Power relationships exist across society, but perhaps nowhere are they more in evidence than in the workplace. With these relationships comes abuse of power, often manifesting as sexual harassment, bullying and other intolerable behaviour. These problems are not new, but what has changed in recent years is the willingness of workers to come forward and speak up about their experiences.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, workers in industries from film to tech and elsewhere have raised their voices and said that enough is enough, and it should surprise nobody that the video games industry has similar problems.
As the union for the creative and entertainment industries BECTU has seen the shocking extent of the problem across the sector, with a recent survey revealing that more than half (51%) of women and a quarter (28%) of men have experienced or witnessed bullying, harassment or unwanted behaviour on grounds of sex.
We conducted a survey ourselves of video games workers over the summer with similar results, with 57% of workers saying they have experienced being bullied or harassed at work. The findings also revealed that the majority of games workers who had experienced bullying and harassment (70%) felt that if they reported the bullying and harassment it would not be dealt with appropriately.
"Introducing compulsory training for managers, including on sexual harassment, is a simple step that employers could take to improve confidence"
These numbers, along with the powerful testimonials of the brave people who have spoken out in recent days, should make the whole games industry sit up and take notice. Games companies are often small, new, and exciting places to work, but this can bring its own challenges in making it harder to call out harassment, blurring professional boundaries, and lacking proper HR and management structures. Ultimately, these companies are workplaces, and everyone deserves the ability to go to work and know they will be protected from this kind of behaviour.
Our members in the video games industry have highlighted a number of things that need to change to demonstrate progress on this issue. For example, teams in the industry are often managed by highly talented developers or programmers who wield large amounts of power with little accountability and have never been properly trained in how to manage people.
Introducing compulsory training for managers, including on sexual harassment, is a simple step that employers could take to improve confidence amongst staff. In addition, it is important that companies are aware of the problem of power becoming too concentrated in a small number of individuals who can make or break the careers of their teams. When this happens it is much more difficult for staff to raise issues and make their voices heard.
"We want to make sure that structures are in place to prevent this behaviour from happening in the first place"
Many BECTU members are freelance, like many games workers, which means they often feel they need to put up or shut up in order to continue getting work. This is totally unacceptable and it has to end. We have been supporting members who want to come forward with complaints by offering legal advice and other services, and it has been encouraging to see that members feel reassured that their union has their back when they want to speak up. We have also produced a guide to workplace harassment that can be downloaded for free here.
Ultimately though, we don't just want to be there for workers who want to speak out, we want to make sure that structures are in place to prevent this behaviour from happening in the first place. We've recently launched a Dignity at Work campaign, working with employers across the creative sector on improving their policies for dealing with harassment and bullying and rolling out best practice approaches.
The law says that employers need to take 'reasonable steps' to ensure their workplaces are free from sexual harassment, but even some good employers can struggle with this vague definition. So for any employers in the industry reading this, we recommend consideration of six key points.
1. Strong, informed leadership
Workplace leaders, whether management or activists, must be visibly committed to the challenge of tackling sexual harassment. It is essential that they know how that translates into practice. A strong statement of intent, followed by weak or inappropriate action, actively undermines trust in the workplace to deal with misconduct. Workplace leaders, from the chief executive down, must understand their role in supporting culture change, and have a plan in place to deal with disclosures of misconduct.
2. Create diverse, respectful workplace cultures
We refute the myth that sexual harassment is the responsibility of 'a few bad apples' - it is a cultural problem. The strongest protection against sexual harassment is a shift towards a respectful workplace culture, predicated on values of diversity and inclusion. Lasting culture change is driven by the grassroots, and supported from the top. Employers must engage their workers, to define and implement the type of culture that they want to work in, and that will support the diverse workplace they want to achieve. Most importantly, every worker must feel safe and supported to challenge behaviour that makes them, or their colleagues, uncomfortable.
3. Tackle the most common forms of sexual harassment
The vast majority of sexual harassment in workplaces is 'low-level', verbal hostility: sexist jokes, unwanted comments on appearance. This background harassment is degrading and humiliating in its own right. It also paints a picture of permissiveness towards sexism, that supports progression to more aggressive, more severe types. A workplace that is serious about stopping sexual harassment must understand the full spectrum, and make clear that no form of sexism or discrimination will be tolerated.
4. Diffuse the power relationships
Power relationships exist in all workplaces: hierarchies and decision-making structures; social networks; demographic imbalances. Some serve a useful purpose, but any may be subject to abuse. Workplaces should 'map' their organisational power dynamics, formal and informal, and manage the risks they present.
5. Support the targets of sexual harassment
Most sexual harassment is unreported, because the victims don't trust their workplaces to deal with it appropriately, or in a way that protects them. We recommend a system for dealing with disclosures of sexual harassment that gives autonomy back to the victim: laying out a range of possible actions, and alternative sources of support, for them to choose how to proceed, if they choose to proceed at all. Where the targets of sexual harassment feel safe to disclose it, the workplace has the best chance of tackling the problem.
6. Improve transparency and accountability
Mixed messages about appropriate workplace behaviour, and about the consequences of misconduct put whole workplaces at risk. They give cover to harassers, and they discourage victims from disclosing harassment. Every workplace should have clear, and well-publicised policies and procedures covering sexual harassment. Vitally, every member of the workforce should be confident that those policies and procedures will be fully, fairly and promptly followed where misconduct is reported.
The video games industry is young, but that does not make it immune to the oldest problems in the workplace. In fact, small start-up workplaces can be even more vulnerable to abuses of power. We know that games workers love their jobs, but nobody should have to suffer bad behaviour, or long hours, or insecurity in order to do the job they love. So for games workers reading this, know that there are people out there who have your back and want to help and that by joining with your colleagues in a union you can make a difference.
Sexual harassment is a union issue, we have made stamping it out one of our core missions. We know that when workers join together in a union they can overcome power imbalances and help create workplaces where they can unleash their creativity and fulfil their potential free from abuse, harassment and bullying.
Philippa Childs is Head of BECTU, the creative industries sector of Prospect union