Interview with an avatar: comparing online and virtual reality perspective taking for gender bias in STEM hiring decisions
Virtual perspective taking can reduce unconscious bias and increase empathy and prosocial behaviour toward individuals who are marginalised based on group stereotypes such as age, race, or socioeconomic status. However, the question remains whether this approach might reduce implicit gender bias, and the degree to which virtual immersion contributes to behavioural modulation following perspective taking tasks is unknown. Accordingly, we investigate the role of virtual perspective taking for binary gender using an online platform (Study 1) and immersive virtual reality (Study 2). Female and male undergraduates performed a simulated interview while virtually represented by an avatar that was either congruent or incongruent with their own gender. All participants rated a male and a female candidate on competence, hireability, likeability, empathy, and interpersonal closeness and then chose one of these two equivalently qualified candidates to hire for a laboratory assistant position in the male dominated industry of information technology. Online perspective taking did not reveal a significant influence of avatar gender on candidate ratings or candidate choice, whereas virtual reality perspective taking resulted in significant changes to participant behaviour following exposure to a gender-incongruent avatar (e.g., male embodied as female), such that men showed preference for the female candidate and women showed preference for the male candidate. Although between-group differences in candidate ratings were subtle, rating trends were consistent with substantial differences in candidate choice, and this effect was greater for men. Compared to an online approach, virtual reality perspective taking appears to exert greater influence on acute behavioural modulation for gender bias due to its ability to fully immerse participants in the experience of (temporarily) becoming someone else, with empathy as a potential mechanism underlying this phenomenon.