Wearable and Immersive Tech and the Female Workforce

In the three to four years since the release of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the number of VR headsets available on the market has grown. Millions of VR headsets have been sold and PwC expects an installed base of 55 million active VR users by 2022. I work in XR, organizing events and writing about AR and VR for my livelihood and yet, unlike some of my male peers, I purchased my very first piece of VR hardware just this year with the release of Oculus Go.

Go was the first headset I put on that was relatively comfortable, and no wonder: Women were behind its design. Oculus’ Charmaine Hung, Caitlin Kalinowski, Rachel Franklin and Reina Shah put their past experiences with frustrating VR hardware into a physical design that’s more appealing to female VR users than its predecessor (content is another story). Go is untethered, relatively lightweight, a pleasing dove gray in color, and lined with the same material used in women’s bra straps.

A world designed by and for men:

The Oculus Rift, of course, provides a much more powerful, high-end VR experience than the Go. I’d love to own one (never mind the computer requirements), but the headset’s just too heavy for me. To keep the device from falling down and myself from having to constantly readjust, I’m forced to hold it up with my left hand or else tilt my head and neck slightly up, which limits the amount of time I can stand to spend in VR. It’s not just the Rift: I’ve tried on haptic gloves that were too large for my hands and gotten my hair caught in the HoloLens’ adjusting mechanism, not to mention how ridiculous I feel wearing the devices, making me less eager to try these new experiences in public.

There are plenty of examples of apps and tools that have been designed in ways that inhibit use by women and/or outright neglect factors that disproportionately affect female users. “Patriarchal coding” can be found in technology, buildings, public transportation, consumer products, and even life-saving medical devices. For instance, temperature regulation in office buildings still accords with standards set over 50 years ago for a 154-pound man. Since men have faster metabolic rates than women, female workers are more likely to freeze in the office, which studies show negatively impacts productivity. (Imagine if due to lower productivity, a woman got passed over for a job promotion that went to her male colleague instead!) Even cars were designed for decades to be safer for men than women, with industry regulations permitting automakers to use just one crash test dummy representing the average male in vehicle safety testing.

The point is that there are real physiological and lived experiential differences between men and women; and in the case of technology worn intimately on the human head and body in the workplace, those differences can alienate the female workforce.


 “That’s a woman’s job:”

In 2016, women made up:

  • 90% of registered nurses
  • 79% of elementary and middle school teachers
  • 61% of accountants and auditors
  • 35% of supply chain workers
  • 29% of the manufacturing workforce
  • 24% of the transportation and utilities workforce
  • 16% of architecture and engineering professionals
  • 13% of the mining workforce
  • 9% of the construction workforce

Though women make up nearly half the labor force (46.9% in 2017), they’re underrepresented in certain industries—in particular, the skilled trades affected by an aging workforce like manufacturing, logistics, construction and utilities. This is problematic, as those sectors desperately need to find and train the next generation of workers and can’t afford to ignore half the population. In business in general, women’s participation in the workforce is more than a social issue; it’s an economic one, too, with researchers finding that barriers to women in the workplace are stifling the growth of the U.S. economy. Whether it’s a historically male-dominant industry in need of a public image makeover or one in which the gender pay gap and unfavorable employment policies (ex. no paid maternity leave) are turning women away; the future economy and growth of the workforce depend upon improving job prospects and working environments for women.


Physiological differences between the sexes:

Of her time at a trade show, Adi Robertson (writing for The Verge) recalled a much-hyped virtual reality headset that was too loose around her head even when tightened all the way, as well as a motion control ring that left a quarter-inch of space between her fingers and the hardware. Wearables, including XR glasses and headsets, body-worn sensors, wrist wearables, and even exoskeletons, are not one size fits all; they’re one size fits most men and it shows: Headsets are often too heavy for female users, frames too large, lenses too far apart, accessory and motion control devices ill-fitting, etc. As a result, women are literally unable to have some of the same (quality) XR experiences as men. Of course, such wearability issues with XR devices are not universal for women but it is a common pain point impacting women’s use of the technology.

Physiological differences between the sexes have major implications for wearable technology, or so one would thinkWomen on average are smaller than men and while sizing is an issue with wearable tech by definition, the problem is magnified in the case of wearable XR devices that require precise calibration to deliver the experience. If the fit isn’t just right in VR, the simulation can be blurred, distorted and/or nauseating for the user, yet today’s VR headsets are made to fit the average male’s head. This is one reason women experience VR sickness more often than men. The fact that men and women see differently is another: Men have better depth perception and more M cells for tracking the movement of objects in their retinas—a plus in VR. Women can see more of the red end of the color spectrum, but they also blink twice as often as men and their retinas are rich in P cells, great for identifying objects and analyzing color but not for preventing motion sickness. In other words, we’re dealing with advanced optic technologies, yet the two major groups of potential XR users don’t even perceive distance and space in the same way.

In addition to stature and vision, other differences between men and women go right to the bone. For example:

  • Men’s upper body strength is estimated to be 30% greater than women’s.
  • Women have wider hips, broader facial bones, a smaller chin, longer neck, and shorter legs than men.
  • Broader hips mean a wider angle at the knee joint, so females’ knee joints are under more stress than males’.
  • Women’s hands are, on average, 17 mm shorter than men’s. A woman’s index finger is typically longer than her ring finger, while the opposite is true for men.
  • Women hear better but have a stronger emotional response to the anticipation of pain. (Implications for high-stakes, hazardous job training in VR)
  • Men and women use different areas of the brain for navigation: Women navigate using landmarks while men use cardinals and distance.

Can you imagine how such differences might work against women in XR or how exoskeletons and other wearables could be more beneficial to male workers simply because the fit is better? If a female worker has to stop a VR training simulation due to motion sickness, will she be able to get the training she needs? If a pair of smart glasses constantly slide down a female worker’s face, will she be less efficient than her male coworker who’s comfortably working heads-up and hands-free?

What about menstruation and pregnancy, two conditions unique to women? Research indicates that the hormonal and physical changes involved affect a woman’s balance, dexterity and coordination, making her more vulnerable to injury on the job and more prone to VR sickness. The sad reality is many women are pressured to work throughout their pregnancies and return to work soon after childbirth; yet I can’t recall a wearable tech article or actual enterprise product that singles out pregnant women, let alone female enterprise end users. (By the way, it took until iOS 9 for the Apple Watch to finally track menstruation.)

Where an employer may see reason for assigning fewer physical tasks or limiting work hours (and thus pay) for a female employee, I sense an opportunity for working women to leverage wearable technologies to reduce the risk of injury when at their most vulnerable, to alleviate physical and cognitive stress, and to work longer and safer during the course of pregnancy. The problem is I don’t think designers have potentially pregnant users in mind when creating wearable devices. We as a community talk a lot about taking a user-centric approach to hardware and its applications for enterprise, but are all workers truly reflected in the form factors and user experience of enterprise wearables today? If not, how can we expect wearables to ever go mainstream in enterprise?

Betting on a future with more female industrial workers:

Standard worker health and safety gear in general has been designed for male users, without regard for the unchangeable physical limitations of women (or anyone else for that matter). The fact that tools and work stations aren’t really designed for the female frame may be one reason women suffer a disproportionate number of ergonomic-related injuries in the workplace. As a single upper extremity claim can cost an employer upwards of $20,000, you would think more attention were paid to whether standard work processes, essential equipment, and the working environment allow women to work with the same efficiency, productivity, and safety as their male coworkers. And with companies strapped to find and train new workers, you would think employers are doing all they can to source, retain and enable people to work for them.

Women currently make up a smaller portion of the workforce in sectors set to be dramatically transformed by wearable and immersive technologies, but that doesn’t justify the continued use of the male as a default. There are many women today performing hands-on, deskless work on the assembly line, in the warehouse, etc., with more to come in the future, and they need hands-free, well-fitting, performance-enhancing tools they can wield comfortably and efficiently.

Future looking: What does XR’s potential to make job training faster and easier mean for women just entering the workforce or changing careers? If XR makes it theoretically possible to learn any skill or trade, could it solve both gender inequality in the workplace and the skilled labor shortage, expanding the talent pool in many male-dominant sectors, by lowering the barrier of entry for women in industry? One thing I know: Wearables and XR will never reach their full potential if the user experience is inferior for women than men.


Technology “for men:”

“The form factor design of so many wearable XR devices, as with so many everyday objects, has gender bias and ableism baked into design. This is the new equivalent of work gear that only comes in men’s size large. Head gear, glasses, watches, controllers – so much of this stuff is conceptualized and designed to standards that don’t meet the basic functional, ergonomic or aesthetic needs for a multiplicity of users.” – Margaret Wallace, Founder, KijiCo & Playmatics 

“[VR] controllers are too big for the hands of many of the women I demo to. Headset straps are too small to fit around large textured or styled hair, or things like turbans. Don’t get me started on [external] battery packs that expect you to have belts or pockets.” – Becca Little, software developer, State Farm

“…it took me a year to get the HoloLens to fit right for my head. The Magic Leap One has a smaller size for smaller heads and faces, so that helped tremendously, but none of the smart glasses fit my face right yet.” – Evo Heyning, CEO & Founder, Light Lodges

“For me, it’s not about looks but size. I am a petite female, so nearly all gear is heavy and adjustment elements don’t adjust small enough, from the face of a watch on your wrist to the focal adjustment of lenses inside a headset, to the Velcro and clips of a haptic vest. I know weight can’t be avoided much yet, but I’m afraid that targets are not low enough to be ergonomically friendly for those of us with smaller frames.”Jamie Woodard, Senior Solutions Engineer, Instructure

In 2010, Danish researchers found that the basic premises underlying many advanced electronic products like the mobile phone and even GPS were dominated by male thinking. Not much has changed: The women who were kind enough to share their experiences with me on Facebook and LinkedIn pointed out numerous “sexist flaws” in wearable devices. Their complaints resonated with my own: Hands too small to reach the grips on a VR controller; glossy or elastic headset straps that don’t work for certain hair types; HMDs that sit heavy on the nose bridge or cheekbones; losing the full immersive experience when looking down (being able to see beyond the visor, like breaking the fourth wall); lenses that prove their makers are unaware of the existence of mascara; face makeup smudging and dirtying HUD screens in general; un-adjustable smart bands that slip off the wrist; a lack of female avatars; having to take out braids, ponytails and topknots to put on a headset, and more. Again, this isn’t every woman’s reality with wearables; neither are men immune to discomfort while using wearables. Not all wearable devices exhibit gender bias and those that aren’t very gender neutral weren’t designed intentionally so.

I was unable to find any in-depth scientific research or ergonomic studies specific to XR and wearables for this article, probably because the tech is still emerging. Even so, it’s recognized that technology has long been designed by and for men; and there are enough women having ergonomic issues trying to use wearables and XR to, at the very least, start a conversation. As a new training medium, XR is going to be crucial for filling millions of vacant positions in the workforce. A new wave of technology is an opportunity to examine old workplace tools and processes favoring a certain type of worker and empower all types and shapes of workers. Take manufacturing, where women are one of the largest pools of untapped talent according to Deloitte. Emerging tech like automation and robotics should be used to reduce barriers of entry for women in manufacturing, as should new remote work platforms allow women to work more flexible hours from anywhere in the world. XR should serve as a means of professional training and visual guidance, preparing women for new careers in unfamiliar industries; and exoskeletons should enable them to perform on a more even playing field as their male colleagues, taking on moving, lifting and technical roles traditionally seen as “men’s work.”


All-inclusive wearables:

Women are the least likely buyers of consumer VR, which doesn’t bode well for the consumer market or for companies hoping cool new tech will attract both male and female millennials to fill out their workforces. The answer, however, isn’t to develop an attractive headset that, while less capable than the original, is small enough to fit around a woman’s head; nor is it to offer something like VR training or exoskeletons as an option for workers knowing the tech’s design puts some women at a disadvantage. As women are nearly half the labor force, organizations and enterprise wearable and immersive solution providers must consider hardware and user experience issues unique to female workers.

Field services, manufacturing, utilities, and other sectors struggling to recruit new members to the workforce should make tackling gender inequality in the workplace a priority, from the very tools used on the job to the policies that support employee wellbeing. In addition to paying attention to the needs and experiences of the existing female workforce, enterprises should consider women who haven’t yet entered the workforce, young women beginning to use AR/VR in their education, women forced to change careers due to the skills upheaval expected across business and industry, and women who might never think to take on traditionally male jobs like material handlers, machine operators, etc.

Going forward, hardware and software designers should adopt a more mindful approach to developing solutions for the modern and future workforce, considering the female experience at every stage of the design process, asking for and listening to women’s feedback, and even setting up all-female usability tests. What are the unique requirements of female workers? For example, women tend to wear makeup; how does that affect sharing devices among workers? XR brings sight, sound and touch to the workplace in a new way; do smaller hands, shorter fingers, long nails, different hairstyles, varying levels of visual acuity, even a higher voice have any effect on the mode of interacting with the device? It could be as simple as making a headset more adjustable and developing VR simulations where women can see themselves in the avatars; or it may be more complex, requiring customization of solutions for different user groups.


Conclusion:

When it comes to work, AR and VR are essentially career development tools for the next generation of workers, which is why it’s imperative that women feel comfortable using the technology. Hand-free is the future: From delivering just-in-time information and immersive training to collecting biometric and environmental data for increased situational awareness and augmenting workers’ strength; there are applications for wearable technologies that we haven’t even begun to consider. While the current focus is on the business problems of today, there’s opportunity in wearable and immersive tech to make industry not only inclusive of women but also individuals previously ineligible for some or all kinds of work like the physically and vision-disabled. But first, the hardware needs to be built so everyone can use it and the user experience designed to be equally accessible to everyone.

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and early confirmed speakers, to come on the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, returns to Santa Clara, CA May 29-31, 2019. Join us for the biggest AWE yet and help celebrate the show’s 10th Anniversary! Apply to speak and/or exhibit at AWE 2019on the event website.

photo credit: Philicious Photos 2018-05-12 05 via photopin (license)

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