Interview: Women in Games’ Marie-Claire Isaaman on Gender Imbalance

Despite women currently making up around half of UK gamers, a survey published by Creative Skillset (2016) suggests that the game industries are actually the most imbalanced of all our creative industries for employing women. A study published in 2005 by IGDA suggests that only 5 per cent of programmers and 11 per cent of artists were women, and more recent studies haven’t proven IGDA much different.

Gender balance is a complex issue with any number of factors feeding into it and no golden solution. In order to gain some clarity on the issue, I sat down with Marie-Claire Isaaman, the CEO of Women In Games, a not for profit organisation which works to recruit more women into the industry and to support those that are already there, to get her view on the current landscape of gender imbalance within the game industries, where we should be focusing our efforts, and if esports can catch up any time soon.

What do you believe are the main causes of the gender disparity in the games industry?
There is no single factor, rather a complex set of issues. That makes things difficult to change because there is no simplistic silver bullet solution.

Some causes are historical, some cultural and some more organizational. For example, the mainstream industry spent years targeting a ‘hardcore gamer’ demographic of primarily young men, with consoles and games designed and marketed heavily towards this audience in the 1990s and 2000s.

Really, it’s only since the so-called ‘casual revolution’ of the late 2000s – i.e. the rise of mobile and other non-console platforms – that females have constituted around half of game players. 

There’s a cultural legacy from that ‘hardcore’ period that still permeates the industry, often affecing organisational cultures. It can also dominate the perception of games in wider society – resulting in games still not being taken seriously as an artistic or cultural form.

Women might now make up half the players but the last Employment Survey for Creative Media Industries by Creative Skillset suggests only 19 per cent of workers in the game industries are female, the lowest proportion of all the UK creative industries. So the sector has remained male dominated even after its audience and realities have changed. Clearly, this cultural lag needs addressing.

There are also factors inside organizations. After Gamergate, I was commissioned to write the Gender Balance Research & Development for the Games Industry Report for NextGen Skills Academy. I identified key areas of gender disparity and provided recommendations to counter it. The main areas for improvement included Equality, Fairness and Work/Life Balance; Dignity at Work, Bullying and Harassment; Age, Seniority and Absence of Women in the Boardroom; and the amount of women who actually make games.

All of these areas need improvement to make the game industries somewhere talented girls really want to be, and to help them stay once they arrive. 

It’s all about developing the right company culture; it starts at the top
Marie-Claire Isaaman, CEO Women in Games 

Where should we be focusing our efforts to encourage more women to enter the industry?
Well it’s worth remembering discrimination needs to be addressed throughout wider society and culture, it doesn’t just occur in the game industries. But an area that needs particular support is the educational pipeline that serves the games sector. At school, girls often aren’t sufficiently encouraged to follow careers in games or technology. At college and university level, courses are often extremely male – both in staff and students – and the curricula can also reflect that. Consequently, girls can find it difficult to express themselves fully. Also, college or university management don’t always prioritise achieving gender balance in either cohorts or departments.

Another problem is that we need more research to fully understand many of these issues. Currently we don’t have a clear enough picture. I’m now beginning new research investigating the effect gender imbalance and inequality in both industry and education has on the competitiveness of the UK game industries, in the hope of changing this. Existing research has found that a lack of diversity negatively affects competitiveness in the wider creative industries. This rings true to me. Clearly, if we’re not fully harnessing the creative and entrepreneurial ability of 50 per cent of the population, we’re wasting talent and missing a trick.

There are concerns that Brexit is going to have a serious effect on the game industries, where much of the workforce in the UK comes for a global talent pool. In uncertain times we should ensure we develop homegrown talent. By engaging more girls to consider a career within the game industries we immediately increase the UK talent pool.

Do you think studios are doing enough to protect their female employees from harassment, and should they be doing more?
Things are getting better but some studios should be doing more. It’s important to protect all your employees from bullying and harassment. The NextGen report surveyed 40 per cent of women working in the UK game industries and found that 33 per cent of those had experienced direct harassment or bullying at work, and many more had experienced it online. Depressingly, it also found that 69 per cent of employers had no specific guidelines regarding online bullying, harassment and how to deal with them.

It’s all about developing the right company culture; it starts at the top and should be present in all areas internally and externally. Clearly HR Policies are important, but more than that there needs to be active engagement with the issue from the senior teams. 

It’s been said before that publishers are afraid of putting a female lead in their games for fear of impacting sales – what would you say to these publishers?
Lara Croft, and Faith Connors in Mirror’s Edge, Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, the wonderful GlaDOS in Portal or Bonnie Macfarlane from Red Dead Redemption.

All these female characters are strong and interesting leads and the games they featured in were all hugely successful. I can’t really believe that this is still a concern. If we look outside games, at wider culture, we can see how an appetite for strong and multi-dimensional female leads has contributed to the success of a whole genre: Nordic Noir.

These programmes have become a phenomenon precisely because of female characters such as Sarah Lund (The Killing) and Saga Noren (The Bridge). There’s no reason games can’t be successful with these kind of well- rounded and complex female characters in them. It just takes thought, effort – and going back to my original point – a realisation that both the sector and its audience have changed. 

While the competitive eSports scene is booming, it’s still overwhelmingly a boys’ club. Do you see this changing at all any time soon?

I do see esports rapidly evolving. As a form of competitive entertainment, it has grown up on the fringes of sport and video games and is fast professionalising. Unlike other sports, where physical make-up can hinder an equal playing field, esports actually levels that field. But the competitive culture has grown up with a predominantly male demographic and the online community can be very brutal.

Women in esports have received rape threats and experienced other abuse, particularly online. This is never acceptable. Ever. To counter this, women are engaging in women only tournaments to build their skills and confidence. Twitch specifically – the game streaming site – is working hard at tackling online abuse.

The esports competition environment has developed as a predominantly male arena, a giant boxing ring where the players fight with keyboard and mouse. The audiences are usually 95 per cent male and the products and services have been designed with this particular audience in mind, it’s a tough environment to be in as a woman and only 5 per cent of the crowd. From a skills perspective there’s no reason that you couldn’t have mixed teams. Mark Religioso, the Brand Manager at Bandai Namco Entertainment has said that there is a need to make the esports scene a more welcoming place for women, and is setting up what he calls the ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ tournaments with equal gender balance in teams, as-well as launching a mentoring programme to attract more women into this sector.

Many organizations are being set- up to support the professionalization of esports. In the UK, The British Esports Association was founded in 2017. This is a not-for-profit organisation designed to support and promote grassroots esports in the UK, chaired by Andy Payne. Carleigh Morgan – a member of the Women in Games Board and a Fulbright Scholar at King’s College – is researching this field and on the Advisory Board.

The European Women in Games Conference 2016 had a panel event, Expanding Horizons, which focused on esports. We are raising awareness of this area and encouraging debate and action. So, I think with us, the British Esports Association and others worldwide, there’s a real possibility esports will become more accessible to women and realise its full potential. 

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