Empowering women leaders: how virtual reality avatars redefine power dynamics

4 minute read

Virtual reality and avatars – it sounds like something out of a sci-fi film or Mark Zuckerberg’s meta dream. But research from Hult International Business School find the use of avatars in a VR setting can empower women leaders by reshaping their perceptions of power and enhancing self-awareness, empathy and effective leadership. Dr Debbie Bayntun-Lees explains how

Graphic of woman in suit facing woman wearing VR headset

Women often struggle with recognising themselves as powerful leaders as they navigate the intricate interplay of societal norms and cultural pressures.

Frequently, women tend to associate power with manipulation or control, leading them to distance themselves from that type of leadership. Instead, they often embrace terms like 'effective' and 'influential’ when defining their leadership style. By identifying as 'effective' leaders women seek to underscore their ability to bring about positive outcomes and impactful change, steering clear of stereotypes that may undermine collaborative and inclusive leadership.

This creates a unique challenge for women as they navigate their leadership journey, as the dynamics of power within leadership hold profound implications for workplace culture, employee motivation and overall organisational performance. That is why at Hult International Business School we explored whether avatars in a virtual reality training environment can transform women's relationships with power and what implications this might have for HR and training professionals.

The role of avatars in power exploration

Female leaders taking part in a Women’s Leadership Program at Hult International Business School participated in a virtual session where they each became an avatar in their own virtual reality. Using the virtual reality technology they created their own scenarios and were facilitated through a reflective process to explore and gain insight into their personal power and voice in the workplace. 

After the exercise they were invited to spend a short period of guided reflection and writing in their journals and then join a small breakout group to share their experience and start to make sense of it with others. Participants were invited to continue their sensemaking with a coach or mentor following the session if needed. We collected data from 70 women through an online survey and through deeper exploration with those willing to participate in seven on-line discussion groups. We were interested in how this learning experience impacted on their thinking and acting in the world.

Below are some insights from the research that could be of help to HR and L&D teams as they consider ways in which technology such as this can be used to help women explore and redefine their understanding of leadership power.

Providing space for women to reflect on power dynamics is important

The immersive experience of the avatar session provided a unique space for introspection and analysis. Respondents expressed a sense of appreciation for the chance to step back from the hustle and bustle of their professional lives, to delve into a comprehensive reflection on the intricate power challenges they faced in the workplace. 

Beyond the individual impact the avatar experience provided these leaders with a multidimensional view of their own power. It became a journey of self-discovery, allowing them to explore the complexities inherent in the tension between power and effective leadership. By engaging with avatars these women leaders were able to gain insights into the delicate balance required for leadership that is not only influential but also ethical and positively impactful.

Avatars can help change both perceptions and behaviour

The research outcomes demonstrated that the use of avatars served as a catalyst for shifts in perspective, prompting a re-evaluation of ingrained beliefs and behaviors associated with power dynamics. 

The avatar session not only led to a change in perception but also actively encouraged behavioral transformations. Women leaders, through the lens of their avatars, were prompted to reconsider, reshape, and ultimately redefine how they embraced, considered and wielded their power within the professional sphere. This was a profound transformation that renewed a sense of agency and confidence in wielding power as a force for positive change.

Avatars can enhance self-awareness

A notable outcome of this transformative journey was a significant enhancement in levels of self-awareness. The avatar session served as a unique platform for participants to engage in self-reflection. As a result, women leaders not only gained insights into their own behaviors and thought processes but also developed a heightened awareness of their personal responsibilities within the challenges they faced in their professional domains. 

This newfound self-awareness was more than a surface-level acknowledgment. The avatar session acted as a catalyst for a transformative mindset shift, encouraging participants to take ownership of their actions and decisions, fostering a proactive approach to problem-solving.

A participant's reflective statement encapsulates this transformative journey: “I feel more empowered…I was not aware that others may perceive me as a threat to them, or maybe be a bit afraid of me (someone told me this). So yes, I feel empowered, but I also have to be aware of their and my position. I do not want to endanger them, so I must pay attention to how I behave and use my power.”

Avatars can cultivate empathy

The outcomes of this study demonstrate the effectiveness of virtual worlds as a transformative tool for cultivating empathy. By assuming different perspectives and embodying various roles within the ProReal virtual landscape participants gained valuable insights into the nuanced dynamics of their workplace, fostering a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by their colleagues.

One participant's reflection highlighted this: “It can be frustrating when people in my team are not achieving the dates we have set, for example, for delivering a report. Then I am trying to guess what has been happening this week and so on. I would often imagine there is no explanation…so there was no empathy. Now I find out and try to see all the things that are going on, and if they have all the information they need.”

By stepping into the shoes of her colleagues through the virtual medium the participant gained a comprehensive view of the challenges they faced, transcending her initial frustrations. The participant's newfound empathy translated into a shift in her leadership approach, fostering a more supportive engagement with her team. 

Implications for the HR professionals

Our research underscores the clear value of delving into learning experiences using avatars in virtual reality. This cutting-edge medium presents an opportunity for female leaders to cultivate a nuanced understanding of their own power dynamics and navigate the delicate balance between power and effective leadership. Numerous participants in our study arrived at the realisation that effective leadership entails not only acknowledging one's authority but also wielding it thoughtfully to achieve the desired impact.

Given the pivotal role of power dynamics in leadership effectiveness it becomes imperative for organisations to continually foster opportunities that empower leaders to refine this aspect of their skillset. By providing new avenues for leaders to hone their understanding and application of power using cutting edge technologies organisations contribute to the cultivation of more adept, empathetic and impactful leaders.

Dr Debbie Bayntun-Lees, pictured below, is professor of organisational development, DEIB and change at Hult International Business School

Debbie Bayntun-Lees Ashridge Hult Business School headshot


Published 28 February 2024
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