Can virtual reality help close the gender pay gap?

Imagining your way to higher pay.
Imagining your way to higher pay.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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The numbers always bear repeating: Just a few months shy of what may be the election of America’s first female president, women still make 79 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the Institute for Women and Policy Research (IWPR). That’s a 21% wage gap that shows up in almost every occupation, across nearly all industries.

To be sure, 79 cents represents significant progress since 1964, when the average, full-time working woman made just 59 cents to a man’s dollar. But progress has stalled. Over the last decade, women have only seen a 2-cent improvement. At the current pace, IWPR projects women won’t reach pay parity until 2059, or another 44 years.

Variable Labs, a California-based virtual reality startup, believes technology can accelerate things. The company develops VR experiences “to foster empathy, develop soft skills, and change behavior.” Recently, Variable developers unveiled a tool that simulates salary negotiations, with the aim of training women to become more comfortable asking for compensation commensurate with their worth.

Salary negotiations aren’t the only reason for the gender pay gap, but empowering women to be more forceful in their discussions about compensation may help. A recent study of graduating MBA students published by the American Psychological Association found that about 1 in 8 women negotiate their compensation, compared with 1 in 2 men.

Variable’s simulation, which works with the Samsung Gear VR headset, gives women a way to practice. The “360-degree, immersive, cinematic VR experience” includes a branching (think choose your own adventure) narrative, through which women can make pitches and navigate the challenges of a resistant boss. Future versions might use voice recognition, motion-tracking, and voice-tracking to give users feedback on their eye contact, body language, and delivery.

The app was presented at the White House last month as part of the Obama administration’s “Hack the Pay Gap” initiative. Commerce secretary Penny Pritzker praised Variable’s tool, as well as others that provide individuals with data about pay in their industries or even for specific jobs. “Big data equips us with new tools to solve old problems,” Pritzker said, adding that it also “has little value unless we make it accessible and consumable for our businesses and our people.”