Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Catherine Allen curates and creates VR. She exec produced the BBC’s first VR talkshow, No Small Talk and produced one of the BBC's first VR documentaries, Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel, which has toured festivals globally, showed for six weeks at the National Theatre in London. It was described by Broadcast Magazine as 'genre-defining'. Before this, Catherine was Head of Marketing and a producer at acclaimed educational app publisher, Touch Press; working on a range of high profile reference apps, including the BAFTA-winning Disney Animated.
What does your current job role entail?
I both create VR and curate it, primarily in the genres of VR documentary and entertainment. Last year, I produced one of the BBC's first VR documentaries - Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel and exec produced their first 360 talkshow, No Small Talk. VR has a lot of firsts; BBC No Small Talk was also the first time a major broadcaster had commissioned VR aimed specifically at a female audience. There's a big gender gap already emerging in VR use: 20% of UK men have tried VR vs only 13% of women, and we wanted to address it.
At the moment I'm getting really into curating and writing. I've just finished my first major article for Wired, which will be out in June's issue. It's about VR ethics and the sort of reception that VR might get from the public as it goes mainstream. I'm also curating a week-long season of VR called VR Sessions, at Watershed, one of the UK's leading arts cinemas. Our aim is to get VR to a wider audience, especially those who wouldn't describe themselves as early adopters. The more I work in VR the more I realise how much work is needed in getting it to mainstream audiences. That means broad audiences as diverse as the population. The world of emerging high-end technology as an industry and hobby are generally not super inclusive spaces. At the moment, everything I'm doing, in some way, attempts to counter this, bringing more voices into the conversation.
What is your dream job or are you doing it already?
I love what I'm doing already, but it will get even better as VR matures, from a medium into an industry. When we have proper distribution routes, mainstream audiences and critics, that'll be an even more interesting environment to work in.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges? Has your gender ever stopped you?
My degree was Theatre and Performance studies at the University of Warwick, in the UK. Since then I've worked in TV, apps and now VR. What's incredibly satisfying now is really using my academic background in my day job. Looking at VR as something akin to performance has given me a really useful creative and critical toolkit.
Nearly all of the ways that my gender has been a barrier have been so embedded and seemingly subtle that you barely realise it's gender related. For instance, generally, as a woman, you're less likely to be expected to be deeply interested in tech. The female archetypes don't exist for it. When I was a teenager, I built and sold computers, however I kept this to myself at school as I knew it wouldn't be considered 'cool' for a girl to love computers so much. It's not like anyone has ever said to me 'no, you cannot do this because you are a woman'. The barriers have never been binary like that. Instead they've felt more like moments where I'm aware that 'this is against the grain'. Cultural barriers like this are still barriers none-the-less. Essentially, in this case it means that as a woman it's harder to navigate and portray my own identity to the rest of the world.
Occasionally I will have moments where I notice a pattern of behaviour towards me and my female colleagues/friends is clearly is gender related. For instance, I have noticed that the assumption that women are more organised leads to women usually being the person who organises the meetings (when there isn't a PA involved), no matter how senior she is. It may feel like a compliment to be described as the organised one, but the downside of that assumed 'skill' is it doesn't leave as much time for creative, serendipitous thought.
What are your biggest achievements to date? How about projects you are currently working on within your company?
One of my most classic career achievements is when we won a BAFTA for the app Disney Animated. This is when I worked at the London app publisher, Touch Press. I was so proud of our team; especially how we had shown the world that apps can be culturally significant and meaningful.
On a more personal level, writing academic journal articles has given me lots of satisfaction. Life is a learning opportunity. You don't need to be at university to develop human knowledge & understanding in your field.
What does the #WomenInVR movement mean to you?
It means addressing gender equality sooner rather than later. Right now, the industry is what we make it. With a new medium, we have a golden opportunity to make it healthy and diverse industry, right from the beginning. #WomenInVR is as important for men to get behind as women. It's a challenge that women cannot and should not be expected to tackle alone.
Future generations will thank us when mixed realities are huge yet healthy industries that are equally beneficial to both male and female audiences and workers.
Can you name any prominent women in the industry that you admire?
I admire so many women in VR - it feels unfair to pick just a few. So, I will zoom out, looking at tech and feminism in general over the last few centuries. Women who have inspired me throughout my career include Ada Lovelace, Naomi Wolf, Caitlin Moran and Martha Lane Fox.
What advice would you give to young girls and women that aspire to work in this industry?
a) Get on with the awesome thing you're doing and shout about it
b) Have moments of resistance when you notice that your gender is negatively affecting you. Say something and make a change, no matter how small. For instance, if you're the only woman in the office and you notice that you are always the one to organise your colleagues birthday cards, then resist! Let a male colleague know you're really busy and ask him to take on that responsibility for a bit.
c) Support other women and men in promoting equality at work
LinkedIn: Catherine Allen
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.