, if someone in the office comes to you, they expect you to help them out with their issue."

Where she imagined she might land one day is something Coghlan says she's left to, well, what some might call, fate. “I stopped trying to imagine what my life would be like in my teens; I find it much more rewarding to roll with it."

As for the future, Coghlan has one wish - happiness. “Personally, I want to create a quiet, happy life for myself filled with family and small animals. Professionally, I want to build a company that allows people to pursue their passion in a supportive workplace environment. Societally, I want everyone to live and let live – there's no reason for animosity."

Coghlan says that the key to turning your dreams into reality is remembering that, “It's not easy, and even when you 'get it' it's not easy, but you cannot give up. It's so simple for people on the other side to say, but everyone who has taken a risk started by reading an article like this and questioning their own ability. You have to be patient, agile, and willing to do things on the periphery of what you imagined you would be doing with your life, but it will all come together in time. You have it in you."


A Modern Day Witch Hunt: How Caster Semenya's Gender Became A Hot Topic In The Media

Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.

Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.

That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.

Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.

Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.

With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.

The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.

Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.

As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.

Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.