Can immersive virtual reality (IVR) be used to get girls interested in technology subjects and digital careers? The VR School Project offers some insights into this interesting question.
Girls and women are significantly under-represented in STEM courses and professions. In Australia, 84 per cent of those with STEM qualifications are male (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2016) and women make up only 19% of those enrolled in IT degrees (Zagami, 2016). In the USA, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs (Beede et al., 2011) and make up 18% of those with a computer science degree (Vu, 2017). By age 14, girls are far less likely than boys to aspire to STEM-related careers (Archer, 2013). In lights of these statistics, it is worth asking – Can IVR be used to get girls interested in technology subjects and careers?
From phase 1 of the VR School project, we make the following observations:
- Girls were much less likely to have tried IVR than boys – In our sample (22 female, 32 male), girls were almost 3 times as likely to have had NO experience of IVR compared to boys prior to the study. Boys were 3 times more like than girls to have tried IVR at least once or twice.
- A minority of girls were very reluctant to try IVR – Four of the twenty two girls explicitly expressed a reluctance to try IVR, some saying it was ‘embarrassing’ to wear a head mounted display (HMD) and/or because they were worried that their classmates were looking at them. These girls requested that the door to the VR room be closed. While we could not shut the door, we did convince the girls to use the equipment which were mainly away from the view of the class. Gender theory can offer some insight into these girl’s behaviour. Constructions of emphasised femininity require girls and women to comply with certain notions of attractiveness, and, let’s face it, HMDs are not especially beautiful. Girls and women are socialised to be aware of who is looking at them, often so they can remain safe. HMDs block this awareness, making girls feel self-conscious and, perhaps, vulnerable.
- Boys expressed absolute enthusiasm for IVR – That 79% of boys had experienced IVR prior to the study compared to 36% of girls, points to boys either actively seeking out or being given more opportunities to use new technology. Boys generally volunteered to try out the technology first, while most girls appeared happy to wait. A few girls volunteered to help out assisting other students with equipment and safety in the VR room, but it was mostly boys who took on this role, expressing confidence in their ability despite most being relative newcomers to IVR.
While our sample size is relatively small, these phenomena indicate a need to investigate gendered patterns of IVR technology engagement and interaction more closely. Utilizing social and psychological theories of masculinity and femininity to understand behaviour and opportunity will be important. Having a female researcher on site who demonstrated knowledge about the equipment and immersive experiences was probably helpful, particularly when girls needed encouragement or when they asked about future career opportunities. We believe that IVR does have the potential to switch girls on to technology subjects and careers. However, much more fine-grained research is required to understand and address gender dynamics in classrooms if this is to be fully realized.
Bought to you by a woman who loves VR, Associate Professor Erica Southgate