People, Not Programs.

I have been asked a number of times about my commentary on the “women in digital media” and “women in games” stuff happening in and aroundTorontoover the past year.  So far, I have resisted saying too much publicly other than the occasional RT of links on the issue because it seems to be a surprisingly sensitive topic.

Three things you need to know:

First, I am a feminist. I believe women, while we have our biological differences, are equal to men.

Second, I have a confession to make.  While I am a woman in the interactive industry, and I can’t get into the “empower women” movement and feel many of the “pro-women” activities are misdirected.

Third, I don’t feel these two opinions are opposing in any way.

Do I think we need more women in the industry? Well, yes. But we also need more cultural diversity – but where’s the “cultural diversity in gaming” conferences?  But, let’s deal with that discrepancy on another day.

So what’s the deal?

I am a product of the old “get women into science and engineering” programs.  As my career was shaping, I tried to be involved in the “pro-women” professional organizations. And both of these had the least impact on where I am today.

And yet, these are the solutions that we, as an industry, seem to think is going to fix the perceived gender discrepancy. I say “perceived” because there is an apparent undervaluation of the contributions by women active in the industry by women themselves.

The Canadian interactive digital media industry is full of amazing, talented women.  So many that as a consultant, I have to wonder where the guys are!  Even at studios where the guys might be the “end-client,” it’s their female Producers, Operations Managers, and Project Managers who I work closest with.  As I research potential faculty candidates for an interactive digital media college program, it is difficult to find male instructors.  At the moment, my short list has them all ghettoized into the technical classes – programming and hardware-related courses.  Meanwhile, for narrative, project management, writing, marketing, user experience, business management, industry studies, career development and team leadership?  All women.

So if as an industry, we are concerned about the gender balance slanting to men, as an educator I should be concerned for the success of the potential male students in my program.  If it is a female-dominated faculty, are men going to get fair treatment for their skills and habits?  Are guys going to feel ghettoized into the technical areas of the industry because the men they see as educators are only in the technical sphere?  Will they feel a glass ceiling in the other areas of interactive digital media without positive male role models on faculty?

Does this sound ridiculous?  Probably. But if we are so focused on ensuring the Canadian digital media sector is accommodating to women, why should I, as an educator, not then be concerned about ensuring that men aren’t ghettoized as more women move into the industry?

Where do I get such a crazy perspective?

Many years ago while managing incoming funding proposals for proposed television series, one day something became abundantly clear.  From the names on incoming funding applications, I realized how many women were in leadership roles as commissioning executives for broadcasters, heads of film and television studios, lead funding administrators, creative producers, and interactive leads for broadcasters.  Suddenly, I couldn’t understand why there was still this message of “not enough women in leadership positions within the Canadian television industry.”

And now that I’m focused more in the digital media sector, I see the messaging all over again: not enough women, women are intimidated, the guys work like a secret club, we need programs to entice women into STEM careers … blah blah blah.

Fool me once, shame on me, fool me thrice … I’m not buying it.

I grew up in a community where science and technical careers were king.  The local economy was driven by natural resources, and the majority of the jobs can be categorized as scientists, researchers, engineers and engineering technicians.  And most of these jobs were held by men.  While STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) wasn’t the acronym of the day, there were studies about the lack of women in science and engineering.  This, and I’m sure a variety of other political factors, spurred our school board and the local petrochemical industry into creating mentorship programs for girls in secondary schools to encourage them to consider careers in math and science.

My mentor was really not memorable in a good way. She sat at her computer (very business-like office, not even in one of the labs) and told us that she got to travel a lot. I asked what she actually did relating to math and science (looking for this mentorship!).  She said she “entered things into the computer.”  Like what exactly? And I didn’t get a satisfactory answer to that.  The rest of the hour was horribly awkward and felt like a waste of time because she had nothing else to say.  This folks, was supposed to be my inspiring mentor into the world of math and science.

The fantastic result of this little program was that I stopped taking science courses, and refused any invitation to participate in the mentorship program for future sessions.  Every semester, these decisions got me hauled into the guidance counsellor’s office to be told how I was “throwing my life away by not taking science” (interestingly, was never told to keep taking computer programming which I also stopped taking out of boredom)  There really is nothing like negative reinforcement to inspire a young mind.

A few years later and I was an emerging professional.  At the time, I bought into the message of needing more women in the television industry (the feminist roots you see), so I was very much into the mission of the female-centred training programs.  I attended these events. And very quickly was not impressed.

The content and the workshops themselves were amazing! But networking was tough – very cliquish.  At one event, a male colleague even made a point of introducing me to established female professionals as they came up to say hello to him.  I lost count of how many times these women, who were there to support women in the industry, would cut me out of the conversation, no matter how hard my colleague tried to include me.  Nothing more awkward and isolating than having someone intentionally turn their back to you when you’re trying to network.

Are these anecdotes of very uncommon experiences?  Probably.  Were my takeaways of these events shaped by elements of my personality?  To some extent.  But my perception of these lacklustre “female power booster” attempts is shaped more by other, more inspiring life experiences having made a real impact.

Before I went to see that mentor in high school, I had already spent countless hours within engineering and drafting departments – the area of my Dad’s expertise at the time.  He often took my sister and me to the office where he worked, and inside, it was full of computers and huge plotters that output wall-to-wall AutoCAD drawings.  Well before high school, I had already been inadvertently mentored in the technical arts.  My Dad, his colleagues, and his staff would show me how AutoCAD worked and then how the plotters, like magic, could reproduce 3’x 3’ Calvin and Hobbes posters (let’s remember, this was the 80s when dot matrix was considered high tech).  And the AutoCAD technicians I remember the most? Women.

What do I think we should do about the “not enough women problem”?

This world of discussing women in digital media / games (or lack thereof), does not compute for me.  It’s a lot of talking.  Instead of whining about how unjust the world is because we’re women, why don’t we, as women in leadership roles, actually initiate effective change and contribute to progression?

I know my confidence comes from positive influencers and role models – smart, patient people from all walks of life who were willing to teach me things and help me grow from learning and experience.

I worry that we as female leaders in the digital media space are failing the new entrants.  By sitting around bemoaning about men, and putting our attention only on fostering young women instead of supporting all smart, passionate, creative and dedicated professionals, regardless of gender.  Our actions outside of our ghetto are so much more valuable for shaping this industry in a positive way than wishing the world would change like magic.  Examples of this active contribution would be the initiatives that are about encouraging women into the world of coding and game design and development – actively sharing tools and knowledge to help others learn and grow.

Abolish the language of “There’s not enough women in digital media” and instead take pride in our contributions and emphasize, “Hey, look at the cool stuff we do!”  Then stop communicating it only among ourselves.  Let’s get out of the ghetto and be a part of the public image that makes the Canadian digital media industry the amazing place that it is.

One final personal request: next time a shy, awkward 22-year-old young woman tries to introduce herself to you and totally flunks out, take that 5 minutes to talk to her.  It just might be the inspiration she needs.


  1. I have similar thoughts Sasha. I have filled many leadership roles and never found gender to be a hurdle to getting where I needed to go. And I was always surrounded by lots of female colleagues that excelled at what they did. While I have attended the “we are women hear us roar” conferences and training, I have to say that I have found them to be among the least valuable of all the professional development I have taken in. Because they spent so much time talking about being a woman in the industry and not enough about how to actually succeed doing what the industry does. I thought it might be a regional thing – that maybe Ontario women had it tough and I just couldn’t relate. And I have been accused of just not appreciating the way it used to be. But I just feel like the time to lean on gender as a crutch or excuse for failure has passed and a better way to honor the women who fought the good fight is to prove that we don’t need special organizations to make us equal, we can now stand on our own.

    1. Thank you for your insightful feedback Nova! I know there was a time where it was tough for women in the industry at the executive levels (in all areas of screen-based media), but the more I read about women in management roles and the business psychology of women, the recurring message is that the glass ceiling is what we perceive of it. If you see one above you, there is one; if all you see is blue sky above you, then that’s what is waiting for you. :)

  2. This is a nice post and very useful information has been shared here as well. The participation of women in each and every part of life is very much important nowadays and they are playing very important roles as well. The difference between genders doesn’t matter nowadays in any kind of profession or other aspects of life. There are a lot of fields in which women are reaching the heights leaving a lot of men behind. The leadership quality is awesome in women and they are good manager of work as well.

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