International Women's Day 2020 is this Sunday, but Ubisoft Toronto started the celebration a little early. On Wednesday night, the studio hosted an event in which it honored the winners of its Future Women in Games programming and game design competitions, followed by a panel of prominent women discussing efforts to make the industry a welcoming place for more women.
Xbox Canada's Christina Verdurmen moderated the panel, which featured Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian, Popagenda co-founder Geneviéve St-Onge, and Ubisoft Toronto team lead programmer Sushama Chakraverty. Verdurmen began by asking what's changed for women in games over the last few years, since the #MeToo movement first took off.
Chakraverty said she's noticed a change over that span with women speaking out more and the LGBTQ community becoming more influential.
"Three years ago, I wouldn't see so many women speak up, so many women in leadership positions, or so many women across the floor"
"More and more people are cognizant of this and more conscious," Chakraverty said. "I know here we're open to everybody and our hiring practices have changed... Three years ago, I wouldn't see so many women speak up, so many women in leadership positions, or so many women across the floor. Just in this office, the number has shot up in the last three to five years."
Sarkeesian said it's a question she gets asked literally everywhere she goes: "Is it getting better?"
"For me, the reason this answer is so complicated is that we can't divorce global politics from what's happening in games. Our media landscape is not separate from every other facet of the world."
On the one hand, Sarkeesian notes that social media has given a platform to marginalized people who previously didn't have one, gaming sites and other outlets have hired them to talk about their experience and issues of identity that would have been ignored in the past.
"That's fucking awesome, right? But social media has also enabled an extremely toxic environment where those people are being attacked for having a voice and speaking up. And that toxicity is getting worse. It's not actually getting better.
"We're seeing that in the global rise of fascism that is happening. We're seeing direct lines from GamerGate to Trump. There's a lot of stuff that's happening in this space."
Sarkeesian did identify some specific things that have improved in the industry. Five or ten years ago, nobody believed her when she said the internet was bad for women; they were simply told to ignore mean comments and toughen up. Now there's a general recognition that there is a problem to be solved.
"The next step here is to really investigate and interrogate whose stories are being told, not just swapping out gender, race, and sexuality"
Additionally, she said "feminism" is no longer a horrifying term that companies shy away from, and there's a noticeable shift in the sort of games being made.
Sarkeesian joked, "I remember sitting in my office with my colleagues at one point and asking, 'Are things getting better? I haven't been outraged in a while. What's going on?'"
While there have been fewer offensive representations, Sarkeesian said there's still a paucity of actually good representations of marginalized people.
"I think the next step here is to really investigate and interrogate whose stories are being told, not just swapping out gender, race, and sexuality, but asking 'What does it mean to be this character in this world? What are the worlds we are speaking of? What are the mechanics we want to encourage and the values associated with those mechanics?'"
As an indie publisher, St-Onge sees the industry's progress in the actual development teams she works with.
"There's definitely more diversity, more women and non-binary people," St-Onge said. "The transition from what we know the industry used to be to now is amazing. I know a lot of my clients are making conscious efforts to have diverse teams, and I think that's a huge criteria for me."
"You'd best believe I will go down to your oldest tweets if we're going to work together. Because I am now in a position where I get to choose if I give you a platform or not"
St-Onge said that as a business owner, she gets to pick the teams she works with.
"You'd best believe I will go down to your oldest tweets if we're going to work together," St-Onge said. "Because I am now in a position where I get to choose if I give you a platform or not."
St-Onge said Popagenda can connect clients with platform holders, manage the release pipeline, handle PR and marketing.
"We will treat you as if you were making our game," St-Onge said. "And if you're not a gem of a human being, why would I want to work with you?"
A portion of the panel was dedicated to talk of diversity and inclusion, and the differences between the two. St-Onge said the industry has made amazing strides on attracting more marginalized people to get involved, but needs to work on retaining them, keeping them happy, and helping them take on leadership positions.
"That's where the bottleneck is now," St-Onge said. "Well, it's always been there, but now that we've made some progress in one area, it makes it so much more obvious there's a significant problem on higher levels."
Sarkeesian said even companies that have shown a willingness to hire marginalized candidates need to ensure their efforts don't stop there.
"It's not enough to bring them in," Sarkeesian said. "You have to bring them in in a meaningful way where they get a seat at the table and they're respected, their pains are respected, and they're valued.
"What happens too often is you expect to bring in women, people of color, trans folks, and disabled folks, but you don't want them to say anything"
"Because what happens too often is you expect to bring in women, people of color, trans folks, and disabled folks, but you don't want them to say anything. You don't want them to speak up because it's annoying and you have to deal with the fact that your culture is not welcoming.
"So what is it companies can do, whether large-scale or smaller, to really listen to the people they want to bring into the space and get their voices heard?"
Chakraverty noted that women and men differ in how they respond to job postings. While she acknowledged it as a generalization, Chakraverty said men often aren't dissuaded from applying when they see a job posting but meet only 30% or so of the requirements, while women seem to be more discouraged when they don't check every box the hiring company is looking for.
"We look at the resume, we talk to the people," Chakraverty said of the Ubisoft Toronto hiring process. "Even people who don't meet all those criteria, many, many times they get a call from us so we can get an idea of what it is that makes them tick. So don't be afraid to apply. Definitely even if you only check two boxes, please apply. We want to hear you."
In a post-panel Q&A, one audience member asked about job postings that explicitly state they are looking for marginalized candidates. As someone who identifies as a gay woman of color, the audience member said they felt weird seeing it because they would wonder if they were hired for those traits instead of their qualifications or credentials. The question split the panelists, with Sarkeesian acknowledging there's a tension around the issue.
"Because we still live in such a patriarchal, white supremacist, heteronormative [society], it is so important for companies to put that up front and say, 'We encourage folks from these backgrounds to apply.' Or else we're still just going to keep hiring white dudes."
Chakraverty took a different view of it.
"I will never interview for a job posting [like that]," she said. "I will never even sanction a job posting that says anything like that. It has to be equal opportunity."
She did put a caveat on that, saying the specific tone of such a note would be important.
As an employer, St-Onge said she would prefer to have a note encouraging marginalized people to apply just because she's spoken to people who wouldn't have considered applying without it.
"I would rather put it out there that we're actively seeking for diversity and not another white dude, I guess," she said.