Elizabeth Baumel, software engineering lead at Unity, and Gracie Arenas Strittmatter, technical art director at EA Sports, discuss how women and those in other marginalized groups are advocating for themselves in the gaming industry.
Software Engineering Lead, Unity
Gracie Arenas Strittmatter
Technical Art Director, EA Sports
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges women face in the gaming industry?
Elizabeth Baumel: If you’re perceived as a woman, people do tend to make assumptions about your skill set, and a lot of the time they can either misplace or underestimate your strengths.
This has happened to me a few times. I remember one of my first SIGGRAPHs, I walked up to the Intel booth and this guy says, “Oh, we’re not hiring artists.” I said, “Cool, that’s great because I’m a software engineer.” If people think you’re a woman, then you will sometimes struggle to convince them you are really good at what you do.
Gracie Arenas: Yes, I would say our representation as women continues to improve in the industry and in games, but there’s still a lot of work to do to ensure women are supported in their career development.
We’re still seeing lower percentages when it comes to the executive level. Part of this includes deliberate engagement and retention so that women stay in the industry. The number of women gamers across the world is currently estimated at 45 percent, so there’s clearly an increased need for us to have a seat at the table.
Over the course of both of your careers, what changes have you seen in terms of inclusion and representation?
EB: There has been a concerted effort to counteract the bro culture in some parts of the industry, and there’s been a pretty good effort to hire people of marginalized genders and races who might have been passed over in years past. Some companies are better about it than others, but it feels a lot less adversarial than it did before.
GA: Over the years, I’ve seen more women and underrepresented talent speak up about their experiences in games. It’s been encouraging to see, and I’ve been fortunate in my own career to have some incredible mentors and managers and leaders — both men and women — who have advocated for me along the way to fully pursue my aspirations in this industry. But I also acknowledge that has not been the case for everyone.
One of the things I do is make sure that I pay it forward through mentorship programs, sponsoring people within my own organization. My husband and I have created an endowed scholarship through my university to help create a better pipeline for students wanting to pursue game development. I’ve been actively involved in all of our employee resource groups at my company, particularly our women’s resource group and our Hispanic Latino employee resource groups, which I co-chair.
The last thing is recruiting efforts. How do you create the right pipeline to get underrepresented talent in the door? We really need to focus on creating the right channels for elevating folks so they have the right support along the way to achieve high levels.
EB: Before we move on, I want to mention that my pronouns are they/them. When you were mentioning paying it forward, that is also something I try to do as much as possible. One of the things we need to work on more in the industry in general is queer representation.
I didn’t realize that I didn’t identify as a woman until midway through my career. One of the things that always bugged me was when someone would make an offhand comment about me being a girl, and it would give me cognitive dissonance. I would be like, “Oh, that’s right, my flesh prison does have that shape, doesn’t it?” So, it’s always weird being asked to speak about women in games because, on the surface, I get it. I look like a woman and people think I’m a woman without knowing me, but I don’t feel like one at all.
The only way in which I really identify with womanhood is that I experience misogyny. That’s my gender experience. It’s always something I kind of struggle with. I think one thing in terms of retention is how do we create an environment where people are not inadvertently creating kind of a hostile environment?
What processes or steps do you see as important for companies or developers to initiate in terms of retention?
EB: I think one of the hardest things if you are perceived as a woman or of a marginalized gender is this tendency to be afraid to be wrong. In this industry, you have to be comfortable with being wrong a lot. So providing a space where it’s OK for people to make mistakes and grow from them is really important.
GA: The other thing I think about as a mother is what does support for working mothers look like across the game industry? It’s very inconsistent as to how working environments are approached and managed, and how do we make sure people are properly balancing work and life, and able to adequately care for their families as part of that equation?
How do these conversations around inclusivity in the industry create better games and foster richer creative output in the industry?
EB: If you end up with the same people working on games all the time, all the content looks the same. You end up with White Army Man as the protagonist of every game. It gets boring.
When you have a wide variety of people working on games, you end up with a wider variety of stories and designs for interaction. That’s why I got into games in the first place.
I didn’t necessarily see myself represented all the time, but to be able to immerse myself in somebody else’s world is a really powerful experience. And if you have people making more varied games coming from their own real-life experience, it creates a richer creative industry.
GA: Yeah, I 100 percent agree with that. The more we can reflect differences in the games we create, the more they will resonate with people all around the world. The more we can engage folks of all walks of life into the gaming world, the more connected we will be, the more engaged we will be.
That almost makes games sound like they’re a life-changing thing, but it really is this facet of life that a lot of people connect with as part of their identity.
EB: Yeah, I mean, I think games are life-changing.