It is not news that the tech, gaming, and film industries have significant diversity and gender gaps, and that LGBTQ workers are paid less than straight workers.
Among all U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, the proportion of black men in management increased just slightly — from 3% to 3.3% — from 1985 to 2014. White women saw bigger gains from 1985 to 2000 — rising from 22% to 29% of managers — but their numbers haven’t budged since then. Even in Silicon Valley, where many leaders tout the need to increase diversity for both business and social justice reasons, bread-and-butter tech jobs remain dominated by white men. — Harvard Business Review
Facebook’s workforce is 67% men and 33% women. In hard tech jobs, like coding, the workforce is 83% men and 17% women. White workers make up 52% at Facebook. In addition, 38% of workers at Facebook are Asian, 4% are Hispanic, and 2% are black. In their hard tech jobs, 3% of their workers are Hispanic, and 1% are black. In a voluntary survey, answered by 61% of Facebook’s workforce, the company found that 7% of workers identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or asexual. — CNET
Although there have been some successful emerging media interventions and initiatives to mitigate the replication of the race, gender, and sexual-orientation gaps found in the film, gaming, and technology sectors, all the areas of emerging media described in Making A New Reality, from creative to coding to the executive ranks, are currently dominated by people who present as straight, white, and cisgender male. Women who manage to breach the executive ranks earn significantly less than their male counterpoints, and sexual harassment and other forms of sexism make the environment hostile.
I look at the companies that I’m involved with and they’re not diverse. I mean, they just aren’t. A few are, but not very many. And I think that’s really kind of idiotic. I know that means they’re missing out on incredible talent and new and different ideas. The constraints they cite are issues with training or schedules. . . . Some are just closed-minded. They’ll say things like, ‘Well, these are the people I’m comfortable with,’ or ‘of the candidates I had access to, 80% are male. And they can do the job that I need to be done.’
The more enlightened companies say, ‘Let’s open the aperture a bit and let’s look for people that have different backgrounds. We can work on different schedules, ignore the fact that they don’t have a CS or an EE degree from Stanford, and thus don’t know all the right people. They don’t have to say all the right things. That doesn’t mean they don’t have the creativity to help solve problems.’ Honestly, I don’t know how to crack that nut, but I think it’s a problem.” — Chris Hollenbeck, Managing Director, Granite Ventures
I’m pretty dismayed with where we are with VR, in terms of inclusion. However, I understand it better than I do in established media. We don’t know how to get into VR. If I am a content creator, I understand that if I want to do television I have to write a pilot and a bible, understand TV, get an agent, and go out to production companies. If I decide I want to make a short [film], I can go ahead and make it on my iPhone and at the very least put it on YouTube. I can write a script in my basement, send it out to agents and labs and contests to see if I can gain traction.
So what is the path in VR? It’s not like you’re going to be sitting at home, write a VR script, then roll up to a VR start-up production company and say, ‘Boom, want to make my VR project?’ Until we have a truly vibrant market, most of these companies have to keep their doors open, which means at this time, most are taking on a lot of client work, and clients want the names and don’t want to test somebody new. — Diana Williams, Content Development & Strategist at Lucasfilm
From 2012 to 2014, the DIY virtual reality storytelling community was fairly diverse and egalitarian for a convergence of three, traditionally non-diverse sectors (tech, gaming, and film). In fact, Sundance Institute’s 2015 New Frontier Exhibition was the first significant, story-oriented VR exhibition, and included 65% people from groups traditionally marginalized in emerging tech and media (26% women and 39% people of color). That year also marked the beginning of significant investments into VR makers, investments that, unfortunately, did not match the diversity that already existed. All the makers that received significant investments in 2015 were men and primarily white.
For the 2016 New Frontier exhibition, the makers of VR projects submitted and supported were still fairly diverse. However, the most competitive projects submitted to the 2017 exhibition demonstrated a significant shift. For the first time, there was a marked difference in quality, drawn along the lines of groups that are traditionally represented and underrepresented in other kinds of media. An investigation into reasons for this change suggests a gap in resources between the groups.
Interviewees reflected on this unequal terrain. “We are past the DIY stage when people were experimenting in VR and the barrier to entry was low. All that was happening before the headsets came in, before the $8.6 billion dollars came in,” observes Diana Williams of Lucasfilm. “The issue here is the economic inequality that underpins and even precedes the technology…and then it recreates those inequities in that technological space,”says Joshua Breitbart, Senior Advisor for Broadband at the office of the Mayor of New York City.
“The red flag for me in emerging media is the dissemination of resources,” says Morgan Willis, the program director for the Allied Media conference. “That is one of the ways that we adapt or recreate systems of structural oppression, right? The people who can most easily access either artistic or professional support have built-in platforms to position what they’re producing as having more social weight or more relevance. It has the potential to be a thing that stratifies voices. If you’re ahead of somebody that may have the desire and the idea, but not necessarily the actual, practical resources, then your voice is heard and theirs isn’t.”
Artists from traditionally well-resourced communities were able to submit higher quality projects to Sundance Institute’s New Frontier because they had access to quality production tools and the ability to resource experimentation, creating more learning and familiarity with the medium. Most artists of color reported having a hard time attracting the same level of support as their white male counterparts, in terms of funding and tools. This trend is not only concerning for its implications on equity within the industry, but it dampens the hope for achieving authentic representation of traditionally underrepresented voices in VR.
People who work in new media are, constitutionally speaking, explorers. They want to explore novelty, hopefully not for novelty’s sake, but they have a pioneering spirit. They want to produce new culture. That is their self-defining role. Now, what are some flip sides to this? As Heather Dewey-Hagborg has pointed out, new media art is a community that combines the world of computer science and the art world, and unfortunately, it can, especially in its demographics, inherit the worst aspects of both. So you’ve got, basically, a history of a bunch of white, nerd dudes playing with gizmos, coming from computer science. Then you’ve got a patriarchy of male artists, male gallerists, male curators, male critics from the art world. Put that together, and you start to see some of the pathologies that we are definitely feeling right now in media arts and emerging media. This is relatively reinforced by schools like mine. I’m trying to fix that here. It’s pervasive. So there’s a lot of work to do in terms of bringing new voices into the equation who can give us a critical outsider’s perspective.” — Golan Levin, Associate Professor of Electronic, Time-Based Art, Carnegie Mellon University School of Art
One of the major fears expressed by many interviewees is that we will continue the dangerous pattern of limited, stereotypical, and prejudiced media representation on these new media platforms, which will compound the effects of implicit bias in ways we may not fully understand, due to the power of immersive media to “hack” the brain. Continuing these patterns might make the implicit bias effect of media become exponentially more dangerous. Even well-meaning people and institutions — seeking to further social justice and advocate for underrepresented communities by presenting images of them in crisis — inadvertently contribute to the pervasive and narrow set of deficit-based identity images that perpetuate about those communities.
At foundations, program officers supporting media need to be aware of how always representing problems in narratives can deepen prejudices.
Many foundations need to broaden their viewpoint on what social justice really means, because they haven’t been able to open that viewpoint on people suffering injustice, in terms of story. We see the same story with the same kind of people, replicated over and over again in media. I call it ‘ghetto-border’ story. So if they’re stories about the ghetto, they’re stories about the border, then they’re considered valuable, and timely, and in service of social justice. Do a story about two people of color in love in the future. That doesn’t seem like social justice, but there’s a lot of social justice served by having people see themselves in the future. Those stories are not considered as valuable as a story about a poor kid in the ghetto overcoming poverty, because it makes people feel good to see that poor story. — Moira Griffin, former Senior Manager of Diversity Initiatives at the Sundance Institute
A few interviewees raised the point that, in addition to tech, gaming and film, the fine arts community has similar challenges in valuing women and people of color in an equitable manner. For example, they are far less likely to have large-scale, solo exhibitions as their white male counterparts, even when they have robust or innovative bodies of work.
For example, VR producer Lynette Wallworth’s “name recognition is next to nil,” according to a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. “ ‘It’s bewildering,’ says Adelaide Film Festival director, Amanda Duthie. ‘Here is an Australian woman artist who has been doing the most extraordinary work for almost 20 years. Why isn’t she known by more people? — that’s a mystery’.…Even today, no local gallery, public or private, holds any of Wallworth’s art, and most of her installations are too big and complex to be bought by individuals. She produces one major work a year, but almost all of them are exhibited overseas….As a senior Australian curator once told her [Duthie]: ‘In Australia, if you’re a woman and you don’t get picked up straight away when you’re young, then they’ll come back to you in your 60s.’ ”
Beyond Race, Sexuality and Gender Biases
Interviewees also raised concerns around patterns of regional exclusion. Of course there is a longtime pattern in human history of developing regional market and industry hubs. However, considering the power of story to impact every aspect of our identity, regional diversity is valuable. Emerging media industries seem to be following the established patterns of traditional tech and media, which tend to ignore important regions such as the Global South.
There have also been robust calls for re-assessing how we include people with atypical human limitations, such as physical and intellectual disabilities. This is especially unfair when the technology itself can be a mechanism for further inclusion that was not possible even a generation ago.
To combat this, the makers of an art project from Canada called for creative technologists to help create cyborg-like ways of overcoming disabilities by creating superhuman capabilities. For example, the subject of the project Upgrade Required — who only has the use of his eyes — imagined brainwave technology that would allow him to pilot nano-spacecraft. His collaborator made the argument that people who have limited physical movement are actually spending much of their time in deep thought, and considering things that could help us advance society. Therefore, it is imperative that we involve the differently abled in the imagination of our future.
Age discrimination is another issue to address in media and tech. The younger generation has a relationship to technology, identity and the global community that is qualitatively different from older generations. Similarly, humans are living longer, but are feeling shut out by the stereotype that you are over the hill at 30 in the tech sector. Could more inclusive value systems not only help to bridge such age gaps, but also allow us all to benefit from the different generational perspectives and experiences?
The Making a New Reality research project is authored by Kamal Sinclair with support from Ford Foundation JustFilms and supplemental support from the Sundance Institute. Learn more about the goals and methods of this research, who produced it, and the interviewees whose insights inform the analysis.