Breaking into the games industry is difficult for anyone, but it doesn’t help when many women don’t even get that chance because social barriers prevent them from perceiving games as a viable career option. It’s a strange concept to think that breaking into games should be so difficult for women when diversity statistics and gender equality rights seem to be progressing. From my own experiences as a woman who aspired to work in this industry since childhood, I’ve encountered challenges at every turn that many of my male peers have never experienced or even been aware of. The discrimination is so subtle, deftly-handled and deeply-rooted in STEM culture that the effects ripple outwards to tech fields like video games. Growing up people scoffed at me for wanting to create art for video games for a living. I studied illustration in college and was one of three females in my comic book specialization stream, while the children’s book and advertising classes were predominantly women. In my postgraduate game art program, out of a class of 14 students, only 2 women graduated (myself included). Many of my friends have warned me against pursuing the exact role that makes me happy and fulfilled, for the simple fact that discrimination and workplace toxicity are rife in a homogeneous community of developers who think there’s nothing weird going on here.
It’s difficult to approach the fight for diversity, however with the recent Google manifesto outrage there’s no better time to be transparent about the systemic challenges minority groups face in the tech industry. In 2015 (the most recent stats I could find) 57% of professional occupations were held by women, yet only 25% of those were related to computer science. Fewer women are found in software development, technology leadership, or the other kinds of key roles that have a significant influence on future innovation. According to an IDGA report about developer demographics and diversity, it turns out marketing/PR/sales and production have a relatively abundant representation of females. However, male workers heavily dominated most of the core content creation roles. Females made up 21% of production staff, with only 12% in executive roles. I am part of that statistical anomaly as a mixed-race female Producer at SEED Interactive, an indie gaming company.
From the vantage point of my role, I can see the importance of diversity to studio culture and the long-lasting negative effects discrimination has on all areas of the project pipeline. I offer my career insights as a resource for others who may want to pursue this line of work but are hesitant or discouraged by its heavily-stigmatized reputation. From my experiences navigating delicate social dynamics in studios, here’s 5 tips for women wanting to break into the games industry.
1. Break the cycle - your presence alone is the first step
If you’re a woman who’s interested in the games industry, you most likely understand the isolation I’m talking about when I say that constantly being the only woman in the room is demoralizing. Why are women not in these environments filling these roles? Are they not interested in games? Do they lack passion? The real answer is that women are just as engaged, educated and passionate about games as men are; however there’s a systemic cycle that’s keeping them out. Women don’t see other women pursuing these fields, and so they assume games is not acceptable for them. I’ve noticed that some men see the absence of women in games as affirmation of their beliefs that women are not fit for the role and are probably not interested in the first place. This self-fulfilling prophecy needs to be disrupted and prevented. Break the cycle by identifying why and where it starts and how you can play an active role in stopping it.
If you’re having doubts about working in the games industry because you feel it’s heavily stigmatized, be aware that you’re simply letting others perpetuate this cycle of exclusion by avoiding this career purely because it doesn’t seem worth the extra hassle minority groups deal with. Sure, it’s not something we should have to deal with, everyone deserves the right to work without being discriminated, however nothing will ever change either if we don’t acknowledge there is a diversity problem in our industry right now.
What we can do is change society’s conventional perception of female gamers and developers by getting out there and representing groups that typically don’t have a voice in this industry.
2. Don’t be afraid to say “No”
One thing many new developers regret is saying yes too frequently and without considering if what they’re agreeing to is feasible. Don’t be afraid to turn down tasks if you really don’t have the bandwidth to take them on. This same mentality applies to saying no to work or requests from your studio that may make you feel uncomfortable. Whether it’s too much work, too little pay, or inappropriate behaviour, there’s sometimes more harm in someone who says yes too often than someone who puts their foot down and disagrees.
As a graduate, especially a female who may have been educated by society to be non-confrontational and obedient, it’s difficult to change the way you think and start putting your foot down. But embracing those moments of conflict and learning to handle them is a great step towards making sure your work environment is one where you feel you belong.
Be sure to actively think about the work you’re being assigned and if they align with your values. Often times, women are pigeonholed into roles they don’t originally want, usually because statistics say women conventionally are better at note taking, following instructions and managing social interactions. If you do find yourself trapped in this situation, use it to your advantage and be flexible when coming up with ways of resolving the issue that benefit everyone.
3. Define your boundaries and your mantra
Define the limit or boundary with which you feel comfortable being viewed as responsible for secretarial tasks in the studio, such as taking others’ notes. There is a point where each individual is responsible for their own notes, and no one person’s job should be bogged down by doing the busywork of other people. For women especially, this is a common assumption that if I have a pen and paper in the room, no one else needs to take notes because I’ll do that for them. Don’t get complacent: put in the effort, learn for yourself, and learn from others if your excuse is that you’re not “good” at taking notes.
This same attitude applies to women not being sure where they’re allowed to speak up and make requests. More women need to embrace the mantra ‘Don’t ask, don’t get!’. It may make you feel uncomfortable to speak out and worry that you’re overstepping your bounds by requesting something of your employers or team; but if you never ask, you will never receive. It’s worth the risk to at least try, and it will build up your confidence in the process and get you used to the concept of justifying your ideas, which is a common way of rationalizing thoughts in studios.
Write your own job description and build a case as to why you are the best person for the job. Don’t undervalue your skillsets, especially when it comes to stressful business interactions like financial or contract negotiations. When starting out it’s easier to get conned into accepting a deal that may not be in your best interest, mostly out of desperation for work, so always establish your core values and boundaries before taking on any studio or freelance position.
4. Speak out about workplace barriers
If you do decide to commit and work in games, don’t be afraid to speak out about workplace barriers. Many employers out there prey on young, impressionable graduates who are over-educated and bursting with the desire to apply their knowledge to a meaningful project. You’re only contributing to these barriers with bystander apathy if you don’t speak out.
Half the time management may not even realize there’s a problem, although there are instances of people being aware and systematically allowing their team to get away with it. Identify when this is happening and make the best decision for yourself of whether or not it’s worth it to stay there. Find the people within your organization who are willing to listen to you and discuss ways of improving your work environment.
The communication methods which you employ to raise these concerns can mean the difference between a supportive response from management and a messy, human-resources disaster. “We didn’t make demands. Instead, we solicited their [the stakeholders’] support,” one woman explains in an article about how a small group of female employees at DialogTech affected major organizational change within their company. By pitching the issues in a way that was constructive, helpful, and full of statistics that logical employers couldn’t ignore, they were able to rally the support of their stakeholders and received a budget to execute changes.
5. Be a conduit of change
Rally the troops, and find your champions amidst the team. Communicate with the resources available to you and create a network of support that can mentor you through new challenges like those faced by women and minorities in tech.
Research the actual numbers about workplace diversity. Dig deeper into the industry you’re getting into and really understand what the deeply-ingrained issues are so that you can be better prepared to deal with them.
Retention of women in tech
Don’t avoid your dream career because there are seemingly insurmountable barriers in your way. Find a way to work around them, or better yet use them to your advantage. If you’ve done everything you can to contribute solutions and the problem is too twisted for any one individual to resolve, don’t beat yourself up over walking away. Many of these issues of discrimination in games originate from further reaching societal problems. It will take a long time to unwind people’s way of thinking about women and minorities in game studios. However we will never get there if we contribute to the self-fulfilling prophecy of: there are no women and minorities in games, they’re not educated to feel like their interests or skills in games are valid, it’s assumed they don’t have what it takes for the industry and their interests are better suited elsewhere, there are no women and minorities in games.
Research has shown that although breaking into games is challenging, it’s really staying in games that’s the biggest problem the industry needs to tackle. More companies need to get to the root of the issue regarding why their female staff are leaving only one or two years after they’ve been hired. Research shows retention of women in tech is a systemic issue dating back almost a decade. A 2008 survey showed that women left the industry at twice the rate of men. Companies are literally flushing resources down the toilet, not to mention damaging the health of the games industry as a whole with each new female developer, game designer, artist, writer, or manager they turn away. Help break the cycle with me by breaking into games. Hopefully you won’t have to break out.