Pixelles is a volunteer-run nonprofit aiming to help more women make games, and improve games culture. It was founded in 2013 in Montreal, Canada, and boasts many successful programs, including incubators, workshops, events, and scholarships, which have helped hundreds of women enter and stay in the game industry..
Diversity and inclusivity programs are fairly common in bigger game studios now. They typically involve a better interview process, a mentorship program, and employee work-groups themed around different demographics. Some boast 50% or higher rates of hiring women, especially into junior positions.
Diversity initiatives tend to focus primarily on hiring for several enticing reasons:
- The existing population of experienced developers, especially in core roles, is staggeringly homogenous
- Universities, colleges, and internship programs are enthusiastic collaborators
- Success is easily tracked
Pixelles, a feminist non-profit, also started by focusing on training up new, aspiring, and junior women developers. But after speaking to some aspiring narrative designers, a mentor pulled me aside to express concern.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “They all want to work at my old studio. The one that I’m still going to therapy for years later. I can’t in good conscience help them enter that meat grinder.”
It stopped us in our tracks. She was right. Churn in games has always been a source of concern, but marginalized people burn out and leave the industry at a significantly faster rate than their colleagues*. And when the average career is five years long, that means they’re churning very quickly indeed. That’s why we’ve started our career accelerator here in Montreal a few years ago (previously called a co-development or peer mentorship), kindly sponsored this year by Motive Studios EA.
What does it matter if your diverse hires don’t stick around once they’re experienced?
What does it mean if, years after hiring a broad and diverse cast of entry-level developers, the managers all still look the same?
The reasons women leave can be difficult to see, from the perspective of HR or company leadership, because nobody wants to burn bridges in their exit interviews. So it often just “seems” to “coincidentally” happen that women trickle away over time.
However, we’ve spoken to dozens of women that have thought of leaving their company, and/or the game industry. Several key elements listed below lead to women** feeling they have no choice but to leave your studio, or the industry as a whole.
*Accelerated burnout of marginalized people has been our personal observation, based on a network of thousands of game developers over many years. However, we don’t have hard data to support this belief, as game companies do not track this data. If you manage to convince yours (or the IGDA) to start tracking it, we’d love to hear about it.
**It’s possible these same elements also affect people of color, other marginalized genders, folks of different abilities, etc. However, we suspect each demographic has unique needs that would benefit from tailored support, so even though some statements were given by women of intersectional identities, we’ve restricted our statements to women only.
Most people need to see someone like them succeed in order to believe it’s possible for themselves within an organization. An absence of role models is one of the top indicators of an otherwise-invisible glass ceiling. Therefore, you need to hire or retain a woman at the senior/management level, to hope to keep many women long-term.
If your women keep leaving as juniors or mid-level devs, this can trap your culture into a bitter cycle, requiring high investment in hiring women at the highest levels of power to change culture from the top down.
- Solution 1: Promote more women within your organization into leadership.
- Solution 2: Hire women into the management and executive levels.
- Solution 3: Increase powerful womens’ visibility within your organization (with their consent)
“Being able to design how I work was a requirement if I want to have the work/life balance I need”
“They wouldn’t let me take unpaid leave when I needed to, so I had to quit.”
“There was a period in my life when I could only work 3 days a week, and my company would never allow or support that.”
Women are more likely to need to take time off or work flexibly. Even if you manage to eliminate all expectations of overtime/crunch, women are more likely to have dependents (children, elderly parents, etc.) and feel obligated to properly care for them. Therefore, women will then also suffer disproportionately from any rigidity in your work expectations.
- Partial Solution: Eliminate ‘crunch’.
- Full Solution: Allow for part-time work or time off as needed.
“I only knew two other moms in all the hundreds of folks I worked with. One had a full time nanny and the other’s husband worked from home”
“I’d seen a grand total of one game dev mom before this and I clung to her on Twitter as a sign of hope”
“I wasn’t looking to leave the game industry, but I was looking for something stable and family-friendly [and] I really wanted to advance my career and be a lead or director… [so I took a job outside the games industry]”
Many women have no interest in being mothers. However, if an aspiring mother feels she can’t spend the time her family requires of her, and doesn’t see any mothers in positions of authority/management, she’s less likely to think it will be possible for her to stay, long-term.
In many ways, mothers who are devs are the canary in the coal mine. For every reason a childless woman has to leave your company or the industry (burnout, toxic culture, lack of role models), a mother is likely to have all of those reasons and more.
According to recent reports, 86% of American women of age intend to or have had children. And unfortunately, since many women experience double standards or unfair burden sharing between men and women in their household, motherhood can mean more responsibility than fatherhood.
If you’re not supporting mothers, you’re automatically lowering your retention of women to 14%, not counting other potential problems with your culture for non-parenting women.
- Solution 1: Hire or promote mothers into management and executive levels. Increase their visibility within your organization (with their consent).
- Solution 2: Subsidized or on-site child care.
“[I was] getting really disillusioned with the lip service the leaders paid to diversity and inclusion without actually making any significant steps to address issues.”
“Everyone was enthusiastic and supportive when I was new and eager to be mentored. But after a few years when I started trying to mentor others, or angle for a promotion, my male colleagues became more competitive and hostile.”
Women seem less willing to put up with toxicity than their male colleagues, even when they are not the victim, especially as they gain experience. Remember that professionally abusive individuals are often very good at managing upwards — the worst offenders in your studio may be the ones you trust most!
Obviously, nobody tries to or wants to have an unsafe work environment, and you probably have somewhere that’s pretty fun to work…for a certain kind of person anyway! But you might have an environment that’s just harmful enough to drive away the more vulnerable, or harmful in a way that’s specifically uncomfortable for women, while being tolerable (or even enjoyable) for other types of employees. Put another way, “I challenge you to create a culture that doesn’t rely on alcohol and negative jokes for team building.”
It’s a tricky problem to solve, probably the trickiest on this list, but there’s been plenty of science and research from human resource specialists on how to find and address toxicity in a workplace, across many industries, so study it seriously and/or hire a consultant. Even if everyone who sticks around seems to be having a great time.
- Solution 1: Take exit interviews of all candidates extremely seriously. Look for patterns.
- Solution 2: Hire a work culture consultant to help analyze your culture (and especially your leadership & management) for potential blind spots.
In North America, when it comes to money, we have a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But generally, women are paid less and given fewer raises, even when they ask for them as often.
If you keep your pay opaque and passively allow normal societal forces to work their magic, chances are that your employees are not being paid equitably. This is a ticking time bomb, because when your employees find out they’ve been underpaid, they may feel there is no alternative but to leave and hope to find fairness elsewhere.
- Partial solution: Proactively assess your pay for potential inequalities and ensure raises are not primarily awarded based on perception of merit, outspokenness, or other bias-prone criteria.
- Full Solution: Make your pay more transparent and standardized across the company, so you can be held accountable for any discrepancies.
Especially when in combination with the other factors, women are more likely to leave a situation where they bear the burden of being “the woman” on the team. This means they’ll feel tokenized by default and put on the defensive, even if nobody ever explicitly asks them to provide their special “perspective”.
One woman we spoke to was hired into a team of 40% women developers. Over the following years, the women trickled away (likely for other reasons on this list) from the team. She didn’t notice until the team lead made an inappropriate joke in the middle of a meeting — and turned to her to personally apologize, ignoring the other devs in the room. The lead felt he was being extra-considerate of her needs, while she suddenly felt she was being singled out as different and out of place, in front of everyone. Afterwards, she felt there was nobody on the team she could talk to about her discomfort with the situation, and isolated.
In other words, minor infractions or culture problems that would normally be tolerable become exacerbated by stereotype threat.
- Solution: Always hire multiple women to work on the same team.
Women are more likely to leave when they notice patterns of unfair gender expectations, which they see could lead to more burdens (most often emotional or organizational) in addition to their regular duties.
For example, if it “just happens” that otherwise similarly-qualified women plan all the team birthdays, or clean out the office fridge, or take all the meeting notes, while men seem to be “too busy”, this sends the message that women’s time is less valuable. Frustratingly, women often take on these extra duties voluntarily without anyone asking them to, requiring management to intervene to ensure tasks are equitably distributed.
Women rarely cite this as the only reason they would leave, but rather it’s mentioned as a contributing factor.
- Solution: Proactively prevent gendered practices from adding unpaid responsibilities to ‘random’ women on staff, such as note-taking, event planning, office management, or emotional labor.
You can do the math yourself to prove retention matters more than hiring. Let’s say Company A and Company B are both 200-people with equivalent gender ratios (29% F, 69% M, and 2% non-binary).
Both companies hire 100 people next year.
Company A hires 20 F or X, 80 M, but has a ‘normal’ churn of 8% per year.
Company B hires 50 F or X, 50 M, but has a ‘high’ churn of 20% per year.
Counterintuitively, Company A will have a better gender balance at the end of the year, despite objectively worse balance on the intake side. That’s because retention matters much more.
The problems listed here aren’t unique to games, or probably even to tech! In a societal context where women face double standards and an unfair portion of labor at home, they’re often more sensitive to workplace demands.
In other words, it’s an unsolved problem. Hiring even 100% of women into junior positions won’t make a serious, long-term difference to our current demographic if we don’t put in the time and effort to change our companies in the way we must in order to help them thrive. Programs like the Pixelles Career Accelerator will hopefully help a bit, but they can only band-aid unless the core culture changes.
Marginalized people often face stereotype threat, microaggressions, and feelings of isolation, which quickly lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout. Even with mentorship programs and the most well-intentioned supervisors, as a marginalized person gains in experience and becomes a mid-level developer, their once-friendly colleagues may become more competitive, or even resentful of their advancement. And as senior developers or eventually at the executive-track, promotions stop being about your CV and start becoming a matter of trust and personal credibility within a network of increasing homogeneity.
To truly have a positive, lasting impact on the industry, studio leadership should watch out for:
- Unclear paths of advancement
- Lack of role models
- Hostile work environments
- Rigid work schedules
- Implicitly discouraged motherhood
- Reinforcement of gender roles
Addressing these issues head-on can improve our companies, lower churn, extend careers, and therefore improve the games we make. We are an industry poised to make a difference — we’re not just big and powerful, we’re sensitive to system design, and we’re all creative problem-solvers.
So let’s turn those problem-solving minds towards our company policies/culture, and make the industry we want to see.