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Sarkeesian: "Your DEI initiatives are making your culture worse"

GDC session from Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian says current corporate diversity efforts are part of the problem, offers ways to improve them

Diversity, equity, and inclusion has been a hot button topic in the games industry over the past decade, with numerous companies embracing DEI efforts in the wake of scandals and tragedies that emphasized the inequality of industry, specific companies, or society as a whole.

But despite high-profile chief diversity officer appointments and more pro-diversity communications from companies, Feminist Frequency executive director Anita Sarkeesian used her GDC session last week to say they are making little in the way of tangible improvements.

"Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are framed as attempts to transform workplace environments into a space that is welcoming for all people, especially those historically under-represented," Sarkeesian said. "I'm not here to tell you that DEI is broken; I'm here to tell you that DEI is working as intended and that that's the problem."

One of the problems with DEI efforts as they exist is that they're still built on othering people who are not white, cis, hetero, or abled. And while there certainly are some companies whose DEI efforts could be described as more performative than substantive, the intentions behind such efforts has little bearing when it comes to how effective they are.

"DEI has been co-opted – or created – by the powerful to become a shield against criticism and real change"Anita Sarkeesian

In her work in recent years, Sarkeesian said she has spoken with numerous executives, managers, employee resource group (ERG) leaders, advocates, and DEI stakeholders, and come to one conclusion.

"It seems like DEI has been co-opted – or created – by the powerful to become a shield against criticism and real change," Sarkeesian said. "A DEI manager I admire told me, 'DEI is often a panacea. It is the corporate embodiment of a watered-down liberatory movement. It is an attempt to produce equity in a system that is fundamentally inequitable and resists equity.'"

Sarkeesian specified that she doesn't feel that the people who do DEI work are failing, or that they are working toward an unworthy goal.

Instead, she said they are working within corporate structures designed to be resistant to change, often with HR departments and executives that don't understand how systems of oppression impact all levels of decision-making and personal interactions, all backed by legal teams that resist open and honest communication because of legal liabilities or even the risk of employees unionizing.

Corporations typically will take the path of least resistance, but they are set up in ways that throw plenty of resistance in front of DEI.

The work is further obstructed by the work of social justice and equity being essentially incompatible with the way corporations assess success through project management and quantifiable return on investment.

"The cynical take is that DEI work is a hamster wheel that executives can throw all the troublemakers on who keep nagging about change," Sarkeesian said. "It keeps the agitators running in circles until they burn themselves out, but rarely actually provokes leaders into handing over the keys to affect meaningful institutional change."

"The cynical take is that DEI work is a hamster wheel that executives can throw all the troublemakers on who keep nagging about change"Anita Sarkeesian

She noted that ERG leadership has a high rate of turnover in large part because their advocacy and ERG roles must be performed on top of the work they already do, so they tend to burn out more quickly. Sarkeesian also cited the penchant of companies to scale back DEI budgets once social justice concerns fade from headlines, or make them first on the chopping block during cost-cutting times.

"The slighty less cynical take is that executives have the will to change, but also the fear of change," she said. "They are stuck in a corporate system that is resistant to this change. This is baked into the structures of corporations regardless of who is in charge."

She said corporations view DEI efforts as a virus to be expelled because they are disrupting the norms of a system which is constantly trying to preserve its state of equilibrium.

Even when they adopt DEI efforts, they tend to do so in an unchallenging way. For example, she notes that more than 76% of DEI officers are white, and even in DEI roles, men are paid more than women on average.

"This is so obviously replicating the exact problems of the system itself," she said. "The path of least resistance here is hiring more white people and paying men more because that's what we know, and that's what we've been doing."

The DEI discussion is intertwined with issues of workplace culture and harassment, abuse, and harm in the workplace, largely because of how often the victims of such harm are from under-represented groups.

To that end, Sarkeesian offered four principles that she believes are necessary for the industry to change, all of them informed by a desire to move from systems of punitive justice to transformative justice.

  1. Harm does not happen in a vacuum – Sarkeesian said it's not enough to find and punish the guilty parties who commit harm. Instead companies need to examine the conditions that allowed that harm to happen in the first place: what systems of power and oppression were present in dynamics around a specific incident?
  2. We need to break cycles of harm and prevent future violence – It's not enough to respond only to harm that's already happened. We need to keep it from happening again.
  3. We must support the people who were harmed in their healing and the people who caused harm in their accountability – Those who were harmed need care and opportunities for peace and post-traumatic growth, but the people who caused harm also need better ways to reflect on and understand their own behavior.

    "These two are interconnected because accountability enables a person to truly offer substantial acknowledgement, apology, and repair to those that they have harmed," Sarkeesian said.
  4. This is about all of us – "The current systems are failing us and to break out of those cycles, we seriously need to skill ourselves up," Sarkeesian said. "Create stronger ways of being connected to each other, healthier relationships, de-escalation skills, communication skills, expressing feelings in non-destructive ways, and put the work in to unlearning toxic narratives and beliefs. Every little decision you make, every case you handle, you've got to look at it through all of these lenses."

In addition to those principles, Sarkeesian noted some specific actions companies could take, starting with a shift in how they even talk about issues.

"There's a big difference between 'We want to be welcoming' and 'We have not been welcoming to women/BIPOC/trans/queer/disabled folks. Here's how we're going to make that right,'" she noted.

"You can't say sorry without naming what you did wrong"Anita Sarkeesian

That shift to an active stance and acknowledgement of past failings puts the focus more on the impact on those who were affected rather than on the intention of the privilege, she said. Such active acknowledgement of wrong-doing is a first step toward righting a situation, but it's too often missing when companies address harms.

"You can't say sorry without naming what you did wrong," Sarkeesian said. "You can't make things better while pretending nothing's wrong."

Sarkeesian also suggested doing away with zero tolerance policies because they don't allow for mistakes, growth, or change, and they instead make people afraid to do or say anything that might be misunderstood, or even ask questions.

"Instead of zero tolerance policies or 'We don't tolerate harassment,'" Sarkeesian said, "what would it feel like to hear, 'Harassment, abuse, and assault has happened here. People were hurt and treated in ways that are not acceptable. The individuals are responsible, but so are we as the culture and community that allowed it to happen. Here's how we're going to start changing the way we talk about and look out for these things'?"

Instead, Sarkeesian wants to see paths for lower-level everyday interventions and nuance that don't make people worry that any given interaction could include an unintentional – but fireable – offense.

"Above all else, I urge for transparency. We have to talk about what's happening"Anita Sarkeesian

She also suggested setting up caucuses of privilege, employee resource groups for people who have privilege to learn together about that privilege, particularly executives and C-suite officers. While everyone has a role to play, Sarkessian said too often companies make it up to marginalized people to convince others about their humanity.

"Above all else, I urge for transparency," she said. "We have to talk about what's happening. The isolation, the confusion , the rumors, the misunderstandings that come with keeping everything quiet is not helping.

"There's a lot of nuance here with balancing confidentiality, respecting privacy, as well as not leaning into public shaming. But somehow, some way, we need to find a way to hold narratives together as a group so there's a collective accountability in addressing that what happened wasn't okay, and that we all want to support in the healing, changing, and cycle-breaking that's needed."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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