Can You See Me Now?: How VR Can Foster Diversity and Inclusion

December 16, 2019

Ben Mason

A native of Bakersfield, California, Ben Calvert Mason won an undergrad scholarship to study classical voice—only to switch majors upon learning how hard it is to perform Schubert while chewing tobacco. Molded into semi-respectability by the English department, he embarked on a career in advertising. As an agency and in-house creative, he’s served industries as diverse as gaming, life sciences, F&B, and associations—while living in places as diverse as Portland, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee. He is currently Content Director at EPIC Creative. His fiction has recently appeared in New Reader Magazine and Your Impossible Voice, and his baseball team, the Mules, finished the 2019 season 2 – 14.

Moderator: Kerel Cooper, SVP, Global Marketing at LiveIntent
Panelist: Myra Laldin, Founder and CEO Perspectives & CEO Vectre


The website blurb for this session was strangely vague:

See how 21st-century technology is changing the workplace by introducing a new perspective.

Now I understand why: An actual preview, no matter how well written, would’ve registered as:

The same VR technology that enables your nephew's antisocial behavior at the dinner table can engender prosocial behavior at the office.

And obviously, that would’ve been a tough sell—particularly if your nephew is as unpleasant a dinner guest as mine.

Presented as a dialogue, however, the story of “virtual reality as a path to real-world empathy” unfolded naturally, slowly, the technology just one thread in a larger and more personal narrative.

“I grew up in Pakistan to a Christian family,” said Laldin, Founder and CEO of Perspectives, a company that utilizes VR in diversity and inclusion training. 

Laldin went on to describe a childhood in which she simultaneously felt “not really Pakistani” due to her minority status and that she stood out as a member of the only Pakistani family at her American boarding school.

“Being that young and being put into that Western bubble was this cognitive dissonance,” she said. “What is my culture and what is my identity?” 

She took that question with her into university, studying cross-cultural business management to understand “how people from different cultures work together.” In grad school, she examined the same subject through a different lens—cognitive science.

“I use the analogy of ‘A fish does not know water,’” she said. “And that’s what I’m basically trying to us see the water we’re living in daily. What are the assumptions we’re making about people in our organization, and how does that impact the culture?”

Cooper asked Ladlin what led her to explore VR as a tool for diversity and inclusion training.

“After grad school I went into organizational behavior and did work in strategic inclusion,” she said. “And I just got really jaded. I wasn’t seeing any behavioral change. I wasn’t seeing any organizational change.”

But then, about five years ago, she discovered VR and began digging into the expanding body of research surrounding empathy. 

Speakers on the stage

“Great stuff coming out of Stanford, Harvard, University of Barcelona,” she said. “And I realized that this [VR] is the greatest empathy tool we have at our disposal.”

Cooper, who described his own D & I training experiences as “not really impactful” and “somewhat boring,” asked about the advantages of VR training.

“All the research really shows that this unconscious bias training is actually sometimes counterproductive, and it definitely feels punitive,” Laldin said. “The difference with VR is we allow it to be this constructivist experience get to experience it for yourself.”

In this context, “experience” means that trainees actually assume the identity of another person and run through common scenarios in their shoes. Laldin used the example of a man inhabiting the workplace as a woman.

“We let you experience what it’s like to have those microaggressions against you,” she said. “Being ignored, being talked over—you know, men kind of taking your ideas and saying them louder.” 

Not surprisingly, some trainees aren’t ready for this type of experience. Laldin described male (that is, temporarily female) participants attempting to engage in fisticuffs with their virtual male coworkers over, presumably, the types of microaggressions women face by the dozen every day.  

“It allows for this visceral experience, this emotional realism,” said Laldin, “versus just sitting in a classroom and someone telling you, ‘Hey, this is what bias is.’” 

That latter scenario sums up D & I training as I’ve experienced it. Basically, you sit in a conference room watching videos wherein “actors”—who seem to have been involuntarily dragged in off the street—transgress against each other in extremely unsubtle ways. Then, in a separate video, a camera-friendly “host”-type person, their vacant eyes obviously scanning a teleprompter, explains what you’re meant to make of it all. Any “visceral experience” you might have is likely the result of poor choices at the lunch spread—not the content of the course.

And yet, those visceral experiences are what matter most. According to the Perspectives website, immersive training—meaning, I gather, the type capable of evoking a strong emotional response—“has 75% higher retention of learning than traditional methods.” 

Laldin’s recounting of her favorite exit interview seems to support the notion that VR D & I training is hard to forget. A man who himself worked in diversity and inclusion, and whom she characterized as “super empathetic,” revealed tears when he removed his headset. His girlfriend, he said, had recently started a new job, and for weeks she’d been telling him of the bias and microaggressions she’d encountered. 

“He said, ‘I just had to face every single thing that she told me,’” Laldin recalled. “And he’s like, ‘That hit me really deep. This brought a new level of understanding.’” 

That last line is a compelling coda to the already compelling case laid out by Laldin. I’ll admit, though, some small part of me still thinks there’s something scary and dystopian about creating virtual worlds to better understand our fellow humans in the real world. Then again, given the real world’s current state, I suppose the really scary thing would be doing nothing at all.