Women in the game industry share stories of improving diversity
"How do you hire women, and keep them in your team? It starts with company culture.” With those words Gameloft’s Fiona Cherbak kicked off a panel discussion at GDC Europe today about how developers can work together to help correct the gender imbalance in contemporary game development and encourage more women to make games.
“A lot of the women at NaturalMotion are in leadership roles, and that helps,” says Catherine Silvestre, who serves as a general manager at NaturalMotion. “It’s nice to know there are women at those tables, sharing their perspective at even the highest levels.”
In a 2014 survey from the International Game Developers Association, 22 percent of game developers who responded were women.
King exec Orna Holland agrees with Silvestre, but notes that there's still a lot of work to be done. “We have a lot of women in key roles, but it does take longer,” she says, referring to King’s struggle to hire more women for a more diverse array of roles. “It just takes more time, but it can be done.”
However, the panelists quickly noted that while their companies were aware of the gender imbalance in game development, their solutions weren't always simply "go hire more women."
“I’ve never been asked specifically to ‘hire a woman’; for us, it's very much about finding the right person for the right role,” says Silvestre. “But there is a real company-wide concern about hiring more women in general.”
On the flip side, Holland says she has been specifically asked by coworkers at King to hire more women, but has been leery of taking any actions that would prioritize hiring women over men. Instead, she says she's tried to work within King to make the hiring process more equitable by, say, ensuring that when a woman is being interviewed for a position, at least one of her interviewers will also be a woman.
"At King we have six people interview every candidate, and none of them will be from the same team,” says Holland. The idea, she says, is to try and improve the company’s diversity by making it difficult for groups within King to (consciously or not) hire more people like them.
She says her efforts seem to be paying off, but everyone on the panel on the panel acknowledged that female applicants for game development jobs are stll too rare a sight, especially when it comes to programming positions.
There are still too few women applying for jobs in game development, but that's changing -- slowly
“Occasionally I’ll have heads of studios come to me and say, ‘Why can’t I hire a female programmer? Where are they?’” says Cherbak, who does contract work with other studios in addition to her work at Gameloft. “I often have to make an effort to go out and find them.”
“When we were hiring tons and tons of programmers, I remember having only two CVs (from women),” notes Nvizzio Creations general manager Kim Pasquin. “We see a lot more CVs [from women] nowadays than six years ago, but the rarity of women on the tech side is still a big problem, in my experience.”
“It is a problem, but it’s one that’s changing,” adds Silvestre. “The number of women playing games, and wanting to make games, has grown immensely.” As evidence she points to the “coding dojo” teaching program NaturalMotion hosts, which in recent years has seen an influx of women who are passionate about learning to code and create games.
At one point during the panel, an audience member asked a pointed question: Coding is equally challenging for everyone, so why put so much effort into specifically encouraging women to code when there are other, potentially easier ways for them to get into the game industry?
“Everything you just said is the bias that discourages women from wanting to code,” Cherbak fired back. “The point is not to try and push women to code; we want to encourage more people to code in general, and increase overall diversity that way.”
Those comments echo an earlier response she gave to someone in the audience who said that many of the women he'd interviewed for coder jobs had expressed interest in moving on to other roles (like say, in design or management) in the future, leading him to believe that they weren't actually that excited about being programmers.
"The female programmers I know are quite passionate about what they do," responded Cherbak. "Do not stick with the idea that a woman applying for a programming job is just trying to jump to another role."
What if you aren't in a position to influence the way your company hires people, yet you still want to do something about studio diversity?
“Diversity initiatives at King are really led by its employees,” says Holland. “In my experience, things that aren’t led by HR — that are really just led by employees who are passionate — can work well, if you talk to the right people.” If you want to increase diversity at your studio, she suggests, make a plan first, get some support from coworkers and take it to your HR rep — or directly to your CEO.
“You’re not going to be able to do everything in the first 6-12 months,” adds Holland. “Start small, with a structured plan. Find out what your fellow developers are most passionate about and start there, because passion will help sway management.”
Many members of the panel also recommended that you make your studio culture inviting and accommodating, but acknowledged that communicating it clearly can be tough — even among your own team.
“I’ve found that women who work for me might feel badly because they’re upset about something, or because they’re taking something harder than a male counterpart might,” says Silvestre. “For me it’s important to let them know that’s okay; that it’s okay to have emotions in game development.”
How do you retain valuable developers, both women and men, once you’ve convinced them to join your team?
“Retention is a 1:1 conversation with you and the people on your team,” says Silvestre. “For me gender’s not a part of this, it’s about communicating with the people on my team on a personal level. You have to treat people as people, and not as resources.”
“I agree, it’s not really about diversity; it’s about taking the time to stop and listen to an employee’s issues,” says Pasquin. “We were able to retain some talent because we took the time to talk to people and set up a plan to address their future.”
Holland agrees, and shares the example of a woman who wanted to come back to work part time at King after a leave of absence. She was initiailly turned down simply because King didn't have a structure in place for the way she wanted to work, but when it became clear she was going to resign, management worked out a way for her to work part-time for six months. Now she's back as a full-time employee for King, rather than a competitor.
"I think flexibility in how you work with your staff is key," says Holland. "Of course, we do have 1,600 people who work at King, so we can be flexible."