As part of yesterday's International Women's Day celebrations across the industry, Ubisoft and Microsoft put together an all-star panel event at the Ubisoft Toronto studio to discuss a variety of issues facing women in gaming. Jennie Faber of Toronto non-profit arts organization Dames Making Games moderated the discussion between Microsoft senior global product marketing manager Nicole Fawcette, Studio MDHR artist and producer Maja Moldenhauer, BioWare writer Sam Maggs, and Ubisoft Toronto producer Lesley Phord-Toy.
Feminism's place in gaming was one of the topics discussed, brought up when a member of the audience and an academic told an anecdote about discussing the false dichotomy between casual gamers and gamers with her students. When she asked why a casual gamer would be the opposite of a gamer, one student responded that the true opposite of a gamer is a feminist.
"All my other students just sort of nodded," the audience member said, "and some of the women said, 'I don't identify as a feminist because then my gamer friends wouldn't accept me.' And some of the guys said, 'That's why I do identify as a feminist because screw that.' That was a couple of years ago, but I still get a lot of 'Why do you hate video games?' questions to my Twitter DMs and that sort of thing."
She asked the panel how they deal with the perception that one cannot be both a feminist and a gamer at the same time.
"Fuck 'em," Fawcette said, to plenty of laughter and applause.
Maggs quickly stepped in to address the question at a little more length.
"The definition of intersectional feminism is just wanting equality for people of all genders, races, classes, abilities, across ethnicities, everything. And if you don't want that... that's bad, actually?"
"It's such a weird misnomer that you act like this because you hate games," Maggs said. "No, we act like this because we love games. We love games so much, and we want to make them so much better, that we're willing to deal with that. That's a lot. We put ourselves out there for that. I think what helps me in moments like that is that the definition of intersectional feminism is just wanting equality for people of all genders, races, classes, abilities, across ethnicities, everything. And if you don't want that... that's bad, actually? Not wanting that is bad, actually. I don't understand what the argument is for not wanting that."
Maggs suggested the issue is one of education and misunderstanding created by stereotypes of feminism from the '80s and '90s that suggested it was only for man-hating, bra-burning types. As a result, she said it's important to educate people about what feminism actually is, and to be willing to try to change minds when people come to you from a place of genuinely wanting to learn, or simply not understanding.
"But a lot of times I think it's just that people don't really get it and are maybe afraid that we're coming to take their games away from them," Maggs continued. "But we're not. You're still allowed to have your games. I'm never going to take your booby games away from you. They're always going to exist. Same with comics. Those kind of comics are always going to exist, and that's cool.
"I just also want to have games that are appealing to me, and all my friends, and people with different interests. It's a massive industry. There's room for all kinds of things, all different kinds of games. You can have the games you like, and I can have the games I like, and maybe they can be the same games, even."
The next question was similarly weighty, asking the panel what advice they would have for women of color, or people of color in general, who have grown tired of people insisting that the key to success is simply hard work, and that there are no additional barriers in place. Fawcette responded, but only after acknowledging that as she isn't a person of color, she's not in position to know exactly the situation people of color face.
"I think the tides are changing, and I think again it goes back to there's a lot of awareness and intention that is opening up," Fawcette said. "At least on the women's side, there's a lot of intersectionality where we can work to support each other in a very intentional way, that you don't have to feel like you have to go it alone. At least on the Women in Gaming side, that's what we believe."
"We don't work in silos. We work hand-in-hand to ensure we are watching out for each other, we're promoting each other, we're having each other's backs."
She noted that the Xbox team alone has Women in Gaming, Blacks in Gaming, Latinx in Gaming, LGBTQI in Gaming, and a disability-focused group in Gaming for Everyone.
"We don't work in silos," Fawcette said. "We work hand-in-hand to ensure we are watching out for each other, we're promoting each other, we're having each other's backs. That's where we're trying to be very, very intentional about that on our side."
Later in the event, a man identifying himself as an engineer from Bulgaria asked, "Where are all the women in the universities? Even if I wanted to discriminate against women hiring, I couldn't."
After a pained "Please don't" from one of the mic'd up panellists, Moldenhauer said things have been improving in Canada, at least, and that the key to producing more women in the field is to introduce them to it as a possibility when they're still young.
"That's really starting to come to the forefront with a lot of parents nowadays," Moldenhauer said. "I'm seeing it left, right, and center. I'm doing it specifically for our children. So it's increasing, but I know here at least, there's quite a bit."
Maggs agreed that the issue is in the way society pushes women away from computer science fields.
"We start from such a young age gendering interests," Maggs said. "[Girls] get the toy kitchen, while [boys] get the Lego robot. Just really basic stuff like that you don't even think about. But it affects how kids think about themselves and what they're allowed to get into, which is why I definitely also encourage helping out with Girls Who Code or Hour of Code at schools if you have the opportunity. It's hugely invaluable in teaching kids from a young age that they're able to have this path, and also giving them role models in science. Because I think a lot of the time, girls look and think, 'I don't see any girls who do this so I guess I can't do it, either.'"
It also helps to give girls role models, to be vocal in showing them successful women in fields where women are underrepresented.
She added, "And I think it's important for boys too, on the opposite end, to be like, 'Oh you want to be a writer? That's cool. You don't have to go into science, you can have feelings. That's actually fine.' That's not something we do a lot."
All that's investment in the future, however. As for something a hiring company could do immediately to increase the number of women candidates, Maggs suggested taking a closer look at their job postings. She pointed to recent studies showing that the way job postings for computer science fields are often phrased make women feel like they're not as welcome to apply.