Despite efforts to increase the number of women in top jobs, female representation on the boards of the UK’s biggest companies remains low while women – socially conditioned to hold their counsel from an early age – struggle to speak in public domains. Ruth Hill, Head of Learning Design at Bodyswaps, asks: can VR help young women to find their voices?
Silenced, sidelined and excluded
Recently, while browsing through the usual VR, tech and education-related posts that generally make up my LinkedIn feed, I came across a post by Belinder Biancar Parmar OBE, showing a photograph of the CEO’s lunch at the Munich Security Conference a few weeks ago.
The picture shows 30 or more white men of advancing years sitting around a long table, wearing matching navy suits. In her post, Parmar asks: “How is it that women’s voices were not part of this discussion?”
The answer – women are being silenced, sidelined and excluded from important debates at conferences, committee meetings, televised discussions and in parliament.
Despite making up 50% of the population (give or take), women receive significantly less opportunity to speak. Contrary to what common stereotypes would have us believe, women actually speak a lot less than men do in public domains. Men speak 75% of the time in decision-making groups – even when they are in the minority. And when women do speak, they are more likely to be interrupted, heckled, humiliated and even threatened with violence.
It all begins in the classroom, where the ‘squeaky wheel’ phenomena means that boys are rewarded with attention and status for speaking up, while girls are socially conditioned to remain silent. This perpetuates from school to university and throughout a woman’s career.
In our society, the people who speak most are widely accepted as the most authoritative and influential. And because women speak less, their achievements receive less recognition. We get this ‘broken rung’ in the career ladder, with fewer women in senior positions. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
Through my work with Bodyswaps, I’ve seen virtual reality helping to level-up job interview skills mastery between students from lower and higher socio-economic regions. Could it also help to narrow the gender gap in public speaking skills?
Speaking with confidence
Part of the problem in helping women and girls to speak up is that it takes 10,000 hours of focused development to achieve mastery of a particular skill. While women and girls continue to feel inhibited from speaking in mixed settings, they won’t have sufficient opportunities to gain confidence and improve.
According to Patricia Seabright, author of She Said! A Guide For Millennial Women to Speaking and Being Heard, it’s important to tackle this early if women are to accelerate progress towards career success and the achievement of their goals.
This is where VR can help by creating a psychologically safe space where young women can learn how to speak with confidence. And in a society where we tend to conflate confidence with competence, this seems like a promising way to improve the balance of female influence in boardrooms and public spaces.
Through virtual reality, we can teach women how to project confidence with non-verbal skills like posture, body language, voice control, and eye contact. AI analytics can highlight and retrain self-sabotaging female register behaviours, like using qualifying statements and weak language that undermine their own authority.
But this isn’t about teaching women to ‘fake it till they make it’. We can also help young women to be more confident through exercises in authenticity, self-acceptance, and self-trust, to free them from fear and self-doubt.
Women in the workplace are frequently pressured into silence by subtle practices that maintain the status-quo of men in leadership situations.
In public debate, interruptions undermine the authority of a speaker and when women speak, they are three times more likely to be interrupted than men. Even highly successful women can still struggle to get their fair share of airtime, as we saw in Mike Pence’s repeated interruptions of Kamala Harris during 2020’s vice-presidential debate.
This method of silencing women is particularly insidious. When Jacobi and Schweers examined 15 years worth of transcripts of Supreme Court arguments, they found that male justices interrupt female justices three times more than they do each other. And as the number of female justices grew, the number of interruptions from male justices increased.
But if women complain about being cut off, they are often accused of being difficult, aggressive, overreacting, becoming emotional, or – rather ironically – of seeking preferential treatment, which makes them less likely to challenge interruptions again in future.
So assertiveness skills might be another useful thing that VR training can add to a woman’s toolkit, with techniques and strategies for speaking with greater impact and responding to microaggressions and interruptions designed to undermine and silence.
Improving access to female role models
Access to female role models is also important for women’s success.
Young women struggle to learn non-verbal leadership behaviours from male role models. And since there are fewer women in C-suite positions, this limits opportunities to learn skills like public speaking.
When asked to give a persuasive speech to an audience of 12 in virtual reality, researchers found that men spoke for significantly longer than women. But if a picture of a highly successful female role model was displayed on the wall opposite the speaker, the gender performance gap was eliminated. Women spoke for longer and their speaking prowess was rated more highly. Interestingly, male performance stayed the same, regardless of the gender of the person depicted.
This suggests that it may be possible to raise the public speaking performance of young women, simply by manipulating the environment in virtual reality to present more female role models.
But there’s more. Women’s task-related self-confidence grows when, rather than simply observing and mimicking female role models, they are able to observe their own, overt behaviour.
At Bodyswaps, the power of self-observation and reflection for understanding and behaviour change is one of the fundamental premises upon which the platform was developed. So this might be the strongest indicator yet that VR could hold the key to helping narrow the gender gap.
So far, we’ve looked at how VR can help women to speak more confidently and navigate behaviours that contribute to their silence. But what about the elephant in the room? Men!
It’s likely that most men reading this article are feeling unfairly judged right now. Perhaps they’re sitting in disbelief thinking: “I don’t do that… do I?” In fact, men are often unaware that they do this and are surprised when they see videos of themselves interrupting or talking over a woman.
Most men don’t deliberately set out to shut women up. But just as women have been socially conditioned to accept interruptions, so have men been conditioned to dominate the conversation.
Virtual reality is already being used to help fight stereotypes at work. So perhaps another way that it can help give women a stronger voice is by raising mens’ awareness of their own behaviours and giving them insight into how it affects women by allowing men to experience how it feels to be on the receiving end.
Perhaps then, rather than being agentic in the silencing of women, men will become advocates instead, and call out interruptions so that female speakers have their say.
After all, helping women to be heard benefits everyone. Homogenous teams (like the one that prompted this article) are known to be at increased risk of groupthink, which has caused many of the biggest collapses in the history of business. Gender-diverse teams aren’t just fairer, they also perform better because the dynamics of decision-making are significantly improved, moving behaviour away from point scoring and interrupting and towards more open discussion, better engagement with issues, more active exchange of ideas and sustained attention.
That’s a reality we should all be striving for.
By Ruth Hill, Ph.D., Head of Learning Design, Bodyswaps.