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GDC 2012: Sheppard on the problem with 'women in games' initiatives
GDC 2012: Sheppard on the problem with 'women in games' initiatives
March 7, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

March 7, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, GDC, Business/Marketing, Design, Programming, Art

The last ten years of statistics published by Game Developer Magazine show that women in the industry earn about 80 to 90 percent of what men do, a similar gap as seen in other fields like math and science. Women are likely being paid less than men for the same work, and aren’t reaching the same levels of success.

“When people talk about the gender gap, this is what they mean,” says Metanet’s Mare Sheppard. “As we grow and become aware of gender roles, the idea emerges that certain areas of interests are not open to certain types of people, based on physical characteristics and without regard for aptitude.”

Another reason for the underrepresentation is pervasive stereotypes, which are automatic, misleading and often ingrained. Stereotyping “underscores the feeling echoed throughout our culture that women are abnormal, unusual and different,” she says. “This feeling that they don’t fit or don’t belong keeps many women from entering game development and similar fields.”

Sheppard says people are less likely to make eye contact with her or to shake her hand than they would be to engage with her male colleagues, especially in groups of people where she’s the only woman. People interrupt her more frequently in conversations and express doubt that she’s a programmer. “This certainly doesn’t happen at all times or with all people, but it happens a lot.”

“I’ve been told I’m overthinking it, I’m making it up, I’m biased and I’m just looking to support… my bias, [that people] are ‘just socially awkward.’” And while it’s true sexism is so ingrained it often is unintentional or unconscious, that doesn’t excuse it. Even people who feel that discussions of inequality problems and innate bias don’t apply to them succumb to behaving based on stereotypes.

“Socialization has biased us all in some way, and while it’s easy for us to see each other’s biases, we’re reluctant to see them in ourselves,” she says.”

Stereotypes affect how women perceive other women as well; women frequently complain that they abandon game events because “there are no women” there, and even when Sheppard points out that there were women in attendance, she gets a response like “well, that was somebody’s girlfriend.” Even women can be reductive of and dismissive of one another.

“I make an effort to be aware of and try to correct for my own bias,” says Sheppard. Last year she decided it was time to take action. When the Hand Eye Society's Jim Munroe proposed a group for women and asked for her involvement, she initially declined, hesitant to contribute to further segregations and barriers through the formation of a perceived special interest group.

But Munroe encouraged her to see the possible initiative as an opportunity for outreach and to address the very real prejudices from both sides that keep women out of game development.

Some of Sheppard’s reservations came from wondering “to what degree would we be celebrating ‘womanhood’, instead of each woman’s achievements? …The focus really needs to be on the games,” she says.

And given that the idea of a women-focused games incubator generally draws so much media attention and celebration, Sheppard feared that the participants would be resented by other independent developers, who have had to work extremely hard to receive press attention and the same degree of celebration. If the goal of the program is to integrate the participants into the industry, this might actually be counter–productive.

And a women’s interest program “would attract women who identified strongly with a women-only focus and for whom gender was a very important part of their personalities, lives and identities,” Sheppard adds. “That means it truly wouldn’t be open to all women, since some women such as myself prefer to place less emphasis on gender and work within diverse groups.”

“The issues of sexism and lack of diversity had been on my mind for a while, and I realized that sometimes waiting for the perfect possibility leaves you waiting forever… ultimately I decided that it didn’t matter if I was opposed to a women-only group because it wasn’t about me at all. If the idea appealed to anyone, she realized, then it would be worth it. So she signed on, co-led the first incubation session with Munroe, and was a mentor in the second.

The intention of the resulting program, the Difference Engine Initiative, was to de-mystify game development for interested women by giving them mentorship and training to incubate the ideas of new game makers and integrate them into the community. And overall, the result had some positive gains: 12 women learned to make their first game in a supportive environment.

But ultimately, Sheppard said she learned initiatives like the DEIs don’t do an adequate job of addressing or actually treating the systemic biases that have made the game industry’s culture less diverse and less healthy.

“These women in games initiatives push us closer to a gender-stratified industry, where we have game developers and ‘female game developers’… these designations separate us, emphasize our differences and marginalize one gender while privileging the other,” Sheppard says.

In the program she was disappointed to see many expressed a “discriminatory attitude towards men and a de-valuing of their potential contributions.. help and support was only acceptable when it came from other women,” she said. She saw some participants who felt that “a man should never be in an authoritative position in these sorts of initiatives, regardless of whether he’s a feminist.”

Others didn’t seem to understand the purpose of the initiative: “The DEI was designed as a creative space where people could challenge themselves, develop their abilities and learn alongside one another in a warm, encouraging environment,” Sheppard says.

“But instead, it was viewed as a support group underscored and necessitated by the reaction to an unequal social world, and where learning was secondary to the formation of bonds and relationships.”

People who have experienced injustice often have a tendency to identify themselves strongly by their anger, by a reaction to their injury, and by absolute rejection of a perceived perpetrator – even if many of those perceptions have to do with their own stereotyping and endemic biases.

“It’s vital to grow beyond simply rejecting men and instead to reject the constructs of gender entirely,” says Sheppard. She believes that in some cases, aims to target discrimination and inequality by favoring marginalized people can actually further it. In such cases, individuals are still allowing stereotypes to form the basis of their understanding of people, possibly to lasting negative consequences.

The real crux of why Sheppard disfavors women in games initiatives is that they address the symptoms of inequality in our culture without examining the cause. “We’re creating pressure release valves, band-aids, because it’s easier,” she asserts.

Such initiatives are exclusive by their nature, and they encourage segregation, and in Sheppard’s view form the wrong strategy in a fluid world where inclusion is the ultimate goal and constructs of gender need to be irrelevant, not emphasized.

“It doesn’t solve the problem that some people are not valued as highly as others,” she says. “We really need to change the culture that we live in an inclusive way rather than in an exclusive one. If we want to attract diversity, we need to take a diverse approach.”

If the games industry were more diverse, we’d see even larger games and even more creative products; diversity creates new ideas, furthers agility and originality, and creates opportunities for new ways of thinking, thoughts on which she elaborates in this Gamasutra blog post.

How to create more diversity on all fronts – not just including more women, but in terms of addressing the game industry’s widespread homogeny as a whole – is a complex problem, and the dialogue must continue to evolve. But in Shepard’s view, emphasizing disadvantages, gender or any other traits may make people feel good, but is not a healthy or helpful way to address the issue.

“We are not in a battle with men on one side and women on the other,” she says. “We are all in this together, and we share common goals. To discount the value and contributions and possibilities of half the human race is unfair. It would help if we understood one another better.”

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Dominic Camus
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Excellent points. In the context of some of the depressingly sexist stuff that's been reported in the world of gaming recently there's a strong case for a more inclusive culture.

james sadler
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Nice to see someone looking at the problem beyond just the immediate reactionary thought. As long as we continue to look at a group, of any type, as one way versus another the problem will never be fixed. If people really want more women in the industry they need to convince them of it earlier in their education. Most of the female students I interact with at my job (I work for a college) haven't even considered the game industry as an option. They generally want to go into research, teaching, or Microsoft/Google/Apple.

Daniel Brogan
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Agreed completely, and in my own experience of college I would also see female students not interested in games development (or even programming itself) and prefer to be in a "less male-dominated environment". And when you talk to them a bit more, you find that they've never been introduced to games development in any way or literally told "its just for boys" when they were back in school.

james sadler
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There are actually something like 54% females in the Computer Science major here at my school. They all love programming and what they can do with it, but it is like you've said, they've just never considered the game industry. I've asked a few of them on occasions about it and they've said just that. I think it is also a cultural thing. With it becoming more accepted and desired for women to enter Computer Science they are expected to shoot for really high places like research or Google. They want to do ground breaking, world changing things because they feel they have to prove that a woman can do the job. I think it is because of this, the fact that the game industry has become so volatile, and most parents still think the game industry as a career is a joke why we don't see more females and minorities in the industry. Those things are changing, but slowly. One of the reasons I plan to come back here once my studio starts hiring to find some employees.

Patrick Dugan
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Mare Sheppard has done a lot to wake me up about gender-issues. I always try to hire female talent and pay on the same scale as males that I hire. I think the gender balance on a team is very important to the overall energy.

Daniel Brogan
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I remember back in 2007, I was working for a local council as an agency temp and the first thing I noticed was that I was one of the few men in the entire department, and the only full-time male employee in the office I was in (along with one part-time male employee).

Now the reasons I bring this up is mainly for context for the next paragraph, because one particular woman was the living embodiment of the lazy, always browsing Facebook, woman office worker stereotype. When, after a few months of this, I called her out for it...she ran out the office in tears. She wasn't a patch on the other women in the office (all grown up and there to work) or any other woman in the entire department.

As it was, I got all the blame (of which I was vocally furious about) and was talking to one of the men from another office about it. I remember him telling me that, in a previous job of his where he was a manager, they had four offices. Two were all women and two were all men. The women would always find something to complain about with one another, some argument would come up or something that would require him to come in and deal with it. The men would do the work, albeit slowly and without enthusiasm and would also need to be dealt with. Time went by and it was deemed to have a one gender office wasn't a good idea and personnel were reassigned to different offices for a mix. The problems were much reduced, work output increased and everyone was much happier.

To me that was an epiphany, and what you say Patrick also falls along the same lines, now if only everyone else realised this eh? :)

Jason Carter
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I like the way Miss Sheppard addresses the situation. Too often with the topic of gender issues it becomes a "Men are not treating women fairly and paying them less and say they can't do things" vs "Let's start a women only group to help women get into this or that". Like she says, I completely agree with the idea of: "No matter gender, race, or age, let the most qualified or best fit for the job, get it." Diversity is important, but not if you are forcing diversity upon a company (aka Affirmative Action, etc) I don't think that is the right way to make things equal, unfortunately there is no simple solution, this has to change on a person to person basis in the industry.

As we change our own views, we affect others. Much how Sheppard is doing. She is rethinking her own views, and looking inward to what is truly fair and right, and is making an impact on others because of it.

Kudos. This was one of the best articles I've read about gender issues in a proffessional setting.

Daniel Brogan
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I found this article to be quite well done, if only because the view that Ms Sheppard delivers is one of truth and not to be popular or "in vogue". I do suspect that if a man was to have said all this, unless he was famous, would probably be able to count his life expectancy in mere minutes, such is the world we live in.

But anyway, if only all men and women who are in charge of hiring thought along the very same lines.

james sadler
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I really think that is becoming more of an understanding that a mix of gender and ethnicity are better in the long run, but like what Ms. Sheppard says, it can't be set out to fill positions strictly based on needing that mix. It really comes down to the people applying for the job though. We need more people of varied genders and ethnicity applying before we can start saying the problem is the hiring.

Daniel Brogan
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That's just it though isn't it? It's like having that part of an idea and you just can't seem to finish it...and then you talk to someone else about it and they have their idea that - wait for it - FITS! But if we have a uniform, and almost homogenised, workforce? Then chances are good that won't happen.

So yes indeed, variety is the spice that's needed and as you, I and Ms Sheppard says, they must also have the skills to match.

Weston Wedding
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@Daniel Brogan,

Where the heck are you trying to go with your bizarre point of describing one woman as a "stereotypical Facebook reading woman office worker" (WTF, dude?!) as a "context" for your next paragraph where you basically describe a pair of women who just couldn't stop being catty to each other and things only got better once men were mixed with the women...

All you're doing is expressing casual misogyny like it ain't no thang. In a public forum attached to a thread about gender issues in the games industry, of all places. Oh, wait, that last bit of casual sexism was just something your heard from someone else and decided to repeat here.

Daniel Brogan
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Weston, you really need to learn how to read posts properly instead of scrolling down to the comment box and hurriedly typing out a badly thought out reply.

If you had read my post, you would have noted that I stated: "She wasn't a patch on the other women in the office (all grown up and there to work) or any other woman in the entire department" and that I called out this particular woman for her behaviour and she responded by going into tears. If you had read the original article, the comment Patrick Duggan made and my comment properly, you would have seen that this particular woman as the living stereotype that women in the workplace are fighting to get rid of! And it doesn't matter what industry that you, me or anyone else finds themselves in - gender issues are gender issues are gender issues. Which is why education establishments get a mention too.

As for the rest of my post, you clearly avoided that bit about *men* being slow and lazy. Seeing as I have worked with all male workgroups and all women workgroups, along with mixed genders, this is an accurate - if unfortunate - representation. Only when, in the example that was given to me, when mixed gender groups were formed did most of the problems resolve themselves and both genders became better workers. And that's not sexism, that's the real world.

Tomas Majernik
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I belive he wanted to make two points. First, we (both men and woman) are equal and can contribute to the system (equaly). What brings me to the second point which is, hiding behind sex discrimination when others are poiting out Your personal contribution (whether you are man or woman) isn`t the best way to deal with the problem.

Daniel Brogan
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Tomas, if your reply was to me (which I suspect it was) then you'll have to go over my entire comments in this thread and prove where I have been "sexist". Stating that one woman was the living embodiment of the lazy Facebook-browsing (and I see I forgot to mention "shopping sites" too), work-shy woman office worker amongst a department of women that were anything but (read my post properly!) isn't being sexist. It isn't being sexist when I called her out for it. Instead I'm pointing out that there are women out there who are doing a complete disservice to their own gender. As the original article takes pains to point out too.

As for the other office example? That's not sexist either. It's just fact and proves that mixed gender teams with the appropriate skills/experience are the best way to go. Unless of course you think a women-only team (as was referred to in the original article as well) is the best way (which would automatically mean being sexist towards men) or a men-only team (which of course is automatically being sexist towards women).

Nou Phabmixay
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Hey, cool. This is much better than the comments for the Batman game and the word bitch.

Tomas Majernik
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Very nice article.

Bob Johnson
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Finally nice to hear guys aren't all bad when talking about women getting jobs.

Btw, let me question that statistic that women make 90% of what guys do.

First 90% isn't the end of the world by any measure. That is $90k vs someone else's $100k. I don't think I would be complaining much.

Second, news flash, guys are paid wildly different from one another even if they are equally talented. Your ability to negotiate and even participate in office politics etc greatly affects your salary in many corporations.

Third, since women represent a fraction of the workforce in games and by my understanding represent even less of the experienced workforce then one needs to take that into account when looking at these pay statistics. Statistics are easily misused.

Last I would start counting the times you are treated well because you are a woman. Do it for 6 months as an exercise.

Philippe-Olivier Blanchet
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I took the liberty to do the math on your example of $90k vs $100k. Taking into account a real rate of return of 5%, and doing the calculation for a period of 10 years to reflect the period of the statistic research, that 10% of difference between a woman and a man salary is worth $77 217.35 in present value, before taxes. In the case of a 20% difference, it is worth $154 434.70. I assume we'll be hearing soon about a $77k donation to Child's Play if your first statement is correct?

I have the same reaction when I see statistics used to back up an argument. Is the 10% to 20% difference statistically significant? Is it constant throughout the whole ten years period? Hard to tell with what we have, but I would definitely be interested to see an article that provides more statistics on the issue of salary equity in the gaming industry.

What do you define as being "treated well"? I understand your concern about statistic but if you are suggesting such an approach, we'll need more precision on your methodology. Is someone opening the door for you counts? How do you translate that into monetary benefits? Is it all worth that $10k difference?

It might just be an ideal that for a given job, two individuals should receive the same amount of money for their work if it is performed in the same conditions, with similar performances. If equity of salary is indeed an ideal, then we can expect transgressions from that ideal. It is however how we strive towards that goal of equity that define us as a society. To sum it, we're not there yet, we might not completely get there, but it's the journey that's important.

Jenny Sunwing
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Holy....loonnnnng comment ahead. Head's up!

So, I'm not a game's industry professional. But I have worked in web design for a good decade, and I know a lot of people who work or are associated in the gaming industry, both men and women (btw, the gaming industry has some amazing people in it).

As an observation from the outskirts tho, the gaming industry is exactly where the web design industry was in about 2001 / 2002 in terms of growing pains. There were many times, for a long time, when it would be just a lone woman at a table of dudes, debating floats and clears. The same sniping went on ("oh yeah well she's just in _marketing_ "), and a lot of causal sexism got thrown around without a second thought (being hit on while you're trying to work comes to mind..I mean really? At work? When you're trying to y'know…WORK).

Its better now. True there's still sexism, but its more balanced than it was 10 years ago. How did that change? For starters education initiatives for girls (there are so many girls in web design programs now), better access to common tools, the pay scale evened out, and more women got into hiring positions. I am not kidding here, most places that have only even one woman in a hiring position = more balanced team.

There were also other things that started to happen. Mainly people talking about sexism openly, (which is what is going on here), the addressing of sexist behaviour as places of work evolved into more work and less wild west as the industry grew, and finally the offering of pay and policies that treated women as equals. True, we are still not there totally, BUT better than 2001.

Also sorry folks…its not just about being nice to each other. There are real legal issues to look at. And while I don't think you should give a job to someone _just because_ they are a certain gender, I think that _making a real effort_ to look for someone that fulfils your quality needs AND is a minority is to be encouraged.

I agree with some of Sheppard's points regarding women only initiatives. They can be exclusive, or interpreted badly. Sometimes its not all about the games. Sometimes things, frankly, fall apart. But remember too that these initiatives are made of individuals, and individuals bring their own negative and positive things into a fray, regardless of mandate.

I personally still think that women (and as an extension young girls) only programs can have positive outcomes that aren't addressed here. For example a more familiar or supportive learning environment for beginners. A chance to listen or even work with more experienced people. An opportunity to develop a skill set that maybe a woman didn't think they could develop. A chance for those that are interested to become role models (face it not everyone wants to be one, and that is totally fine), and the prospect of introducing women who may have not thought about a particular path to that industry. There is also the very real feeling of isolation that can be lessened by having a female focused group.

Are women's only initiatives going to fix sexism in the gaming industry? No of course not. There's no magic bullet for this. But for better or worse, they are part of the road to get there.

On a last note about getting there: as a whole the gaming industry is going to have to look at their own biases and actions (both men and women) and start addressing them together, individually, and personally.

It is going to be a bumpy ride, buckle up. :)

Daniel Brogan
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I've been in a similar kind of working environment and in mine, I really did feel an empathy for the lone woman, working admin/reception only to be faced with drivers for the company and the other all-male workers. I was just glad it was a temp contract!

"Its better now. True there's still sexism, but its more balanced than it was 10 years ago. How did that change? For starters education initiatives for girls (there are so many girls in web design programs now), better access to common tools, the pay scale evened out, and more women got into hiring positions. I am not kidding here, most places that have only even one woman in a hiring position = more balanced team."

This. In all the places I've worked (being a career agency temp that is quite a lot), when there is a man and a woman interviewing me, I often find the company (or part of it where I'd be working or end up working) is a mixed gender work group and the best to work in. When it's been men doing the hiring, its primarily men in the work group and when women, primarily women.


Moving on, as for learning environments and having been in them even recently (I like college), there isn't that much support over here in the UK. According to OFSTED's report on primary and secondary schools, few offer programming classes and of those? Even fewer have tutors that can effectively teach programming.

Of course, with software like Alice from Carnegie Mellon and Scratch from MIT (the former being designed with schoolchildren in mind, specifically girls). So at least there is *some* progress being made. :)

Alex Leitch
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When I teamed with Seth Hardy to form Site 3 coLaboratory, a large part of our mandate was to show people, particularly kids and young women who don't normally have access to an industrial workshop that technology is not scary. That you can build your own robots, masks, books... all you need is the tools and space to experiment.

When I was asked to produce a logo for the Difference Engine, and then later involved in the initiative as a member, I was excited. I wanted to continue this philosophy by contributing to a forum that would help women from non-traditionally tech backgrounds experiment with game design.

In light of my previous enthusiasm, I find Ms. Sheppard's comments regarding the Difference Engine both misinformed and, on a personal level, deeply hurtful. The Difference Engine has been by any metric a shocking success, with 64 applicants to 6 spaces, a smash-hit viral game, and a whole new community group (Dames Making Games) emerging from the process. It is astonishing to me that Ms. Sheppard would be so dismissive of her own success in spearheading such an initiative.

Ms. Sheppard is very fortunate to be able to place less focus on gender in her projects. This is clearly not the case for everyone. It is regrettable that some are troubled when confronted by distinctly gendered perspectives in game design, or by discussion of the evident gender bias present in the game development community. I find this ironic, as it remains my understanding that bringing a variety of underrepresented perspectives to game design was the purpose of the Difference Engine. I am surprised that in retrospect, given Ms. Sheppard's strong feelings that gender constructs should be rejected entirely, she would agree to lead a project designed to de-mystifiy game design for women. Moreover, her disappointment that such a project would produce work reflecting women's interests and concerns displays, at the least, a shocking naïveté.

I can only say, as someone who participated in Difference Engine both as a designer and a community organizer that Ms. Sheppard's statements do not reflect my experience of the sessions I attended or the conversations in which I took part. We mainly discussed making games and the intricacies of technology in game-making, which, as mentioned, is what I understood to be the purpose of the initiative.

In other news, I'm delighted with the success of my peers to date. I am genuinely interested in what they will think of next.