Yesterday, a woman by the name of Gabrielle Toledano – evidently a human resources manager for EA games – wrote a rather confusing and deeply problematic op-ed for Forbes outlining why, in her estimation, sexism isn’t responsible for the dearth of women in gaming. To quote her opening remarks:
It’s easy to blame men for not creating an attractive work environment – but I think that’s a cop-out. If we want more women to work in games, we have to recognize that the problem isn’t sexism.
…The issue I have is that the video game industry is being painted as more sexist than other male-dominated workforces. I know sexism exists, but the issue isn’t just in video games. And it’s not what’s holding us back.
Nonetheless, there are still too few women working in my company, so it’s clear there is an issue to fix. Rather than blame the majority just because they are the majority, I believe the solution starts with us – women.
Which is, frankly, one of the most flippant, useless and blithely ignorant summaries of the problem I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. For one thing, Toledano manages to contradict herself magnificently within the space of three paragraphs: because surely if sexism exists in gaming – which, as she plainly admits, it does – then it must constitute at least a part of the reason why women are so conspicuously absent. Instead of conceding this point even slightly, however, she dismisses it out of hand, and for no better reason than her dislike of the implication that gaming might be more sexist than other industries. This, at least, is a reasonable point: game developers are hardly alone when it comes to dealing with sexism, which problem is self-evidently one that affects the whole of society to varying degrees. But to say – and worse, to say casually – that such sexism as does exist in gaming must necessarily be either benign or irrelevant simply because it exists more prominently elsewhere, or because the extent of the problem is popularly overstated, is as irresponsible as it is inaccurate. This blithe attempt to handwave a serious problem is further compounded by Toledano’s assertion that sexism effectively constitutes “blaming the majority just because they are the majority”, a sentence nobody could write without having first elected to ignore the glaringly obvious: that the majority isn’t being blamed for being the majority, but for maintaining a culture of prejudicial dominance, whether due to ignorance, malice, laziness or a combination of all three. To summarise Toledano’s argument, then: sexism exists in gaming, but doesn’t impact negatively on women, because criticism of the majority is really only resentment of their status as the majority, and therefore disconnected from any rational complaint about their actions.
What, then, does Toledano see as the root cause of female under-representation in gaming? Her argument comes as a triptych: firstly, that female gamers have failed to identify themselves as such (which is both ludicrous and insulting); secondly, that the industry wants to hire more women (though how this admission constitutes a reason for their absence is anyone’s guess); and thirdly, that there aren’t enough women to hire (which is a partial explanation for her second point, but which nonetheless doesn’t explain why there are fewer female STEM graduates to begin with, which point she glosses over with a simple call for their being more widely encouraged).
Her closing remarks only serve to cement her total misunderstanding of the problem:
If women don’t join this industry because they believe sexism will limit them, they’re missing out. The sky is the limit when it comes to career opportunities for women (and men) in games. If we want the tide to turn and the ratio of men to women to really change then we need to start making women realize that fact…
Sexism is an unfortunate reality of our times, but as women we must seek the power and ability in ourselves to change the dynamic. Cast aside the preconceptions, and look for the opportunities and places to make an impact. And I can tell you firsthand that in the video game industry women are not just welcome, we are necessary and we are equal.
From beginning to end, the piece reads as an oversimplified, insipidly cheerful and woefully pat exhortation for women to simply wade on in – you’ve only yourselves to blame if you don’t! Sexism exists, but you can overcome it with gumption and elbow grease! Follow your hearts, my darlings! Follow your star! Never mind that Toledano offers not one single fact in support of her claim that sexism isn’t so much as a tiny part of the problem despite acknowledging its existence, nor cites any specific policy, testimony or other useful data that might bolster her argument. Neither does she respond to the wealth of evidence and arguments which directly contradict it, despite linking to an article which lays out a detailed opposing case; instead, she leaves it totally unaddressed. Add these deficiencies to the self-contradictory and wholly unsupported nature of her assertions, and it’s hard not to wonder if her belief in the benevolent non-existence/unimportance of sexism as a factor stems entirely from not having experienced it herself, or from believing such sexism as she has experienced to have had no detrimental effect on either her wellbeing or career. That, of course, is only conjecture on my part; but if untrue, the only viable alternative would seem to be that, having suffered sexism in the past but subsequently overcome it, Toledano has elected to use her own success as a yardstick against which to gauge the determination and worthiness of every other woman in her industry, which is hardly reasonable. Whatever the case, the implication is equally unsatisfying: that as sexism hasn’t impeded her, it must therefore be incapable of impeding anyone else.
Allow me, then, to provide the evidence that Toledano does not. In November last year, under the Twitter hashtag #1reasonwhy, women employed in gaming collectively shared the myriad instances of sexism they experienced at work in order to highlight the extent of the problem, with multiple accompanying conversations about problems in the industry following soon after. Around the same time, a Penny Arcade report based on actual data showed how the dearth of games starring female protagonists has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: such games, it was found, were given smaller budgets by publishers and marketed far less extensively than their male-lead counterparts, leading to critical neglect and low sales, and therefore contributing to the outdated notion that women don’t play games, and as such aren’t a viable demographic. There’s any number of prominent accounts of women in gaming being dismissed or discriminated against on the basis of gender; this Christmas, headlines were made by the presence of topless women at Gameloft’s holiday party; and though they point more to problems in the culture of game consumption than creation, it would be foolish to view either the infamous Aris Bakhtanians incident or the experiences of Anita Sarkeesian as irrelevant. As for the comparative absence of women in STEM fields, this is hardly a problem without a cause: brogrammer culture, entrenched academic gender bias and subconscious bias in hiring practices, to name just three of the major issues, all affect female participation.
Because what Toledano fails to comprehend is that gaming, like everything else, is an ecosystem – and right now, at every single level of participation, women are feeling the effects of sexism. Female gamers are sexualised, demeaned and assumed to be fakes by their male counterparts; those who go into STEM fields despite this abuse frequently find themselves stifled by the sexist assumptions of professors and fellow students alike; they must then enter an industry whose creative output is overwhelmingly populated with hypersexualised depictions of women and male-dominant narratives, and where the entrenched popularity of these tropes means their own efforts to counteract the prevailing culture will likely put them at odds with not only their colleagues, but also the business models of the companies and projects for which they work; as the #1reasonwhy discussion showed, many will experience sexism in the workplace – hardly surprising, given the academic correlation between the acceptance of misogyny in humour and culture and real-world tolerance for sexism and rape culture – while others will be excluded from it completely. All this being so, therefore, if a single progressive HR manager at a comparatively progressive company looks around and finds, despite her very best intentions that, there are few or no women to hire for a particular position, then the problem is not with women for failing to take advantage of a single company’s benevolent practices, but with the industry as a whole for failing to create a culture in which women are welcome, and where they might therefore be reasonably expected to abound.
In her excellent book Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine documents a phenomenon whereby some progressive parents, determined to counteract the sexist influences of prevailing culture, found themselves adopting a ‘biology as fallback’ position when, despite their best efforts at promoting equality, their children still conformed to gender norms. “Believing that they practiced gender-neutral parenting,” Fine writes, “biology was the only remaining explanation.” But as she goes on to point out, the actual explanation is far more complex: not only were such parents still prone to promoting unconsciously absorbed gender roles, but when ranged against the ubiquitous sexism promoted by wider culture, even their best efforts were overwhelmed in the child’s experience – no matter how many pink clothes and dolls a son was bought, if the majority of his peers were playing with trucks and dressing in blue, and if every presentation of normalcy he absorbed through stories, clothing, culture, advertising and other children suggested he should do likewise, then his experiences at home would still read as anomalous. Unable to accept this, however, parents persisted in blaming biology: their failure could only have been predestined, and not the result of wider social and cultural factors beyond their individual control, let alone indicative of a flaw in their methods.
Toledano, it seems to me, is committing a similar fallacy, adopting a fallback belief in female disinterest in order to explain the lack of women in gaming, and thereby discounting the impact of more pervasive and difficult issues, never mind her use of faulty logic. And the thing is, it matters: not just because of her status as a representative of a major gaming company writing in a prominent publication, and not just because it betrays exactly the sort of misunderstanding of sexism that inevitably helps it perpetuate itself; but because she’s created a cop-out piece for sexists and those who doubt their influence to wave about as definitive proof that really, the problem is women themselves – and, more specifically, feminist women, or women who demand change. By claiming to speak definitively on the matter – unveiling the “dirty little secrets” of women in gaming, to use her phrase, as though she’s boldly daring the wrath of some secret feminist conspiracy in order to say openly what sensible women have always known in private, but been too scared to admit in public - Toledano is using the supposed authority of her gender to claim, on the basis of not a single shred of evidence, that sexism isn’t an obstacle, because look! Here she is, a woman, admitting as much! And if a woman says it, it must be true! Which is, presumably, why she’s felt no need to sully her case by supporting it with facts; because surely, the act of merely presenting it must be evidence enough. Only, no, that’s not how it works. To modify a Biblical phrase, the greatest trick the patriarchy ever pulled was convincing women it didn’t exist – and in Toledano’s case, all too lamentably, it seems to have succeeded.