How To Open Up The Treehouse

Add Gender CEO Pernilla Alexandersson on making the industry more inclusive

Like many a young industry, ours prides itself on being ahead of the curve as often as possible. We're the gazelle to the elephants, agile and ready to adapt. However, in some aspects, parts of the workforce and customer base can express painfully old-fashioned attitudes - often crossing the fairly broad line between antediluvian and outright offensive. One of those arenas, and I can sense some of the eyes rolling here, is gender inequality.

Whether it's in the workplace, the products or the audience, gaming is rife with misogyny and misrepresentation. It's harmful to everyone. It damages self-perception, forms stereotypes, dashes opportunities and, at the bottom line, damages business. For some, it's a background noise to be ignored. For others, it's a calling. For yet more, it's a tragically unavoidable fact of life.

Women are undeniably treated with inequality in many areas of games and gaming and whether you think it's down to the behaviour of individuals, an embedded social patriarchy or a bit of both, it's in the best interests of us all to address that imbalance. However, as a straight, white male, I'm clearly playing this game on the 'easiest difficulty', to steal a phrase from John Scalzi, so perhaps I'm not the one to preach.

Wanting to learn more, I caught up with Pernilla Alexandersson, CEO and founder of gender equality consultancy Add Gender, at the recent Nordic Game show. Our interview is below, and hopefully you can expect to see more from Pernilla on the site soon.

A:Can you start by explaining your role and the sort of businesses you're involved in?

Pernilla Alexandersson:I'm the CEO and founder of Add Gender - we've been advising people on gender inequality for five years. Actually we have clients in all industries, from forestry to telecoms to education and amusements. We have a wide range of clients.

"I always wanted to work with games when I was small because I loved them, I loved to program and so on. But somewhere along the way I started to feel excluded"

The reason that we're closely involved in the games industry, and have been for a while, is that I myself have always been a gamer. I always wanted to work with games when I was small because I loved them, I loved to program and so on. But somewhere along the way I started to feel excluded, because of my gender. So that's why I spend a lot of time working with the industry, it's where my heart is.

We have three areas: analysis, education and advice. We have eleven people in the team now, from just me when I started it five years ago.

A:Which games clients do you work with?

Pernilla Alexandersson:Actually we work a lot with industry trade bodies in Sweden but a lot of our other clients are confidential. We do work with both large and small companies, though. As you know we have a lot of developers based in Sweden, so we have a wide range of clients.

A:Scandinavia is generally perceived as an area which already has a much higher awareness of gender issues than most. I've not heard of this sort of consultancy operating anywhere else - do you think that there's scope for it in other regions?

Pernilla Alexandersson:That's an interesting question. We've been working with Finland a little bit, they have maybe one other gender consultant in the country and we have something like 250. So actually we have the biggest gender equality industry in the Nordic region.

We've been working with Iceland, Estonia, Lithuania and so on. We feel like every country has its own issues. It's like companies. Even if a company is really gender balanced in terms of workforce and structure then they still need to focus on keeping that up. It's the same with countries - even those who have come really far need to make sure they're keeping it up. It's not something that's naturally self-perpetuating.

In Estonia, for example, they have the biggest gender pay gap in Europe - I think it's something like 39 per cent. Only four per cent of that can be explained by things like part time work, so they need to start there. They also have a very different angle on equality because of their cultural history.

"If you create that structure and have an inclusive culture, women will come to the industry"

A:Gender inequality in games is obviously a bit of a vicious circle: traditionally they've been made by a small demographic for a small demographic. Where do you break that circle? Do you start with employment, the audience or the content?

Pernilla Alexandersson:The most important thing to get across is that it's not all about representation, it's not only about the stereotypes in the games. It's about building a better workplace, being a good employment brand - but it's also about having fun. I've been to Nordic Game a number of times now and people always tell me that they'd prefer things to be more equal. You don't have to fix everything at once, that's unrealistic. I mostly focus on what we call structural and cultural gender equality - the balance arises from that.

If you create that structure and have an inclusive culture, women will come to the industry, as well as different types of male workers. Then I think you'll find that the stereotypical representations in games will start to change. I think the other end, the stereotypes, the representation and the education, are the three hardest to start with. A lot of women who I know who've joined the industry don't stay long, because they don't feel included. If you don't have the proper structure and culture at the company then you're not going to fix the problem in the long term. You have to work within the companies.

It's just like any other area. If you don't have a strategy for attracting clients, you'll go out of business. If you don't plan communication or advertising, they won't happen on their own. It's the same. We have to work with leadership to shape the culture of the company.

A:When it's suggested that the responsibility for gender equality belongs to employers, we've seen some fairly indignant reactions. People often conflate it with a necessity for positive discrimination or take it as a criticism. Do you experience that too?

Pernilla Alexandersson:I get resistance, of course. I can understand it, too - we're often talking to men about employing more women. In my own company, if someone from the outside came in and said: "we need to get rid of you so we can make room for a man because you don't employ enough of them," I'd probably tell them to get out of my business!"

"I get resistance, of course. I can understand it, too - we're often talking to men about employing more women"

But actually the discrimination act is written this way - it is the responsibility of anyone who employs more than 25 people. So I think that anger is partly down to it being a fairly young business which has grown quite fast, so these are people who have started small and are starting to have to take responsibility now. Also, these are creative companies - they want to be creative, not think about structure.

But when you grow you do have to start to think about structure, otherwise you won't be making the most of your team or your brand. Women are potentially 50 per cent of your audience - in Sweden around 36 per cent of gamers are already women - but we don't see them in the games stores. For me, being a gamer, when I want to buy good games it's incredibly frustrating because the gender perspectives can be hundreds of times better. Women are knocking on the door, but they're not being let in - we can fix that with culture and strategy.

It's not really an emotional issue. People often disagree, both sides can get angry and frustrated, but the business opportunity is too big to miss out on.

A:The rise in the number of female gamers has in large part been attributed to the growth of casual and mobile markets. Do you think they exhibit a more sensible gender perspective?

Pernilla Alexandersson:I think that, in casual gaming, the business opportunity of women as a market is so obviously standing right in front of you so it's been harder to not address it. In my opinion we could be being so much more innovative if we didn't just stumble on things like this, we should be doing things properly. Maybe that's why they're successful.

"we're starting with gender, but you always need to have that intersectionality perspective or else you lose a lot"

A:Gender is a non-binary issue and transgender people are beginning to make themselves heard in gaming too. Do we need to address the traditional male/female imbalance first or should we be practising more intersectionality?

Pernilla Alexandersson:Male and female gender equality is the key to opening everything, I think. In Sweden at least you're allowed to monitor things like the male and female pay gap - it's in the law and it's an easy thing to measure. Then you can see if you're making progress, so that's a good place to start, but we do actually work from the perspective of intersectionality to see what other identities need analysis.

So we might do a survey of a company and find that they have a big issue in terms of the racial diversity of their workforce, but gender would be the best way to start talking about it because it's so easily observable and quantifiable because you're aiming at 50/50. So that's why we're starting with gender, but you always need to have that intersectionality perspective or else you lose a lot of really important dimensions to understanding a company's problems.

When people say 'We can fix this ourselves, we don't need a consultant,' I think they underestimate the knowledge you gather when you work from that intersectional perspective.

A:We've, somewhat predictably, seen a lot of negative and defensive reactions to work in this field - particularly to the fairly confrontational pieces being produced by women like Anita Sarkeesian. Is that sort of head-on approach counter productive, or is anything else just pandering to outdated beliefs?

"Whenever you're being confrontational from an external perspective, you always need to make sure that there's a dialogue"

Pernilla Alexandersson:I'm always very grateful to people who push the lines - I'm working much more from the inside but I don't think I would have ever come in if it hadn't been for people pushing those lines from the outside. However, personally I never try and turn things into me vs. you or us vs. them - that adversarial, confrontational thing. Whenever you're being confrontational from an external perspective, you always need to make sure that there's a dialogue and I don't always see that dialogue. It can become very them and us and then the two never meet.

When I've been in industries when there's been a lot of confrontation I've always called both parties and tried to make them talk. I think it's great that in this industry we have events like this conference which are addressing the gender inequality issue because it's the only way to bring people together. When we're gathering here to discuss this, my mission is to be the diplomatic dialogue keeper because I can understand a lot of different sides of the argument, I've been in a lot of industries.

When people say 'we can't do that here,' I see that in every industry so I can always have that perspective - we can fix this, because they fixed it over here, or over there. So I hope I can contribute to that. I think we're in the process now, so we can start talking to each other and not at each other.

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Latest comments (18)

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development5 years ago
lol. oh well, reroll...

"because you're aiming at 50/50"

I hope that "you're" isn't aimed at me. I look to employ people on a case by case basis and couldn't give a rats ass about colour, gender, etc. If anyone says anything different then they're being "ist".
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Pernilla Alexandersson CEO Add Gender 5 years ago
Thank you Paul for reading and taking time to commenting, I don't want it to be a polemic discussion so it means a lot to get feedback.
No one is aiming at you, so keep up your gut feeling, if that is the thing that works for you.
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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship5 years ago
Hi Pernilla,

Often when I read articles on the gender divide in the industry I'm struck by how little is said about working conditions. The industry is, on average (with notable exceptions), a terrible place to work if you value a stable family life. Many are forced to studio-hop to keep employed, moving studios / cities / countries on a semi-regular basis.

It seems that this debate is framed mostly by right-on, progressive, twenty-somethings – but demographically *most* people have kids (eventually). There’s only a brief window in your employed life where you don’t have kids, aren’t tied to schools and nurseries and vital family networks. It’s easy to forget this in the games industry, because it’s populated largely by twenty-something males. I suspect that if the industry could address its chronic instability, you’d do more to address the gender imbalance (and the age imbalance!) than almost any other action you could take. Women (and men) with families value workplace flexibility enormously.

I don’t in any way dismiss the focus on other aspects, nor are they undeserving of attention – but if we don’t address, somehow, the volatility and uncertainty around your average dev studio, then however many women we attract we will simply lose as they begin to start families.
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Show all comments (18)
Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend5 years ago
You make some good points there Nick.

From my experience the games industries employment practices are fine as they are. There are NO barriers for females to enter the industry apart from their own want/will to do so. It's not like there is a bouncer at the door of every games developer saying "If you ain't a bloke, then you ain't getting in!!"

This sex divide issue goes waaaayyyy deeper. It starts the moment we are born and everything in society is there to reinforce it. Just look around you...... You really need to go back to education to sort this crap out.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 19th June 2013 2:22pm

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Pernilla Alexandersson CEO Add Gender 5 years ago
Hi Nick, thank you for your thoughts. I totally agree with you. On Nordic Game I also held a presentation with the title "In the intersect between stress and creativity" addressing the working condition in the industry. And as you say, if we address it in that way we also will find answers regarding inclusion and gender equality.

So: what you can see is that equality issues in organizational development is a concrete and fun way of improving the working condition overall. We've seen it in many industries, for example in Sweden in the mining industry and forestry, where gender mainstreaming of the organization gives the male empolyees a much better and safer working environment and the employer sees sick leave reduce and other profits due to the gender equality work.

"Loosing women" when they begin to start families is a common observation in both the lawyers workplaces and in the PR workplaces. There are fortunately many examples of best practices that I think that the gaming industry would be able to copy, if we just manage to takes us through "the why-discussion" and all of this "stop talking about gender - it's not about gender". Because it is about a lot of things, but the interesting part is "how then make it even better".
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Pernilla Alexandersson CEO Add Gender 5 years ago
Darren, thank you for your comment. Yes, we need to "go back to education", as you so wisely point out. This is a common argument in almost every industry "it starts in the education". This is somewhat a shift in responsibility that could go on for ages... Trust me.

I'll say that you can work every where at the same time, but you need to collaborate.

Also, in Sweden anyhow, the gaming educations are affected by the big employers in the industry, so... if the leaders at this big empolyers affect the educations, maybe it should start with the leadership at the companies?

Then we are back where we started.

In Sweden I work with the industry organization and that has been very rewarding, having presentations and trainings for production leaders, HR-staff, teachers and CEO:s from many organizations at the same time. What do you think of that?
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Richard Westmoreland Senior Game Designer, Codemasters Birmingham5 years ago
We have a chicken and egg situation. Will having a more inclusive industry encourage encourage more girls to pick gaming as a career path? Or will encouraging more girls to pick gaming as a career path lead to a more inclusive industry? I guess the answer is probably that both of these need tackling at the same time, rather than trying to work out which should come first.
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Pernilla Alexandersson CEO Add Gender 5 years ago
Richard! That is a good conclusion. "Think big, act small, start now."
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.5 years ago
Innate interest. That is the number 1 hurdle. You simply need more girls at a young age to have an innate interest in the video game industry. You need to have them interested before they become cynical, before they become aware of the inequality issues, etc... Because no matter how much change we implement to achieve equality, if the interest isn't there, neither will be the targeted people.

A further note, I fully support equality in all industries and aspects of life (my wife and I reversed roles for many years while I took care of the kids while she worked) but it must be understood first and foremost that a business is never supposed to deny employment to one group in favor of another. That's not equality. I know your business and objective doesn't advocate such but many will find it so at the fundamental level. I'm sure you've run into this probably on a daily basis.

I've learned (even as a white male...I did grow up in a predominantly poor, black neighborhood; yes, that means it was a ghetto) that not all aspects of life can be equalized without unbalancing aspects for the currently dominant group/sex/religion/age/etc.... Equality is a noble gesture. One which should be strived for by all. But we must be careful that we don't tip the scales in favor of the disenfranchised at the cost of established. Balance is tricky such that it really isn't possible to fully achieve it in all aspects. With that in mind, we are better equipped to serve ourselves by being the best we can be. Don't wait for laws or the industry to allow you into the club, become the best damn "insert whatever here" you can be and blaze the trail yourself.

Don't get me wrong, Pernilla, I think what you and others like you do is quite noble and indeed necessary but I think, and I'm sure you don't need me to tell you this, that our biggest issue is innate interest. To change this would require a fundamental shift in social cultures world wide beginning at an early age. I don't envy that job but bless you be the one who makes it so.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend5 years ago
I get what you are saying but at the end of the day what the hell are us studio owners supposed to do?? If the interest from women isn't there to be developers then our hands are tied. I am an equal opportunities employer and have had a couple of females work with us on projects, though the majority of people that apply to us are male.

I also work part time teaching programming at university and for the years I have been there the student split is pretty much 90% male, 10% female every time (or even 100% male). What exactly are we supposed to do to change this? As Jim has pointed out, you can't tip the scales so it is 'easier' for women to get int the games industry because that is just plain silly and helps nobody.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 19th June 2013 4:34pm

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Pernilla Alexandersson CEO Add Gender 5 years ago
Jim Webber: Thank you for the kind words. We all have our own crossings and life experiences and diversity and equality is not about those who feels they have a set of experiences that differ from our picture of "the norm" in a certain area. I often hear people saying "diversity is important and it's something I support - but it doesn't concern me directly". Yes it does. It does indeed. You haven't yet realized that the costume is to tight and often that realization comes when we start to talk directly to the persons who say that. How about looking into Derek Burrills talk from the Gotland Game Conference this june: [link url=""][/link]

And... just as a parenthesis: I wait for no law, I am an entrepreneur.

@Darren: I totally understand where you are coming from. There are many aspects that require our attention and we must work closest to cash. That's my everyday life as a CEO for a smaller company. But a progress plan for managers, focusing on diversity and equality is a way of increase efficiency, and become more profitable by reducing costs and increasing revenues.

So as both you and @Jim points out the interest must be there, but it's in most cases allready there, you just must take action. In all levels - education, small business, big employers and the empolyees and leaderships attitudes and engagement in the area. If you just do something - things will happen pretty fast, and then just start benchmarking and then you're definitely on the go. Wehave educations in gaming here in Sweden that gone from 10 to 20 to 30 to even 50 % female.

But... Now we start to talk a lot about "we and them" again - that how can "we" do something for "them". Women or men are not homogeneous groups. I myself am guilty of creating the "us and them perspective", for it is difficult to change the language on a subject which for a hundred years has been talked about as solely a "women's issue".

Anyhow, this is how you can start:
First: Clarify what you want to achieve (realistic numbers, attitudes, images, recruitments). Two: do the inclusion mapping - you can get far by yourself, just start small, but I'm happy to give advice on methods (SWOT is a great beginning). Three: Decide what needs to be done and do a simple a plan of action. Four: Communicate it (the plan) and do it. Five: update like any other plan of action whatsoever. Celebrate and benchmark your lessons and success.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend5 years ago
When I say 'we' I mean employers btw.

Point 3 is what I am asking, what needs to be done? It is all very well rolling out the 5 point plan, but it is all wishful thinking until there are more women that apply for jobs. I cannot and will not discriminate, so it will be hard to attract women to the job without expressing that in writing which then puts me in an unlawful position.

Look I am not trying to make things difficult for you, but these are the issues we (employers) face. There is no simple answer and someone will get pissed whatever we do. I wish we could have a more balanced office because all my staff are male and it would be nice to have a good healthy balanced workspace.

I have no answers and am all ears if you have any real world solutions I can implement.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 19th June 2013 5:52pm

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Pernilla Alexandersson CEO Add Gender 5 years ago
I hear your worries... "We" :) don't need to begin with "more women" if that is nothing that is realistic in the organization. Then we can begin with attitudes, or with work-life balance, or with just a training on diversity, or stereotypes, or just a discussion over lunch. At one company they just looked at some youtube presentations and discussed in an open environment.
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Pernilla Alexandersson CEO Add Gender 5 years ago
@andreas thank you for the feedback and questions. I think a good first step is just to set a realistic goal for the educations. Research says that if you at least have 30 % (or at least three persons) of the underrepresented sex (or other showing group identity) you get all the benefits of them not feeling as beeing "aliens". So a realistic goal for any game education should be to attract at least three females and/or keep at least three females through the education process. If you can answer yes to that: ask yourself how can we copy paste or if you answer no: take actions. For example by asking the students how to make it better.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Pernilla Alexandersson on 19th June 2013 6:21pm

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Tom Keresztes Programmer 5 years ago
For example by asking the students how to make it better.
There were a similar discussion about game designers a few months (maybe years) back here -> and the consensus was that what the universities teach is not the same required by the games industry.
Most universities teach game design, yet the industry needs software engineers and artists - but have a very low number of design positions.
So a realistic goal for any game education should be to attract at least three females
Sounds like you are suggesting a gender based quota.
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Pernilla Alexandersson CEO Add Gender 5 years ago
Quotas are based on giving away a places to people that is relatively not as competent as the others searching the positions, yet. So no I don't suggest gender based quotas, just have a measurable goal. If you don't reach the goal and the answer is "because of lack of competence" then you know the answer. Instead of guessing.

One example from a Swedish gaming education was that they simply stopped to go to IT-educations to market their gaming education. They took the marketing time they had and market themself at other places - with success in finding a lots of new interesting profiles - including both women and men that might not have looked twice at the education before that. Win-win.

Controlling the needs and demands from the industry and the education is something that all industries face. Advisory boards and education conferences might be a solution. To work with diversity and equality is one way of getting more control, so the benefits are many.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Pernilla Alexandersson on 19th June 2013 7:16pm

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Pernilla Alexandersson CEO Add Gender 5 years ago
@Andreas, thank you, this is getting more and more interesting. Lets follow the track here.

One: the talent pool is equally distributed between men and women. (Some do not agree and those can't follow me here, so thats the first checkpoint.)
Two: then we miss talent if we have a largely unbalanced representation. (Thats one of the most important why, and it's only interesting when its a largely unbalance under a longer period of time.)
Three: there are a gender unblananced interest in different areas of the education. (Macro and micro, this is very important because now we are closing up to the core and the every day solutions.)
Four: the educations are of course glad to have lots of possible students to choose from, both beeing a popular education and also having to take out the very best. High quality, more money, better resluts. (also an important why)
Five: when attracting more of the under represented gender the education also attracts more from all kinds of groups because of the wider marketing and the more inclusive and tolerant environment. (This is also a work of getting a area to be accepted amongst politicans, parents, culture critiscism, the nobel prize ;) and so on. It makes it credible.)
Six: so its a win-win to work with inclusion at the education. (A craftmanship indeed.)

So the question remains: why is there that some courses or parts of an education (or a workplace) seems to be more unbalanced than other?

I would say it is the wrong question to ask. And the answer is definetly not "lack of interest".

The right question would be: how come that it for some areas are a really narrow nisch to identify with? And how do we make that narrowness wider?

Marketing materials? Images, words, target groups?
Teachers? How they teach and their personal views on gender, diversity and equality and of course if they are role models?
The pedagogy?
The educations reputations?
The headlines of the education, and the overall framing? Some headings are more or less "gendered".
The handeling of possible discrimination and harassment? I've seen... Many bad examples.
The environment for the students, respect and group processes?

I have hundreds of examples of both success stories and, not my favourite tool to use, also horror stories. Not only from gaming educations but also from forestry machine operators educations and marketing/communication educations and many other areas. Both gender balanced and not gender balanced. As it says in the article, this is not the only industry with challenges - and there are a lot of successfull solutions that have been tested in other areas.

But it takes some effort. That's the fact.
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Pernilla Alexandersson CEO Add Gender 5 years ago
@Andreas It's a pleasure to talk about this with you and the others.

What you are describing are a kind of female role model program, do you agree upon that description? In some cases that is necessary and give good results but in some cases it is better to just have role model programs focusing on showing the diversity overall. Like a folder about what you can become after the education and there work with images and text that breaks the stereotypes. Exactly what is the best from situation to situation is based upon experience, and I would recommend just to start with something. Take the folder you allready have (or the webpage) and look it over. That's a really good start. Aim for at least 30 % of the group that you need to reach and make sure that you engage in breaking som stereotypes also in text and colours.

In Sweden the initiative is taken for a network for game teachers, at their first gathering I did a workhsop on gender equality and they also have a Facebook group where they can share experience on what that have worked well and not so well. Maybe you can google translate this (I see that you work at Avalanche so maybe you know Swedish?): [link url=""][/link]

"Spelprogrammet" at "Södertörn" in Stockholm has for example interviews with students [link url=""][/link]

Anyhow if we take examples from other areas: SLU, the Swedish school for forestry, have done several successful projects. One is for students to make them more aware of what to look for in an employer, and one is for the communications department in how the communicate the different educations. I've met them at the forestry fairs many times and they are pretty impressive in how they show up both male and female role models, and how they are communicating their educations in different ways.

So who should have guessed: maybe the young and hip gaming industry should take a glance at the forestry sector, just to see which equality progresses that are being made... ;)

Now, happy midsummer - I'll be dancing round a pole dressed in leaves for a few days then I'll get back to the discussion.
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