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The Gender Gap in VR

During the Q&A section of the Oculus Connect keynote panel, a woman stepped up to the microphone and asked a question:

“What is Oculus’s approach to their clear gender gap and how you’re gonna not port that into VR?”

Palmer Luckey answered first, acknowledging that the gender gap existed and attributing it to the wider gender gap in the tech industry. He essentially said that, although Oculus doesn’t discriminate among applicants, not many women applied to attend Oculus Connect to begin with. John Carmack then answered as well, saying simply that “we are having a hard time hiring all the people that we want. It doesn’t matter what they look like.”

This exchange was then posted to the Oculus subreddit (/r/oculus) under the title “SJW vs John Carmack. (Carmack wins!)” The link had a relatively low upvote ratio, but it was full of comments complaining that the woman had received any applause (“White knights are the worst”), decrying the influence of “social justice warriors” (“Fucking SJWs trying to cause shit out of anything”) and in one case condoning the harassment that the woman had received (“She should be harassed for being a fool. All fools, male or female, should be treated as such”). All of these comments had significant net upvotes at the time I wrote this.

This kind of reaction bothers me a lot, and I saw some of it in person as well; a developer at the conference’s closing party complained that the questioner was “getting all feminist about it”. I don’t think that the VR community should be shutting down these kinds of questions. I don’t think that the question should be interpreted as an attack, and as Palmer said, there are clearly way more men than women in the VR community. We shouldn’t see that gap as a good thing (VR is equally awesome for everyone, and so everyone should feel equally welcome), and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about why the gap exists.

Frankly, I’m worried that VR is turning into a “guy space”, where women are made to feel less welcome. That’s bad! I want to share the joys of VR with everyone, and it’s not okay if anyone feels excluded.

Beyond that, what really worries me is that there are powerful feedback loops at play. If women see an existing gender gap, that alone might be enough to discourage them from joining the community. And if there’s no female perspective in the room, that can foster an unwelcoming environment in turn. (For example, would VR porn be talked about so often and in the same manner if there were an equal number of men and women in the conversation? I don’t think it would.) As Palmer argued, the existing VR gender gap is probably a holdover from the gap in the tech and games industry, or perhaps from the wider popular culture around technology. But I don’t want to end up with a male-dominated community just because of sheer inertia, especially when the VR community is still small enough to change.

Palmer and John gave perfectly reasonable responses, but I think they were answering a different question. They made it clear that Oculus was not actively discriminating against women, but I took the question to be more about the gender gap in the VR community (as reflected in the crowd at Connect) rather than within Oculus itself, and that’s an issue that’s worth addressing as well.

To be clear, I agree with their answers, and I don’t think that Oculus is sexist. I’ve dealt with various branches of Oculus while developing my game, and the number of women from Oculus that I’ve worked with has been striking. Most of them exude so much sheer, obvious competence that I can only describe them as “badass”. Oculus is not the problem.

But Oculus can be part of the solution. No organization exerts more influence over the VR scene, and they could do a lot to foster a healthy and diverse community. The panel’s answer was pretty good considering that it was off-the-cuff, but perhaps they could have said something like: “We agree, the gender gap is a problem. It’s a tough thing to solve, especially considering the wider issues with gender in the technology world, but we hope to set a good example at Oculus, and we want to make it clear that VR is for everybody. You’re welcome here.”

There are also other, more active steps that Oculus could take to promote diversity; Kent Bye (himself a great contributor to the VR community) listed several of them in the Reddit thread.

Almost all of my experiences with the VR community have been positive ones, and /r/oculus has always been a fantastic community (perhaps excepting the day of the Facebook acquisition, but that’s a whole different story). I don’t think that the folks complaining about the woman’s question on Reddit are all sexist or otherwise bad people. But I do think that we’re in danger of unintentionally becoming a monolithic, exclusive community, and I don’t want to see that happen. When someone asks “why are there so few women here”, we should take the question seriously. It’s not an attack.

VR is awesome. Let’s not shut the door behind us!

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