At a time when male-dominated Hollywood is getting a plethora of bad press for its inappropriate treatment of women, the newly established virtual reality (VR) community is emerging as a place where women are welcomed and are gaining leadership positions.
While not perfectly balanced, females are thriving in entertainment VR more than other areas of Hollywood, where the traditional old-school boys club is par for the course. However, VR isn't perfect. Female executives in this new industry have unfortunately encountered harassment in the workplace, as evidenced by the Upload case, but the unsafe working conditions were quickly called out. When the woman, in that case, came forward, she received strong support within the VR community for speaking out.
In entertainment VR, we create immersive experiences and stories that need to resonate with a wider audience to be successful. While young male gamers are low hanging fruit, our racially diverse staff -- which includes a significant female contingent -- works together to craft experiences that will reach a mass audience.
My company SunnyBoy Entertainment creates the VR experiences for blockbusters like IT The Movie, The Greatest Showman and Annabelle--experiences which are designed to help drive mass audiences to the films.
Why are women thriving in VR?
VR is often talked about as being an empathy machine and there are a lot of great examples of ways VR experiences can evoke empathy. VR allows people to literally step into someone else's shoes and experience what it's like to be in a world that is foreign to them - like being a prisoner, a racial minority or a young lion.
VR is a powerful storytelling tool that can evoke depths of emotion and empathy because it's immersive. At the same time - and what is often not talked about - is that VR can also, if not steered in the right direction, be another digital technology that isolates us from each other. This danger is something Sheryl Turkle, an MIT psychologist has explored and suggested.
By surrendering our lives to technology, Turkle argued, “we're letting it take us places that we don't want to go." Where we used to be engaged, she argues, we are now distracted. Where there used to be conversation, there is now mere connection.
While I don't want to stereotype women - or men - it's fair to say that women have the ability to create environments that cultivate empathy a bit more naturally. I believe that the brilliant strength of women is we tend to be more collaborative, inclusive and aware of multiple points of view. We want others to be seen.
Recently, in development of one of our original projects, I am the consistent voice asking the team to remember emotion. What do we want audiences to feel? How can we get them to connect emotionally with our characters? My voice has been the compass that continues to point us back to the world and experience we're creating. Perhaps our team, with its female component, is better able to bring our audience in and help them connect with the characters than it would be if it were all male. And to help them connect in an authentic, natural, immersive, inspiring way.
What is the Future for Women in VR?
Women in VR will play a big role in steering this incredible new storytelling tool toward being the empathy machine that it can potentially be. This is not to say men will not also help in this endeavor, as they will and they are (I work with some of them!). My hope is that the rising voice and presence of women in VR will be the conscience of the industry, leading virtual reality to be the best art form it can be - one that brings us together rather than pushing us apart.
There are more women creators bringing their talents to story, tech and business development in this corner of emerging Hollywood. Their talents, voice, and experience must be celebrated and welcomed. The collaborative nature of the VR community - similar to that of tech startups - provides an environment where every voice should be welcomed because it's an asset to have a balanced team, with different perspectives. This serves both the creative product and business development.
A lot of the VR work we've done has been horror. While we create amazing horror VR, this genre can cause cognitive dissonance as a creator as it sometimes teeters on the line of taking advantage of the empathy side of VR. As we were developing It: Escape from Pennywise, I encouraged the team to think of how we can make this experience more of a personal journey for the user. In the end, we crafted the experience so that in order to escape, the viewer has to face their own fears. Spoiler alert, the path that gives you freedom is the one where you face that which scares you the most.
On another front, recently we released a 360 behind-the-scenes piece for the Hugh Jackman film The Greatest Showman. When this was first conceived, our Fox client - also a woman in VR - was pushing to get our 360 camera on the set so we could create the ultimate VIP backstage pass for audiences where viewers are able to completely immerse themselves in the on-set experience. She had the vision to see how great it would be if viewers were placed directly in the middle of the creation of the uplifting musical number, 'Come Alive.' This is a one of a kind piece really utilizing the headset experience for what it is best suited for - putting yourself in the unique position of being one of the cast on the set of a big motion picture.
In VR, we are creating immersive experiences and stories that resonate with a wide-ranging audience. Grasping our nascent industry's chance to move away from traditional gender stereotypes, we can embrace bringing in more voices that represent and mirror the reality of our expanding, diverse VR audience.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.