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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.

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.

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.

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"

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.

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.

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"

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.

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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Dan Pearson