Home / Business / Women in Games Awards’ judges speak out: ‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression’

Women in Games Awards’ judges speak out: ‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression’

I have been in the industry for over three years now – not a long time by any standard but long enough to see things evolve and change in all kinds of ways. The games we produce, the platforms we prefer, the technology we seek. Things in the games industry move at such a fast pace, it’s difficult to keep track sometimes.

Most things I have written in MCV’s pages three years ago probably wouldn’t apply to today’s market. Except for one. Almost exactly three years ago today, I published a feature about women in the games industry in these very pages.

After highlighting the crucial role of education, I then wrote: “Having games actually showing multiculturalism, depicting gender and racial diversity, or simply telling the story of a character who is not a white man in his thirties would also be a tremendous help.”

And you know what the sad thing is? I once again could see myself writing this sentence word for word in these pages today.

Maybe that sounds a bit harsh or unfair, as things have actually improved in some respects, with game studios now more prone to advocate for gender diversity. But we also live in a world where the UK games industry gender pay gap has widened by 3.5 per cent in 2018, hitting 18.8 per cent (against 9.6 per cent nationally).

Indigo Pearl founder Caroline Miller

“Well, that’s depressing news!” Indigo Pearl’s founder Caroline Miller says earnestly when we start discussing the topic. “I’ve had lots of conversations around this issue with developers and publishers and the overwhelming feedback is that companies are trying to do better but finding it very hard to turn this around quickly. I’m an optimist at heart so the fact that this is seen as a problem that needs fixing is really encouraging. Where there is a will there is a way after all.”

Jodie Azhar, CEO and game director at Teazelcat, reckons that game companies could be doing (much) better at addressing this concerning gender pay gap.

Jodie Azhar, CEO and game director at Teazelcat

“Many companies are trying to look like they’re addressing issues – shining a light on female employees and posting on social media asking for diverse applicants to their jobs. However, they aren’t taking effective action to create appealing and supportive workplaces,” she says. “The short answer is to pay women equally now! Companies need to train managers to identify how different skills and qualities create valuable team members and stop making excuses such as lack of experience or missing a skill in an area that isn’t actually essential to them being effective at their job. There’s a combination of unconscious bias and undervaluing of skills and traits more commonly found in women that’s holding women back. Companies need to value the skills and contributions of their female employees and remunerate them fairly for the work they’re already doing.

“These mandates also need to come from the top and be actively enforced. A studio’s culture is created from everyone who works there, so all employees need to buy into this, understand why it’s a problem and why they should care. Everyone suffers from unconscious bias and training needs to be provided to everyone in a way that doesn’t treat this as only a problem for women to sort out or that men are causing. Reaching gender parity is more than just acknowledging that there’s a problem, it’s building a better workplace culture and nurturing an environment where the right skills are valued and everyone can reach their potential.”

There you have it. Now that’s been said, on to detailing some of these problems and how to fix them.

THE 50 PER CENT

One of the first things highlighted by our respondents, the MCV Women in Games Awards 2019 judges, is the need for a proper conversation around these issues, between industry and academia, but also within games or with other industries.

Rebecca Sampson, studio operations manager at Hangar 13

Rebecca Sampson, studio operations manager at Hangar 13, sums it up: “More work is needed to communicate the opportunities available and create them where needed to help women reach senior level positions, as well as introduce more women and girls to the prospect that there is a career in games. The all-important theme for this year in my eyes, for diversity and equality, is creating those connections between the games industry and other key industries and organisations.”

In a few single sentences she highlights many of the most important topics to champion gender diversity in the industry: making sure young girls are aware that games is a career path, the desperate need for the industry to promote women in leadership positions, and how more connections should be created within the industry but also outside of it to show women in other industries that their skills are transferable. We’ll start with the first point as this one is theoretically an easy one to address, if only more people would take the time to go to schools.

Dovetail’s chief people officer Gemma Johnson-Brown, also ambassador director at organisation Women in Games

“We all can be ambassadors for the industry,” opines chief people officer at Dovetail Games Gemma Johnson-Brown, also ambassador director at not-for-profit organisation Women in Games. “There are so many different career options and we need to proactively showcase them. Studios can link up with local schools, invite them in, do studio tours or work with the local council, local community and get involved with career fairs. The issues are perpetually linked and for change to make an impact we do need action not words.”

Rebecca Sampson touches upon organisations such as Girls Make Games and Ukie’s Digital Schoolhouse, instrumental tools to “help introduce a career in games at a young age and reduce any misconceptions.”

Ukie’s very own CEO Dr Jo Twist OBE, who returns to host the MCV Women in Games Awards this year, adds that there’s a very simple way to show young girls that gaming is not a boys’ club: “Really promoting the kinds of titles and diversity of games across platforms and genres that already exist is critical,” she says. “We are all in this education piece together and celebrating how BAFTA does this in games, especially through the Game Beyond Entertainment Award, raising the profile of games made by all kinds of different people through its Breakthrough Brits programme, and explaining the motivations people have which drive what games they play and why, is key.

“Pointing people to the work of BAFTA Young Game Designer and the ways in which all kinds of different young people are using games to understand themselves and the world around them raises the conversation around diversity too. But simply, they just need to believe the global statistics!”

Ukie’s CEO Dr Jo Twist OBE

Said statistics show that, in the UK, 48 per cent of the online population that play mobile games at least once a month are women. For PC games, it decreases to 26 per cent and for console games it decreases further to 22 per cent, according to Newzoo’s 2018 Global Games Market Report. It still shows that gaming overall is very far from being a boys’ club – but clichés die hard, it seems.

The breadth of titles available also means means there’s no necessity for companies to actively make their titles more appealing to women, Twist continues.

“Not all women are the same and not all players are the same but find the gap in what different people want from games, making sure you are confident in how you might reach them. There is no such thing as ‘TV documentaries for women’,” she rightly points out. “There are just great stories, moving stories, interesting mechanics, different kinds of game play and huge swathes of untapped players out there.”

Sampson agrees with Twist, but adds that devs should keep gender inequality in mind when creating.

“I think companies should continue making great games for the audiences they have chosen. If it turns
out to be women, then great,” she says. “Companies should, however, always be mindful of the issues we currently face with gender equality and inclusivity, ensuring there is a large emphasis on these areas when designing games.”

Kim Parker Adcock, managing director at OPM Jobs

On the other hand, Kim Parker Adcock, managing director at OPM Jobs, believes that “there are genres of games that are naturally more appealing to women and we need more of them.” She continues: “I think it’s improved enormously in the last five years with the rapid expansion of social games. The average age and sex of a games player varies more than ever and that’s excellent news. Keep it up! We’re all playing games now.”

When facing the same question of whether or not companies should actively be making games more appealing to women, Gemma Johnson-Brown simply responds: “Yes, why would you not? According to a Bloomberg article in 2018, women account for 70 to 80 per cent of consumer purchasing through a combination of buying, power and influence. Why would companies not want to appeal to approximately 50 per cent of
the population?”

ASK, BELIEVE, COMPETE

We’ve talked quite often about how education is a key step in inspiring girls to follow a path in games – and it’s always worth reinforcing that point. But what about women in other industries such as tech who may have transferable skills but don’t see games as a career option?

“Many people are unaware of what job roles exist in the games industry and how their skills can transfer to a rewarding job,” Jodie Azhar agrees. “Showing women in other industries how both their technical and artistic skills can result in something creative that can inspire and entertain millions of people across the world is a strong way of selling our industry to them.”

Caroline Miller adds that there’s another crucial aspect for this shift to happen: “I think representation is the key here. We need to look like an industry that welcomes women and where females will thrive and that means platforming the amazing women that we already do have. To be able to visualise yourself in a career is really important. Look at something seemingly silly like all the superhero films lately that have shown us different types of people, people that don’t normally get to wear the cape and kick ass.

“Equality doesn’t mean treating everyone the same. We need to address that women often have to work harder for the same opportunities as men.”

 

“Films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are so joyful because for the first time women and people of color are the heroes up on the screen and that’s empowering. Now think about the huge hissy backlash in the games industry against female journalists, game devs and even female games characters becoming more realistic. We raised our voices and were met with a huge wave of hate and anger from the likes of the gamergate crowd. That’s because when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. So as hard as it is we need to really make female leaders seen.”

This brings us to the very heart of the subject: the lack of women in leadership positions. Annoyingly there’s no recent figures on women in senior roles in the industry, with the most recent one being the 2015 Creative Skillset Employment Survey, showing that 19 per cent of the games industry workforce is female and that women represent 27 per cent of strategic management or executive roles. We’re very (very) far from parity here.

Anisa Sanusi, UI/UX designer at Hutch Games, and founder of mentorship organisation Limit Break

And when asking our respondents about what can be done to fix the fact we’re lacking women in senior roles, the shortest answer is by far the best answer: “Promote women, it’s not that fucking hard,” says Anisa Sanusi, UI/UX designer at Hutch Games.

Kim Parker Adcock expands on the reasons why women have not yet reached as many leadership positions as men: “It takes time for careers to reach the more senior roles. If we started with fewer women it’s simply a matter of time before the cream rises to the top. Women must put themselves out there and apply for these jobs, ask for pay rises, get recognised, believe and compete. I would never expect a company to promote somebody based on ‘it’s good for diversity’. Nice for PR but not sustainable and frankly insulting.”

Jodie Azhar highlights a deeper problem in the way we think about what a senior employee should look like, heavily influenced by traditional masculine traits, and how we should be working to change that perception.

“Many studio cultures have been formed around majority male teams,” she starts explaining . “This has resulted in the dominant traits found in those teams being seen as what makes them effective while traits more commonly found in women aren’t valued as highly.

“Different people respond to different leadership styles and we need a diverse range of skills and qualities to bring out the best from these teams. We all need to address our unconscious bias and learn to identify how different traits affect a team and the results of what they can achieve, rather than having a cookie cutter idea of what a senior or lead employee should look like.”

Dovetail’s Johnson-Brown echoes Azhar concerning the type of personalities we traditionally see as leaders and offers further solutions.

Facebook’s Catalina Lou speaking at last year’s Women in Games Awards

“This issue has two parts – a longer term strategic plan concentrates on education, legislation, policy and the workplace,” she says. “In the short term, businesses can make proactive changes by partnering with organisations like Women in Games and investing in leadership development programs, identifying skills gaps and developing their current people. Progressive recruitment that focuses on mind-set and behaviours, rather than years’ experience and qualifications, will open the talent pool, adjusting policies and investing in training for parents returning to the world of work as well as an older generation looking to continue working.

“In my experience considering the personality types of your people, especially for leadership, is beneficial and can help identify strengths and development areas. I believe extroverts are believed to be better leaders – it’s a social bias. There’s nothing wrong with this perception, however it is limiting the leadership pool. Leadership ability does not depend on being an introvert or extrovert – each have advantages and having a balance which includes introverted leaders can really help bring out the best in your people.”

“Promote women, it’s not that fucking hard.”

 

The bad news is, even when women do reach leadership positions, things don’t necessarily become easier, as Azhar highlights.

“There is a problem of women who reach senior level being fatigued due to having had to deal with issues throughout their career that haven’t been identified or acknowledged by their managers,” she says. “Men may find it easier to gain knowledge through casual work conversations, where women can be hesitant to ask questions out of a fear of being seen as less knowledgeable because of their gender. Recent research by LeanIn.org also suggests that 60 per cent of male managers are uncomfortable participating in activities such as mentoring or socialising with a woman.

“Equality doesn’t mean treating everyone the same. We need to address that women often have to work harder for the same opportunities as men, even to have got a job in the industry in the first place, and offer them support and mentorship so that they can reach their potential and in turn they’ll be an even bigger benefit to the company.”

FIND EACH OTHER

Seeking out role models and mentors can be an effective way to feel more at ease in the games industry. But that’s easier said than done.

“Actively researching inspirational individuals within the industry and matching your skillset and experience with where you want your career to go is a good start when seeking a mentor,” Sampson advises. “Likewise, advertising on a social media profile as an available mentor might be all that’s needed to give someone the confidence to connect.”

She also recommends to seek out the mentorship platforms that are out there, such as Limit Break, created earlier this year by Anisa Sanusi. The latter highlights the difficulty to make connections in the industry.

“The problem with the games industry, is that it has very visible superstars – think people with games shipped under their names, such as Hideo Kojima,” she starts explaining. “But co-existing in that space are lesser-known names who are the backbone of entire studios, or the wizards and witches behind the most intriguing games. They have the same qualities many other more visible developers have. What the industry hungers for is a connection between those who seek mentorship and those who can mentor.

“The talent has always been there, they just need a way to find each other. These platforms exist in the form of grassroots communities who do their best to reach out and connect people together. I think that’s the best way, is to find initiatives and groups that advocate for mentorship and put your name in the hat. If there isn’t one, start one.”

And that’s literally what she did (you can read more about this right here).

Games industry veteran Rose Buahin

Games industry veteran Rose Buahin agrees that “women should absolutely seek mentors in the industry.”

She continues: “I’m a big advocate for nurturing the next generation’s talent and I currently mentor a few individuals of different genders. I think it’s important to have a mentor who has a good empathy of the challenges faced by women in games and is able to provide guidance at every step – but this doesn’t necessarily have to be a woman. I know many brilliant men in the industry who are positive equality activists and they can easily adopt this role.”

Louise O’Connor, executive producer at Rare, believes it’s important “that women have industry role models” and gives some very insightful advice about mentorship based on her experience.

Louise O’Connor, executive producer at Rare

“At Rare we actively encourage mentorship, and I have personally been mentored by incredible people during my 20-year career. My advice to those who feel they would benefit from mentorship is don’t be afraid to ask,” she says. “Look for mentorship from someone who you look up to, identify things that you want to learn from that individual. Seek someone who has something to offer you and your needs in terms of growth and learning. Tell them why you would like them to mentor you, what you would like to learn from them and ask them for help.”

Jo Twist on the other hand doesn’t necessarily believe it’s for everyone as we should be careful with labels that would indicate there’s only one way to succeed.

“I think everyone should be sharing their problems but I personally don’t think it has to have a name. I think formality sometimes doesn’t suit people and can put people off being available when people need advice or a sounding board. We must avoid making people think that there will be a barrier to success or progress unless they get ‘mentoring’. People are all different no matter what gender you identify with and they all have different skills and experiences. What’s important is finding the people with the right experience or support to offer depending on what you need. And those needs will evolve!”

Jodie Azhar shares that she personally found what she needed in mentorship: “Having female mentors helped me gain confidence as I felt their belief in me came from someone who I could identify with and who understood challenges I’d faced. This especially helped me overcome imposter syndrome when taking on a leadership role.”

SHOULD I…?

Imposter syndrome is well known from women in the games industry (you can read more about this in our June issue), though it’s obviously not a gender-specific issue, as Twist points out: “Every single human being experiences this and it’s OK to feel this. But don’t let it get in your way: seek support from friends who will tell you how awesome you really are.”

Anisa Sanusi agrees, but points out that there’s a downside to that approach: “Imposter syndrome is something most people will feel, especially the more visible you get. You’d think the antidote would be to surround yourself with people who would shower you with compliments to get that ego boost, but that would make it worse as you will start training yourself to disbelief any good feedback thinking that’s what friends are supposed to say to you.

“Imposter syndrome stems from an assumption that you do not deserve recognition. To combat this you need to ground yourself with proof. Prove your assumptions wrong. Look back at your CV, and look at all the work you’ve done, the games you’ve released, and the problems you solved. These aren’t just bullet points on a paper, this is your legacy and you have worked hard for it, and tangible experiences that brought you to where you are now. You are not an imposter, you were meant to be here.”

Host Dr Jo Twist of Ukie with Kim Parker Adcock from OPM at the MCV Women in Games Awards 2018

The problem with imposter syndrome is that it doesn’t seem to go away easily. Rose Buahin has been in the industry for 15 years, working for big names such as Sony, Warner Bros and Curve Digital. And despite that…

“I have battled imposter syndrome throughout my career,” she tells us. “It’s that perpetual self-doubt that creeps in from time to time, questioning your worth and contribution to the business. We are inevitably compared with our male peers as we’re so under-represented and often judged by dated male stereotypes, that we start to second guess ourselves as a result: should I speak louder, be more aggressive, stay for one more pint, work late again…?

“The imposter syndrome also makes you feel like you just don’t fit in and that’s another challenge. After a lifetime in this industry, I still haven’t worked with many people that look like me. With equal representation and diversity, it would be understood that for example, some women can be more reflective when making decisions – so silence in the boardroom is not a sign of ignorance or weakness but rather a strategic battle plan to kick some serious ass in the discussed project. I find that the best way to handle this is to build an armoury of self-belief and confidence backed up with continuous learning. It never really goes away but at least you’ll be able to tackle your critics and haters with ease.”

“We’re so often judged by dated male stereotypes, that we start to second guess ourselves as a result: should I speak louder, be more aggressive, stay for one more pint, work late again…?”

 

Most of our respondents have described how they have battled imposter syndrome one way or another with Johnson-Brown for example saying she’s told herself many times: “Fake it until you make it!” And despite having reached her personal goal to be a director before 35, there’s still a sneaky voice that sometimes whispers: “One day they will find out!”

Communication is the key to resolve and reduce imposter syndrome, Louise O’Connor believes, saying that you need to ensure you talk about it.

“Imposter syndrome makes you doubt yourself and feel out of place, so find a group of people to help remind you why you belong. We have the Rare Women’s group in the studio, and this is a great way to discuss things like imposter syndrome and how each of us manage it.

“Women can feel like they don’t fulfil all the ‘desired traits’ expected in a role and as a result don’t feel like they are good enough. Job specs are there for guidance, at Rare we like to encourage people to think about how they can evolve their roles to fit around their skills. Don’t just tick boxes on a list of expectations, make it your own and forge your own destiny.

“It’s great to have a long term goal, but don’t put yourself under pressure to get there too soon. It’s important to take time to experience the journey, to use that time to learn and grow, the more you learn, the more experience you gain, the less imposter syndrome strikes!”

OVER TO YOU

The cultural transformation the industry needs to reach gender balance and equal pay will take time and resources.

“I don’t think there is just one solution for this problem that is after all deeply ingrained across all of society, but a mixture of approaches can help,” Caroline Miller points out.

“Firstly you need to identify it in your own company, now if you employ more than 250 people your hand has been forced to do this by law, but if you are smaller, it’s still a worthwhile exercise. Look at your current workforce: have you been fair with pay or have you suffered from unconscious bias and paid men doing the same work as women more? Or have you fallen foul of the squeaky wheel because men are four times more likely to ask for a raise than women?

“Closing the gender pay gap starts with determining who is underpaid and how that happened. The next obvious step is a recruitment policy that ensures your workplace has adopted women-friendly and family-friendly policies. Working a 100 hour week at crunch time is not conducive to having kids at home. Even simple messages such as having women on your website on your printed materials and visible when interviews are conducted can really help women see themselves working for you.”

While working on this feature, I was very much hoping to feel optimistic by the end of it. But having already answered my questions, one of the respondents felt she had to actually go back and audit her responses, as she feared they would backfire and some men in the industry would react badly to what she had to say.

So I will only feel optimistic when no one feels this way anymore. The ball is in your court games industry, you can make change happen.

The MCV Women in Games Awards 2019 will take place at Facebook’s offices on the afternoon of Friday, June 28th. Head here to see this year’s shortlist or to the events’ website. For sponsorship opportunities you can get in touch with Alex Boucher.

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s senior staff writer, having joined the publication during its days as a weekly magazine. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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