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Celebrating tech's unsung women pioneers, Romero calls for game dev gender parity

"This is about diversity, not exclusion," veteran game maker Brenda Romero said today in her GDC Summer talk on the hidden histories of women in computing. "It’s important for us to get to equal."

Alex Wawro, Contributor

August 4, 2020

5 Min Read

Game industry veteran and Romero Games cofounder Brenda Romero appeared at GDC Summer to deliver a talk about some of the hidden histories of women in computing, and how their work has influenced the way we make games today.

Romero's core argument was that just a handful of notable women throughout history (like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper) are repeatedly held up as the women pioneers in tech.

They eminently deserve that recognition, but Romero wants to see the number of women coders in games and tech reach parity with the number of male coders, and she hopes to do that by raising awareness about the many, many other women throughout history who made meaningful contributions but aren't household names. 

In the course of her half-hour talk, which was peppered with example after example of notable women in games and tech (from Margaret Hamilton to Dona Bailey to Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, pictured), she charted the women-led rise of computing throughout the 20th century and highlighted some of the reasons she believes men have come to dominate games and tech in the 21st.

It’s part and parcel of what she sees as a gradual erasure of women in computing that's led to a modern computing industry that’s predominantly male, and given rise to popular (mis)perceptions like “women just aren’t interested in coding.”

“Women are interested in coding,” said Romero. “There are ways to bring them back. I deeply believe [the perception that they don’t] was a temporary aberration that was engineered. And I believe we can reach parity. How can we do that? First, I think we need to clear away the myths.”

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, an early computing pioneer who helped create BASIC

To that end she shared stories of how women had played pivotal roles in everything from optimizing compilers to calculating a safe and successful moon landing, as well key creative roles at influential game companies like Atari and Sierra. Romero walked attendees through her own career in the game industry, highlighting how much more common it was to see women in positions of creative and business leadership in the '80s, when she was just starting out at Wizardry maker Sir-Tech.

"During this time, I never saw myself as a woman in a man's world," Romero said of her early years at Sir-Tech. "In fact, my world at the time was mostly women."

A photo Romero shared of Sir-Tech staff at the time she was hired. From left to right: Sir-Tech president Fred Sirotek, Janice Woodhead, Robert Woodhead, Robert Sirotek, Jean Bromley, Peter Bresett, Lynn Dupree, Norman Sirotek, and Linda Sirotek

She reminded attendees that in the early days of computing, it was predominantly seen as women’s work.

"Women literally were the first computers; that's what this job is called," said Romero, showing black-and-white photos of women operating early computing machines. "Up until the late '60s, IBM in the UK measured code in 'girl-hours'."

Romero pointed out that while women did everything from physically build early computers to work on programming languages, compilers, and more, their contributions as laborers, engineers, and computers were often diminished.

"It was primarily women who built the ZX Spectrum, and this is one of the most important computers in early European coding," said Romero. "But these women were made to feel just as if they were assembly-line workers...not really part of this technological movement."

Romero said this was around the time she was in college, and she remembers there were "loads of women" studying computing along with her. 

"It was really a job that was heavily promoted towards women," said Romero. But over time she began to notice more and more men taking it seriously. "As the importance of this goes up...the pay goes up. And as the pay goes up, men start to come in."

Romero described this as a consequence of the cultural standards at the time; as computer work became better respected and compensated, men began filling the field and women began to depart. 

"We were really on the verge of a female-led tech revolution, but our culture was not ready for it; it was a mismatch," she continued. "And so this period we're in now could just be an aberration."

We can only hope so, as the period we're in now has been repeatedly punctuated by allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by men in the game industry at influential companies like Ubisoft, Insomniac, and elsewhere. Romero says she's had her own run-ins with problematic men in games, though she also points out that every woman's experience is unique and that asking any one person to sum up the experiences of their gender is another burden placed on women.

"I've talked to many women in the industry, and some will say I really haven't had any issue; and then I will talk to other women and they've had shocking issues," Romero said. "I've largely had a great experience, but I've certainly had my fair share of weird things, things that I consider unacceptable."

Romero wants the industry to work towards a future where everyone feels welcome to make games, and she believes a great way to do that is to ensure that when someone walks into a game development studio or class, they see others who look like they do.

“This is about diversity, not exclusion. It’s important for us to get to equal,” she said. “We all need role models, and we need their stories to inspire us. So that's why it's so incredibly important not to comment women out of history, but to include women.

"Ultimately, game dev is for everyone. Code is for everyone. And I want anybody who wants in these doors to come on in and see people who look like them, whether they’re school kids or entry-level in the job...or they’re at the CTO level," she concluded. “I want everybody to feel welcome in this industry."

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