“I do feel the games industry has made progress, albeit kicking and screaming in some cases” –?Women in games speak about their experiences in the industry

We’re absolutely delighted to be hosting the Women in Games Awards on November 25th, even if it is six months later than planned and will now be livestreamed instead of our usual event. But then uphill struggles are no stranger to the women in our industry, so it seems somewhat appropriate.

All that said, we’re very happy with the outcome, we’re working with game event production experts ADVNCR on the awards, and thanks to their enthusiasm we’ll be doing a full live production.

Whatever the format, the Women in Games Awards continues to allow us to celebrate the hard work and accomplishments of just some of the many amazing women in our industry.

Ahead of this year’s awards, we reached out to our judges and other industry veterans to get a broader perspective. We wanted to find out, in their words, how the industry had changed over the years, and the work still needed to be done.

THE STATE OF PLAY

Cat Channon, Electronic Arts

“I have seen a huge change in the attitude and diverse makeup of the games industry over the last decade,” begins Rebecca Sampson, director of operations at Hangar 13. “I started in the industry fresh out of university and wanted so badly to fit in and make a lasting impression, as working in games was my dream career. At the start, I unfortunately dealt with leering from male colleagues, as well as muttered sexist jokes and remarks that I wasn’t sure were intended for me to hear. I was young, shy and na?ve, and I didn’t know what was normal for the games industry at the time, so I kept quiet and ignored it.”

This experience of dealing with sexist remarks and ‘jokes’ was a common one among the women we spoke to, as Caroline Miller, owner of Indigo Pearl attests:

“I feel much more empowered to call out sexist behaviour now,” adds Miller. Comments made in the past that I would have passed off as ‘banter’, I’d no longer smile through today. But I also have to recognise that I’m older and a director, so that will have something to do with it as well.

Emma Smith, Creative Assembly

“That’s not to say that women who do feel uncomfortable and do nothing are at fault, they are not. It can be excruciatingly awkward to go against the herd, especially when you might be the only female in the room. But personally, for me, I feel a lot bolder to confront this type of behaviour now than at the beginning of my career.”

Cat Channon, director of corporate communications at EA also echoes these experiences, thinking back to her days in journalism:

“When I started out I was one of three women working in the editorial department of a well-known videogames magazine,” says Channon, “in a building full of hundreds of male journalists.

“I recall one incident when, having reviewed a high profile racing game, (and not particularly favourably), I was trolled by one of the biggest name studios in the industry for being a woman who (in their opinion) couldn’t know about cars. The studio head even put in a complaint to my editor about it. It seems crazy looking back that my gender was even entertained as a discussion.

“That simply wouldn’t fly anymore. Our communities are too aware, active and engaged to let it and in that respect things have changed but there are some aspects where there is still work to do.”

“As the years have gone by, I have noticed a significant improvement in the way I have been treated and am treated currently,” concurs Sampson. “However, there is still more opportunity and work to be done.”

MAKING PROGRESS?

Cheryl Savage, Facebook

Work indeed – it’s not enough to simply be content that we have changed conditions from how they were ten or twenty years ago. The industry needs to continue to change to make it a truly welcoming place for all. Are we still heading in the right direction?

“I believe times have changed,” says Sampson. “Women have more of a voice and are being taken more seriously, as well as being respected, but we still need more allies to help keep this moving forward and to drive important change to the industry. I have personally found there can be pressure to be visible and have a large social ‘presence’ in order to make an impact and be heard, especially with more women having opportunities to speak up about issues important to them.”

“I think it is heading in the right direction,” adds Cheryl Savage, director, gaming EMEA at Facebook, “but it doesn’t mean it’s time to stop trying to steer it. The 2020 UK Games Industry Census showed that people of colour and members of the LGBTQ+ community are represented in the gaming workforce at higher levels than other sectors. But women still only make up 28 per cent of the gaming workforce, which is well below the national average of 50 per cent in all sectors.”

“I do feel the games industry has made progress,” says Abbie Heppe, live project lead at Media Molecule, “albeit kicking and screaming in some cases as women have shared their worst and most traumatic experiences. There is a lot of conversation within the industry itself, but it takes the right people, from top to bottom, to engage with these issues, take them seriously and build better workplaces.

“The industry has changed over the years, but it’s not due to an industry-wide shift – I went from a company with almost no women in non-admin roles to a company with women in all roles that takes diversity seriously from an executive level. It makes a huge difference. Industry-wide, there is still plenty of work to be done in regards to unconscious bias, retention and career growth of women in our companies, amongst other things.”

It’s important to note that the games industry is comparatively new, and constantly reinventing itself, which makes it vulnerable to the same kind of ‘bro culture’ that has plagued Silicon Valley. But as Ukie’s Dr Jo Twist notes, this youth also presents opportunities.

Gemma Johnson-Brown,
Dovetail Games

“The industry is a young one,” notes Twist, “which means we can learn from the mistakes of others. We have a lot more work to do, but from where I sit, I see the UK industry collectively recognising that better diversity and inclusion across all teams – but especially in leadership roles – is critical to our creativity, our innovation, and success as humans and as businesses. Just in the last three or four years there are so many more brilliant advocacy networks and groups doing different things, but with the same aim, which can only be a good thing”

Of course, as Hannah Jay Rees – release quality manager and women employee resource group community chair at Unity – notes, these issues are sadly not exclusive to our industry, but are the result of societal problems.

“I still think that gender issues aren’t just a games industry issue but actually a societal issue too, you see so many factors such as gender equality, gender discrimination, working culture, imbalances in demographics and so on, in so many other industries, especially the tech space as a whole and even in day to day situations.

“We still have a long way to go,” says Jay Rees, “but having these initial conversations about why these issues shouldn’t exist is definitely a step in the right direction. It’s really refreshing to see the games industry paving the way on these topics and noticing problems that arise as fundamental human rights. Hopefully having these hard conversations and women having the confidence to speak out, will eventually change mindsets, enable people to see the benefits of a balanced workforce and the importance of accountability for these issues too.”

“These issues aren’t unique to the games industry,” agrees Teazelcat Games CEO Jodie Azhar. “Many other sectors, especially other technical industries, face problems of career inequality. Overcoming these issues is not unique to our industry either and working with other industries and learning from them can help us not to continually repeat these problems.”

SUPPORTING WOMEN

Hanna Jay Rees, Unity

The games industry may not be able to directly fix deep-rooted societal problems, but it can take steps to ensure we support the women in our companies and our industry as a whole. Emma Smith, head of talent at Creative Assembly, has some tips about how to do just that.

“There are a range of proactive steps studios can do to support women in the workplace,” says Smith, “and I’m confident that Creative Assembly does a fantastic job of this. These steps extend from recruitment practices, marketing and events, to policies, processes, training and career development.

“Our focus right now is in rolling out a new training programme on inclusive behaviours in line with our studio values. The core premise is for everyone to reflect and consider our everyday language and behaviours and their unintended consequences. It’s a fantastic piece of work that we’ve developed with our external specialist, Voice at the Table. We also actively work to create safe places for conversation within our Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Network. This network has an active voice in our Diversity and Inclusion work, acting as a focus group as well as an informal route for raising suggestions or concerns.”

Making sure your workplace is a safe and welcoming place for all of its workers should be a basic tenet of any company. But sadly this has proven so often to not be the case, something that Gemma Johnson-Brown, chief operating officer at Dovetail Games can relate to.

Abbie Heppe, Media Molecule

“It’s 2020 and women continue to face harassment, victimisation and microaggressions due to their gender, for some work is sadly not a safe place,” says Johnson-Brown. “The games industry, where many work because it is their passion, their love, their hobby, their craft is an extension of them and parts of the industry disregard that.

“The workplace should be a safe place, a place where every voice is heard and appreciated, where you can be your authentic self and are welcomed and valued, it’s 2020 and this is a basic right for all. When recruiting, interviewing or welcoming new starters at Dovetail Games, I make a point of telling people this, it should be a given you get all these things but I know for some it is not what they have previously experienced.

“My first industry event was not a pleasant and welcoming experience, it was loud, crowded and over indexed with leering men. I did consider if this was the right move for me but fortunately I got talking to a student who was a Women in Games Ambassador and she suggested I look them up, now I am part of the executive team and proud of the global community we have fostered and grown – this gives me great hope for the future of the games industry.”

DIVERSIFYING

Rebecca Sampson, Hangar 13

Attracting a diverse workforce – and keeping them safe and comfortable – is not just a benefit to the workers: it’s also beneficial to the companies themselves. By having a diverse workforce, particularly in positions of power, you can promote a healthier culture and attract more diverse candidates.

“It has been great seeing smaller companies make an impact by having representation right from the top of the company and creating an inclusive culture early on,” says Teazelcat Games’ Azhar. “When potential candidates feel that a studio is going to be inclusive by seeing who is already on the team and that they are in decision making positions, they’re much more likely to apply because they can see themselves and their ideas being taken seriously and feel that they’re much likely to grow in their professional capacity there, rather than have to fight with the systemic prejudices that still exist in our industry.”

This is of course, especially true for studios founded by people from diverse backgrounds.

“I’m delighted to see more games studios being founded by women and people of colour,” continues Azhar. “Not only does it provide workplaces that offer a different studio culture, but we get different types of game, or the exploration of? different ideas and themes within existing genres. It’s still disappointing to see large companies not investing in female led teams, or a lack of large funding going to female run teams.

“Smaller funds do now exist that offer support to female led teams, but it feels that we need radical change to shake up the industry, otherwise people who are underrepresented in our industry will continue to deal with the same challenges for the next 10 or more years.

“While not every studio can have representation in their founding team there is still room to make a team inclusive. In particular ensuring you have a diverse hiring team will help remove bias in the application process and if candidates can see that it’s an inclusive team they’re more likely to apply. Large studios have the capacity to put underrepresented people in leadership positions and give them the support needed to succeed.

“It’s easy to view this kind of action as giving underrepresented people an unfair advantage, however, that completely disregards the disadvantages they face constantly in their career.

“So many women with great potential never make it to the top because they are never given the same opportunities as men. If we want to ensure workplaces provide equal opportunities for all then studios need to uncover this suppressed potential and give it the power to shape and improve their teams.”

AN IMAGE OF SUCCESS

Jodie Azhar,
Teazelcat Games

Putting women (and others from diverse backgrounds) in leadership positions is important, of course. But we also need to tackle a culture that has a very specific image of what a successful person in the industry should look and act like.

“The science says that diversity of gender, (along with all kinds of diversity) leads to a stronger performing organisation creatively and commercially,” says EA’s Channon, “but I worry that there’s still a sense that to succeed as a woman in our industry we often need to exert stereotypically masculine traits, of which there are already too many in games.

“When we reach a space where what are usually thought of as traditionally feminine attributes are no longer seen as a weakness and can be given space, be nurtured, accepted and rewarded for the tremendous positives they can offer in their own right, well that really will be progress.

“Until we get there we all need to do and say more. We need to feel confident and comfortable in calling each other out on our behaviours, on checking our language, our approach and the support we show for individuals of every gender. I am immensely impressed by the way women, and in particular women in the generation below mine, have taken this on and challenged the status quo. The work they have done to redefine and interrogate the way we all think about issues of gender, power and representation is one of the most positive developments of recent times.”

This issue of having to “exert masculine traits” is likely a symptom of the same perception issues that have kept many women out of the industry entirely.

“Diverse people in games, specifically when it comes to women, are still greatly underrepresented in the industry and especially for those directly involved in development” says Amiqus’ Liz Prince.

“When we look at the causes of these low numbers we’re faced with perception issues, low visibility of games as a career for entry level and experienced women, parental influence to go into a ‘proper job,’ games being seen as a niche choice perhaps only for gamers, games are for boys or maths geeks and girls don’t think they’re any good at maths, the hours aren’t family friendly, there’s inherent sexism in games… the list goes on. These issues and more impact our ability to build pipelines of female talent and to retain them in games as their lifelong career.”

While there are companies pushing for change, it’s important that businesses of all sizes not only seek change, but truly understand the problems they are trying to address.

“I feel that our industry is changing,” notes Teazelcat’s Azhar, “but that the majority of change is coming from smaller studios. While large companies are hiring diversity officers, creating internal diversity groups and offering non-bias training, these are things that can exist in the company without the majority of the workforce engaging and really understanding the problem and thus fail to change the studio culture.

Liz Prince, Amiqus
Liz Prince, Amiqus

“I continually encounter developers who don’t understand the additional challenges faced by underrepresented people getting into and advancing within the games industry. Without being given the knowledge of why it’s important for their company to make change, continual support on changing behaviours and ideas in the workplace (such as hiring and career advancement), and clear practical, enforceable steps on how to make change, very few staff who don’t already actively want to make a change will care and it will be difficult for anyone at the company to effectively do so. Without the buy in from the majority of employees the company culture can’t change enough to make a difference and become inclusive.”

“One of the reasons that I launched G Into Gaming in 2018 was to help studios to focus on the ‘how’ of diversity,” says Amiqus’ Liz Prince. “My perception was and still is that the will is there for many studios who want to make change but having the time to stop and think about what to focus on first, when it’s a huge topic and there are lots of different messages, is a struggle. I worry that diversity is seen by many as a ‘project’ that the HR team needs to focus on rather than it being something that’s about culture, running through the business DNA.

“I’d like to see more studios understand what diversity and inclusion means to them and to start a journey of discovery with their teams, benchmarking where they are now both in data and in sentiment. Then you can set goals and focus on actions. I’d encourage studios to be bold, state your intentions, hold yourselves accountable and make it a business priority.”

The need for change has been made more and more obvious, as stories of abusive behaviour at major companies have made multiple headlines recently. It is our hope that the attention given to these matters will make it harder for such abuse to continue.

“There have been some pretty depressing stories recently,” says Indigo Pearl’s Miller, “but we have at least shone light into the dark corners of the industry and rooted out a lot of bad apples. We
can now move on to build a workforce where women feel safe and can just get on with their jobs, without this frankly draining and unproductive and at times hostile environment.”

Moving on requires that the causes behind these depressing stories are sufficiently addressed, of course.

“I feel that studios don’t hold to account those who create problems for women and other unrepresented employees, “ says Teazelcat Games’ Azhar. “A poor team lead can have a huge detrimental effect on the progress of their team, but those from underrepresented groups often suffer the most as they may have fewer other support channels within the studio to look for guidance or career advancement.

“In cases where there has been a real problem with leadership the penalty is usually just a slap on the wrist and the person continues in their leadership position, while those beneath them are left unsupported.

“In very serious cases, such as sexual harassment, it feels that companies often invest more effort in suppressing the issue than dealing with the problem, forcing the recipients to risk their careers outing offenders in public in order to get anything done. Whether publicly denounced or not the result is usually the offender leaving the company but often staying within the industry. Not taking serious actions to remove poor leaders from positions where they can cause harm, both to the careers of women and their wellbeing, perpetuates a system where women find it difficult to advance. The lack of support for women when these issues are brought to light further compounds what they have to contend with, just to get their job done.”

ROLE MODEL

Dr Jo Twist, OBE, Ukie

One way to encourage change, and support women in the industry, is for experienced senior women to act as role models and mentors – if they so choose, of course.

“I absolutely feel a responsibility to be a role model,” says Creative Assembly’s Smith. “I must practice what I preach, and I also want to share good practices from this work with my industry colleagues to see others establish their own positive education programmes.

“I think that those who are in a position and feel comfortable to have a voice in the wider industry can absolutely make a positive contribution. But I don’t think it’s just about that, everyone can make an impact in their teams, through their own behaviours and their own work. As a woman in our industry, I am often mindful of the silent impact myself and other women make by just being visible and accessible.”

Of course, for those with the ability to do so, becoming a mentor can be a huge benefit – both to young women in the industry, and to the mentor themselves.

“I’d never been encouraged to get myself a mentor until recently,” says Unity’s Jay Rees. “But It’s safe to say that women naturally enjoy communicating and building support networks. So, it just makes sense that successful women have mentors who help them along the way. Be it a guy or a girl, formal or informal, you can learn a lot from having a mentor. Having a mentor means I can go to them for advice, knowledge sharing and a different perspective on how I am viewed within the business.

“I’ve also found that there’s a lot to be learned from mentoring others. It has given me a broader perspective and improved my communication skills. Plus, helping others is a great way to pay it forward.”

“Having the experience as a team lead, department director and company founder makes me want to encourage other women in their ambitions,” adds Teazelcat’s Azhar. “I don’t think everyone needs a mentor and not every woman has experienced challenges related to their gender in their career. However, sometimes it’s helpful to just have a casual chat about an idea with someone who has experience in that area. That’s something I’m happy to offer others as it’s something that has benefited me.”

“I’d like to see a really robust mentoring system,” adds Indigo Pearl’s Miller. “I have friends in TV and film with amazing initiatives in place that partner women just starting their careers with women at the top. It’s really powerful. I’m a bit nervous about an overwhelming amount of ‘women-focused’ initiatives, though. Let’s focus on cleaning up the industry so that we can focus on being the best boss, developer or journalist – and not have to deal with a mess not of our making. Keep the Women in Games Awards though! That’s a lovely, wine-fuelled, fun opportunity to catch up with some really lovely people and celebrate some truly inspirational women.”

WORDS OF WISDOM

Caroline Miller, Indigo Pearl

So with all that said, what advice can we give to women looking to enter the industry today?

“I often worry if I share the things that have been hard about being a woman in this industry I’m going to put off younger women from joining it,” says Media Molecule’s Heppe. “I really hope it doesn’t.”

“I’ve had some joyous experiences in games, worked with amazing people around the world and am very proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’m so encouraged to see so many people in games dedicated to making the industry better for the next generation. Speak to women in the industry and look into companies you want to work for as best you can. Look for companies that have women at all levels and in every discipline. And learn programming, every company is always looking for a programmer!”

“Don’t let your minority status make you self-conscious or stop you from being yourself,” says Unity’s Jay Rees. “It’s much better to focus on the fact that you are unique and have something great to contribute. Take advantage of your uniqueness and help other people to do the same. Build good relationships with all the women around you, every woman you come into contact with.”

“For women,” adds Facebook’s Savage, “or anyone looking to join the games industry, there’s a massively diverse range of roles. I think there’s a perception that you need a tech or design background, but it’s a great environment to upskill. Take me for example, I have a sales and media background. If you have transferable skills and an interest or passion for the gaming industry, I’d encourage women to lean into that interest, network, and seek out opportunities.”

“Whoever you are,” says Ukie’s Twist, “you will face frustrations, challenges, you will get talked over and you will feel people are getting credit for your ideas. This is not always a gender issue, this is about power. Do not accept abuse or harassment of any kind and use the right channels to deal with abuse.

“Get into positions of decision making as quickly as you can but accept that takes time. Accept that everyone faces barriers, especially early on in your career. I was an extremely angry young woman in my 20s and 30s and I realise more recently what I was feeling was ambition.

“Harness that when you feel it and turn it into positive action and change where it is needed. Have a sense of humour, get involved with advocacy groups if you can, and look after yourself by having good friends and good colleagues. Your skills are unique and valued.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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