GDC 2012: Sheppard on the problem with 'women in games' initiatives

Metanet's Mare Sheppard explains why she feels "women in games" initiatives are just a band-aid for a wider problem -- and why they may actually further industry segregation rather than address it.
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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