How to retain and promote women in the games industry

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We look at ways games companies can break the glass ceiling and support women so they can realise their full potential.

Women make up almost half of all players in the UK, and yet they only represent 28% of the workforce of the games industry.

That’s according to trade body UKIE’s 2020 Games Industry Census. And looking at seniority, it doesn’t get any better. 70% of managerial roles are held by men, who also account for 77% of director roles with fewer than 25 years of experience, and 79% for roles above 25 years.

The gender imbalance of the games industry is an issue that’s been increasingly discussed in the past few years – we discussed the need to diversify the industry just a few months ago – but there’s still a lot to be done when it comes to the retention and promotion of women.

“This representation is significantly lower than the national average, so UK games companies should work to increase the proportion of women in their companies and proactively retain their female employees,” says Rosemary Buahin, Xbox games category lead for the UK and Ireland at Microsoft.

Marie-Claire Isaaman, CEO of not-for-profit organisation Women in Games, mentions a recent survey by gender diversity consultancy 20-First, highlighting that women only make up 16% of the executive teams in the top 15 global games companies.

“In terms of women and entrepreneurship in the sector, the study states females are 63% less likely than males to obtain external financing in terms of risk capital,” she continues. “Women entrepreneurs, on average, have lower loan approval rates than men and can be charged higher interest rates. This means the British economy is losing billions in potential income – a shortfall it can ill afford at the best of times, and especially after Brexit.

“So simply put, if you are a female and want to start a games company in the UK, currently you really do not have the same opportunity provided to you as a man. More female-led companies would provide us with a more balanced industry and potentially more diverse products and services.”

While UKIE CEO Dr Jo Twist believes the industry is going in the right direction when it comes to supporting women in the workplace, she admits there’s more we can do. 

“I would love to see more properly funded programmes to support career progression, retention in the industry, returnships, and retraining of skilled women – especially those who may have been displaced by the pandemic,” she says. “We need so many different skills, expertise and experience, and our needs are always evolving. We want to grow as a sector in the UK, and we can if we seriously support women and all kinds of people into our industry no matter what life stage they are at.”

Founder of mentorship programme Limit Break Anisa Sanusi points out that women in games tend to bump into the infamous glass ceiling and are thus rarely promoted into leadership. 

“The industry has a way of pretending to be blind to this or, at worst, paying lip service to recognise the issue and wanting change, yet the very policies or practices they uphold internally directly contradicts that,” she says.

The root of the issue stems right from the recruitment process, with games companies needing to do more than just acknowledging that they should hire more women and wait for it to happen.  

“When you are hiring, if you are looking for the ‘perfect’ candidate in your eyes, and hope that they’ll be a woman, it simply won’t be enough,” says Cinzia Musio, diversity and inclusion advisor at developer Splash Damage. “We often require leadership roles to have several shipped titles. But what is the specific skill and experience you expect someone to have acquired in that time? Do you have anyone in the studio that could, with the right opportunities and mentorship, be promoted into the role? 

“Also ask yourself what you value in a leadership position. Often, we attribute leadership skills with what is seen as male traits: strength, assertiveness, decisiveness... A good company will also need to consider things such as empathy and emotional intelligence as important to lead a studio. This is important as you may be unconsciously picturing the person for the role as being a man, and so when you are hiring, you might never ‘feel’ that a woman – who would have similar qualifications for the role – will ‘fit in’ with the culture.”

Khaya Ahmed, co-founder of transmedia company Optera Digital, writer for Lucid Games, and consultant for Marvel Comics, adds: “During the hiring and selection process, [companies] should either promote internally or reach out to groups that deal with identifying female candidates for job openings. There are so many groups maintaining portfolios with regards to diverse candidates; studios need only to reach out and get a hold of those portfolios. The Twitter hashtag #POCinPlay is a great example, filled with women candidates who are more than qualified."

Fair Pay

When it comes to retention, building a workplace culture where everyone – women in particular – can reach their potential is paramount. And the first thing you should address, above everything else, is your gender pay gap. 

“Provide transparency on pay and create pathways for career progression, provide training matched to the skills needed for that progression, in-house and out,” says Isaaman. “Give all employees equal opportunities to grow and flourish within the organisation, encourage open dialogue about aspirations and create plans for how to achieve them. Tell good stories about all the staff who work within the company, proactively enter women into awards, not just the ones for women. Knowing your skills and commitment are appreciated and respected at work is incredibly important to people.”

You should essentially build a framework that is attractive to a “culturally diverse cohort workforce,” Buahin sums up, adding that flexible working is a crucial piece of that puzzle, for example for “working mothers who are juggling multiple roles between work and home.” But a greater flexibility with working hours will also benefit your entire staff, and is an essential tool to retention. 

“A lot of the support a studio can give may start with easing the burdens of a working woman, but any of these can be implemented for the benefit of the wider working force,” Sanusi says. “Things like flexi-time, which benefits parents who need to go on school runs, or personal development budgets in which employees can attend training. Companies can look into helping with childcare, or even the onboarding process for parents returning from maternity leave. Would the company be willing to sponsor local initiatives, ones that specifically target minority groups like underrepresented genders and people of colour? Are the company-wide activities considerate of everyone, and not just alcohol-based?”

Musio adds that a workplace culture that is welcoming to women starts with listening. She also lists the most common things you can do to nurture an environment where they feel welcome and included. 

“You should listen to the women around you – but make sure you don’t expect them to do the teaching,” she says. “Creating anonymous surveys where women feel safe to give their opinion is a good place to start, but make sure you spend time to clearly address these concerns and what your plan to resolve them is. Invest some money in a diversity and inclusion program or consultants. Make sure the studio leadership is there and regularly talk about why they care about these things. 

“Review your benefits, and make sure that they are inclusive. Keep special attention with your company messaging. Addressing the whole company as ‘guys’ may seem like an innocuous thing, but when you have a company that will be majority men, it can feel isolating for women. ‘Folks’ is a better term, and it’s inclusive. How are players described in game design documents? Catch any description of a player as a ‘he/him’ and replace it with ‘they/them’. These little details are where things can fall through the cracks.”

Ahmed adds that women often are not overtly proactive or vocal in the workplace because of a fear of “negative branding” and being perceived as aggressive, whereas it would be seen as good leadership when it comes from a man. These unconscious biases are something companies must fight. 

“Unconscious biases can work against candidates who are from a minority group,” Sanusi says. “Black women in particular have been unfairly treated as if they are less skilled or less professional. The key here is that companies need to first accept that as people, we inherently have unconscious biases, and the very next step is to actively try and combat them. 

“If they haven’t, then I highly suggest management, especially those hiring, to seek implicit bias training. Look at your leadership team, are they heavily skewed to a specific type of person? How about the senior level staff, have you been only looking outwards instead of building up the talent you already have? Do the current employees get the proper training and guidance when requested? When looking for diverse candidates, do you question yourselves on why you’re not getting the desired reach, instead of defaulting on ‘lack of diverse candidates’?”

Providing Guidance

Mentorship is the best way to help progress the career of women in your company. The positive impact of role models has been expressed time and time again by people from underrepresented backgrounds. It’s difficult to project yourself into a space when you don’t see anyone looking like you already in it. 

“I’m a huge supporter of mentoring as it helps pinpoint areas of professional and personal improvement and, from an internal perspective, it’s the perfect way to learn on the job,” Buahin says. “Good mentors will provide encouragement and increase confidence which will empower decision making. And most importantly, empathy for the challenges faced by women in games.”

The lack of mentorship initiatives in the industry is what motivated Sanusi to create Limit Break in early 2019.

“I do think women should be seeking out role models and mentors,” she says. “At Limit Break, we foster a safe space for women to be able to talk openly and honestly without the fear of being reprimanded for being vulnerable. 

“For example, as a culture, we rarely talk about pay. Salaries can be one of the most contentious issues. Women are much more comfortable chatting about wages with each other than with their male counterparts. One of the very first topics the people in Limit Break talked about was salary negotiations. A huge part of the mentorship at the time talked about soft skills and navigating the workplace. Without a mentor or someone with more experience to speak to, most people will just settle on what the company may tell them their worth, when in fact the industry standard may well be above that.”

Different companies may have different approaches to mentorship. For instance, some may consider that women are better suited to mentoring women, as they will have a deeper understanding of the situation due to having a shared experience. But allyship is important, and men can also provide strong mentorship to women. Limit Break, for example, has both male and female mentors, and Isaaman mentions initiatives such as the UN’s HeForShe. The best thing to do is to follow the lead of the women at your company: listen to them to see what they’re comfortable with. 

“It depends on the nature of the industry in that specific country,” says Ahmed, who resides in Pakistan. “In places like Pakistan, women are more suited to mentoring women, mostly because there are some social queues and situations which men really can’t help women with. I’ve had male and female mentors over the years in different fields, but I’ve found that female mentors in games definitely help with more nuanced situations that men may not be attuned to picking up on.”

Isaaman adds: “Progressive thinking on models and mentors includes the shift from ‘fixing the women’ or ‘blaming the men’, to building a balanced business. Avivah Wittenberg Cox, CEO of 20-First, calls this ‘gender bilingual’ and states that companies need to broaden their vision as the world rebalances. Gender balance is not nice to have, it’s do or die, and do is better.”

Mentorship is only one facet of the myriads of options available to companies who wish to lift up the women in their workforce. 

“Ultimately, it’s very difficult for women to complain about the lack of opportunities, because there aren’t specific things you can point at to say ‘this thing is a clear example’,” Musio says. “Often it’s the lack of opportunities, the lack of challenges, the fact that women will often do the non-promotable tasks, that keeps them behind. There are key things we can do however to start moving the needle.”

She lists several actionable points that games companies can put in practice to ultimately improve the retention and promotion of women in their workforce, from keeping track of opportunities in your studios – for example, who gets to go on new projects – to keeping track of the ‘non-promotable tasks.’

“This includes taking notes in meetings, doing birthday/leaving cards, organising socials or lunches with the team... They’re very important and need doing, but if they don’t have a clear person assigned to them, they’ll often end up going to women in the company,” Musio explains. “Keep track of the wording being used to describe women in your studio. There are specific words used to prevent women from advancing that are not found in men’s reviews – difficult to work with, bossy, bitchy, aggressive, too emotional, overreacting. Make sure that women are included in meetings, and make sure you assess whether a woman is being interrupted, and interrupt the interrupter if that were to happen. Attribute credit carefully. When working on group tasks, studies have shown women get less credit for the same work, and that when failure happens, it tends to fall more harshly on women.”

Future Commitments

Twist adds that a big step that companies can take is to make a public commitment to building a better workplace culture. They can do so by committing to the #RaiseTheGame pledge at, for instance.

“By doing so and making specific pledges, games businesses of any size will put their companies on course to build a much better working environment,” Twist says. “As for what can be done for women in particular, my main advice is to make sure you listen to women, that you encourage them to develop their skills and that you get them into leadership roles where they have real power to enact positive action. That’s how you build a culture where women are truly valued, respected and can reach their potential.”

Finally, Musio highlights a really important point: making the industry better for women is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s the most visible fight at the moment, but ultimately it’s one that will benefit a wide diversity of people from underrepresented backgrounds, who should not be forgotten. 

“The games industry needs a lot of work to be welcoming to LGBTQ+ people, to people of colour, and to people of different classes,” she says. “It’s really encouraging to see these conversations about making the games industry welcoming to women, and important to note that a lot of the changes made for women will impact all marginalised groups. But we’ll only be able to fully grow as an industry if we start acknowledging that representation and diversity issues do not stop at women in games.”

And if you're still wondering what’s the most important thing to do to kickstart change, Ahmed puts it in a nutshell: “Simple. Being open to it.”

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