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Addressing the more opt-repeated and harmful excuses against actively recruiting more diverse speakers for gaming conferences, and how we can do better!

Robin Yang, Blogger

September 27, 2013

12 Min Read

Last week, I spoke out about the all-male speaker list at the Gaming Insiders Summit here in San Francisco in October. Though I was initially happy to see they’d chosen a handful of male friends of mine, I was stunned to see that there were no female speakers listed (although a few of us joked that the placeholder “Special Guest” silhouette COULD have been a woman, it later turned out to be Ken Levine). Despite being somewhat jaded about the situation and in disbelief that any well-meaning organizer could’ve missed such a glaring issue, I ended up spending the greater part of a day trying to find out what had led to this situation and pushing for a change.

Thankfully, I was met with support from my peers and a surprising ally where I thought there would only be adversaries  -- Gaming Insiders founder David Kaye and I ended up having a thoughtful conversation where I continued to insist that there was a solution and in the end, he and his co-founder Kristin Alexander came up with some possible options to feature more women in their lineup, admitting in the process that he was embarrassed that the lack of diversity had to be pointed out to them. As of this writing, they’ve updated their speaker list to include TechCrunch journalist Kim Mai-Cutler, UCSC’s Associate Director at the Center for Games and Playable Media Jane Pinckard, and Kongregate co-founder Emily Greer.

That said -- three women out of a total 20 speakers is still a far cry from what a diverse lineup could look like, and that this issue went unaddressed until it was directly pointed out remains a red flag about the state of the game industry. And while it was great to hear from people with a similar degree of frustration as mine, it was shocking and disappointing to read posts from those insisting that there wasn’t a problem with speaker representation and diversity at all.

So, I wanted to address and dismantle some of the more oft-repeated and harmful misconceptions that we hear given as excuses for why low numbers of women speaking at game conferences isn’t a problem. These excuses have been criticized by others before, but since they continue to pop up, it’s worth continuing to point out that at best, they are wrong, and at worst, they perpetuate tired stereotypes about who does and doesn’t belong in the game industry.


#Six Reasons Why

1. "We don't look at gender or quotas, we just focus on choosing the best."

The speaker selection process for events like the Gaming Insiders Summit, GDC, Indiecade and so on varies from organization to organization, but suffice to say that the goal is to get the “best” speakers lined up for the benefit of your audience. How an organizer quantifies “best” depends on what their conference is focused on, so given that even the most well-intentioned selection process will be subjective (because we’re human), what are the chances that all of the “best” speakers happen to be men?

Let’s even posit that your conference is focused on the culture of hyper-masculine, AAA multiplayer, first-person shooter types of games, the kind that women are still routinely harassed for playing. Would you truly be able to say that there were no women more qualified to speak on the subject than even the least qualified of your male speakers, that there would be nothing gained from having a female perspective on the matter? In an age where 45% of gamers are women (and 60% of mobile gamers are women), you’d have to be organizing an event for an incredibly specific niche of the industry for this to hold true.


2. "We asked one woman, but she said no."

Making an attempt for one token representative of a different gender (or a minority) doesn’t win you any ‘karma’ points. It’s not enough to just think of being inclusive (see Louis C.K.’s segment on giving up his airplane seat). You have to value the end result of actually having a diverse speaker list, and commit more than the minimum amount of effort to make it happen.

What does it say to your attendees about how thoughtfully you’re spending the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars they’ve paid to be there if such seemingly little attention is paid to the selection of voices they’ll be hearing from? Organizers routinely track down and secure dozens of highly sought-after and busy entrepreneurs and CEOs for their keynotes -- to give up after just one or two turned the opportunity down would be unheard of.

Here’s another solution: even if your first choice for a female speaker isn’t available, she’s bound to know other women who would happily be considered. Ask her for a top five list of candidates and get started from there.


3. "We've already filled our speaker spots, so there's nothing we can do now."

If you are the organizer of an event who knows about the importance of diversity, then who exactly is holding you back from making changes necessary to better reflect those values? Given that speaker lineups are publicized well in advance of the actual conference to boost interest, it seems unlikely that there are no possible changes to consider. Even high-profile and complex events like GDC are able to accommodate last-minute amendments, cancellations and substitutions. If we’re creative, there are more options on the table than having to drop existing speakers. Here are a handful of ideas:

  • Add a new panel so that you can shuffle existing speakers around to create new openings (hint: not a new panel specifically about women developers).

  • Rent another room at a hotel down the street or find a happy-hour bar or cafe to crash.

  • Add additional speakers to existing panel sessions.

  • Raise the issue with your board, and with your existing speakers. See if they feel just as uncomfortable with the status quo and want to help find solutions.

Sure these are unconventional practices, but I’d wager that your attendees would appreciate the extra effort taken to provide them with what they’ll see as *extra* value.


4. "There are so few female developers in the industry!"

Comparatively, sure. But we are not an industry of 100 people. While it’s true that women make up roughly 10% of the game industry, there is no shortage of talented, capable and passionate female developers. They’re not hard to find - in fact, they’re often more visible due to the communities used to network with each other. Just take a look at the Women in Games International and Women in Gaming organizations that foster conversation among these groups on a daily basis. Anyone on those boards could give you a dozen contacts to reach out to, including a lot of names that will ring a bell (“Oh right, there have been women involved in high-profile, mega-successful game launches”) as well as many that have flown under the radar.

A related sentiment: "But there are so few female leaders in the industry!"

Let me Google that for you.


5. "They're not established enough.”

Look, I understand that an event needs a handful of “known” personalities to draw attention to itself, but if your entire speaker list is made up of established players in this space, you’re basically telling me that I’m paying you hundreds of dollars to hear things that I could sit home and YouTube instead.

‘Not established’ should be looked upon as a huge opportunity. Whose organization gets name-dropped and linked to when the video of a smart, fresh new voice in the games industry goes viral? I’d be much more willing to take a chance on an event that presents us with never-before-heard-of rising innovators (men and women both!) than one that simply gathers well-known veterans, no matter how interesting and relevant they still may be, especially in a rapidly-changing landscape.


6. "We called for proposals and only a few women submitted."

This one may in fact be a legitimate reason an event ends up with fewer female speakers than ideal. The larger trend of women’s tendencies not to put themselves forward has been well-documented in the issue of wage gaps, institutional inequities and so forth -- it’s also appeared in our own industry, as lamented by No Show Conf organizer Courtney Stanton, who shared this about her experience:

“When I’d talk to men about the conference and ask if they felt like they had an idea to submit for a talk, they’d *always* start brainstorming on the spot. I’m not generalizing — every guy I talked to about speaking was able to come up with an idea, or multiple ideas, right away…and yet, overwhelmingly the women I talked to with the same pitch deferred with a, “well, but I’m not an expert on anything,” or “I wouldn’t know what to submit,” or “yes but I’m not a *lead* [title], so you should talk to my boss and see if he’d want to present.” […] I came away from the process of promoting and recruiting potential speakers with a bitter, unwilling sympathy for event organizers who say, “there aren’t any women speaking because no women applied.”

Legitimate reason? Yes. Excuse to perpetuate the status quo? Hardly. There are numerous ways to get more female applicants (Courtney mentions reaching out to them directly to solicit pitches); as an organizer, the important point is recognizing that if you know that there’s a problem, and that problem is standing directly in the way of your event getting the best speakers that it can, then you absolutely must do something to address it. Yes, one half of the solution is figuring out how to encourage more women to submit proposals on their own -- the other half is showing them without a doubt that they’ll not only be welcomed, but that their participation is vital to your event’s success.


Here is what you can do

If you are planning a conference and you'd like to have a more diverse speaker list, there are plenty of groups like aforementioned organizations who whose members would be happy to help you find qualified women. There have also been attempts at assembling references here and here. The key here isn't to create a panel about diversity (IMO, we’ve had plenty of “What It’s Like to be a Woman in Games” panels), it's about having the speakers reflect more broadly what the industry composition is, and therefore present a more well-rounded set of viewpoints. Knowing what we know about the ratio of women to men applying for speaker positions, if you are wholeheartedly intent on getting more women on stage, recognize that it will take additional effort on the part of your team to get those applications in the first place.

If you are asked to speak at a conference, inquire about their selection/vetting process and specifically ask about how many women are currently confirmed to speak. I’m sympathetic that there may be business, branding, and/or personal reasons that you may not want to make waves when a conference has already accepted you, but a way to be a part of the solution is to raise the issue and make sure the organizer is aware of inherent biases that might otherwise go unchecked. These events reflect the values of the participants too, after all.

And lastly, if you are attending a conference, you’re going to take a look at the speaker list anyways -- make a note of how many women you see listed. If they don’t have diverse representation in the speaker lineup, email the organizer and let them know you’re disappointed. Offer the names of speakers you’d love to hear about the topics they’ve already listed. Suggest that you are not interested in attending if they decide not to make any changes. We've spent weeks discussing why many of us are choosing not to support Penny Arcade with our money, and we should do the same with the conferences we attend. These patterns won’t change unless the audience becomes more vocal about the values they hold, and hold back on their support for events that show otherwise.


Diversity is not just for women

Getting more women speakers onto conference schedules is not the only axis we can improve diversity on. When was the last time you attended an ethnically diverse conference? Most of the misconceptions addressed above are magnified even more when it comes to non-white representation (with the major exception of eastern Asians). Or what about those from different socioeconomic statuses? The costs of flying to a convention in another city and book a hotel if it’s not covered are non-trivial. The ability to take time off from a day job (especially if you are in one outside of the industry) or find caregivers for your kids, and the kicker, to actually have the time to prepare content for a talk is not inconsequential for many people. What are some creative solutions we can come up with to equalize the access to information we have in the industry?

We need to continue to address these issues comprehensively before we’re able to insist that our events offer the “best” content. Let’s start with getting better, more balanced content by thinking critically about the diversity of speakers we invite. Is it going to be easy? Hell no. But it starts with a conversation, and the sooner we get past these irrational excuses for not having a woman featured in your speaker lineup, the sooner we’ll find solutions.

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