Inside industry sexism: Q&A with a former female BioWare employee

First: How this came about

Last month, I wrote a post about the lack of options to play fat female characters in video games. The genesis of that post came from the fact that I’d recently started playing Star Wars: The Old Republic again, and was irritated all over again that you could play a fat male character, but the fattest female character option looked like… well… me. (And despite what internetbros like to tell me, I am definitely not fat.)
In the comments on that post, Leslee commented about one aspect of her experience as a former BioWare employee who had briefly worked on SW:TOR:
I worked at Bioware-Austin on SWTOR, and I know exactly why there is no option for a fat female character. When I worked there (2010-2011) the ratio of male to female employees was so bad that they converted one of the women’s restrooms to a third men’s room to accommodate all of the guys. (I cursed under my breath every time I had to hike all the way across the entire building to use the bathroom.)

There wasn’t a single female artist on the animation team (that I remember).

At the age of 43, I was one of the oldest employees who wasn’t a manager. ALL of upper management was male.

When the majority of a studio’s entire creative team is young (under 30) and male, the potential for realistic representation in female characters is significantly decreased.

Since Leslee volunteered to answer further questions, I contacted her privately to talk about the possibility of doing a Q&A about her experiences – since it’s not often that I get to see an honest account of what it’s like dealing with industry sexism as a female games industry worker. What follows are my questions and her answers about her experiences in the video games industry.

(Full disclosure, I have Leslee’s permission to make this a patron-supported post. In fact, I initially proposed doing this as a freebie.)

Q&A

How long did you/have you worked in the games industry? (Are you currently working in games now, or did you switch fields?)

I spent about a year, total, working in the games industry.  First at Bioware-Austin, then at Stoic.  Both were short-term contract positions that were problematic for a variety of reasons. Sadly, after these experiences I decided that the games industry was not a good career choice for me at this stage of my life and I retired shortly thereafter.

What was it like working in such a male-dominated environment? Were your supervisors supportive of your concerns, or did you feel you would get penalized for voicing your honest opinions?

The honest answer to the first question is: tiring.  I’ve spent the majority of my adult life working in male-dominated fields. I spent 4 years on active duty in the Army. A year doing contract archaeology. 7 years working as a land surveyor and autocad operator.  I’ve been the only woman – in the field or in the office – more times than I can count. So on my first day at Bioware, as I take a tour of the building and see the disproportionate amount of male heads sitting behind monitors (at that time it was at least 90% male), my immediate reaction was, “Ugh. Not again.”  So, what was it like working in such a male-dominated environment?  Annoying, disappointing, tiring, and way too damn familiar.

Were my supervisors supportive of my concerns?  Well, that probably would have depended upon which one of them I asked. During the later part of my time at Bioware I had 3 different bosses at the same time (all men, of course), and it was never entirely clear as to who was my direct supervisor.  Since they frequently contradicted each other, I never bothered to express my concerns to any of them. It didn’t seem worth my time.  There was also the issue of age and experience. I was considerably older than 2 of my 3 supervisors and that factored heavily into my lack of confidence in their managerial abilities.

Did you ever experience harassment or any other sort of gender-based discrimination, or did you hear of instances of it happening within the company? How were such complaints generally handled?

I didn’t experience harassment. I experienced prejudice, bias, condescension and devaluing. I often felt that I was discounted because of my gender.  During my second week on the job a friendly but utterly clueless coworker said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but since you’re a woman, how much experience do you actually have playing video games?” (He was a bit taken aback by my answer of, “…since the Ford administration”.) One coworker became openly hostile to me when he discovered (accidentally) that I was being paid $2 more an hour than he was.  Another, who had initially been friendly and helpful towards me, became distinctly unhelpful and dismissive after discovering that I was married.  One of the programmers refused to respond to any of my email questions, despite the fact that Ineeded his answers in order to complete my own work. I finally had to enlist a sympathetic project manager (also male) to intercede on my behalf and get the information I needed. He literally dragged the programmer over to my desk and forced him to answer my questions!

I was never aware of any overt sexual harassment toward my fellow female coworkers. The few times that I had the opportunity to speak to any of them (usually in the bathroom), our collective attitude was one of long-suffering weariness and exasperation.

Did you ever try to speak out against issues of sexism within the company? If so, how did that go over? If not, why not?

Oh yes. I did not hesitate to point out the fact that I was almost ALWAYS the only woman at every meeting I attended.  Or to speak up whenever I heard someone make a sexist comment at me, or near me.  For the most part, the reaction I got for my overt feminism was begrudging recognition followed by some variation of “That’s just the way it is in the gaming industry.” I think a lot of people knew it was a problem, but they saw it as an intractable one.  To be honest, after the years of blatant sexual harassment that I suffered while working in construction, what I experienced in the gaming industry felt tame by comparison.  It was still annoying as hell, but at least no one was groping my ass.

After BioWare, what was it like jumping into a tiny, bootstrapped startup?
 
After Bioware I briefly worked for Stoic, a game studio created by 3 ex-Bioware employees.  This was also a problematic work environment, but for slightly different reasons. I was the only woman in an office of 6 people, and our “office” was a shack that was part of a historic farmers market located behind a bar. We called it the Goat Shack.  It had no running water, but plenty of dirt, dust and dead roaches. Once we lost electricity for a day because a (probably intoxicated) patron from the bar had accidentally hit the front of our office with their car the night before, taking out our electrical box.

I think that on some level my coworkers derived a sense of pride by working in such “rustic” conditions, as if it was a testament to their frugality as a startup, or to their dedication to the project. But having already spent time in the military, I found these conditions to be less than appealing or conducive to productivity.  When the level of dirt on the floor (and on my desk, computer, etc.) became unbearable I convinced one of the developers to allow me to hire a cleaning service – for which I took responsibility for myself and was reimbursed by the company afterwards.Problems quickly arose at Stoic, due mainly by the fact that my role and responsibilities were never clearly defined.  Some of my coworkers would express annoyance or irritation whenever I asked them a question, but I was never clear on who I was supposed to ask. One of them became openly hostile towards me when I asserted myself too strongly in an effort to get a particular objective completed.  When I tried to talk to him privately, he accused me of being “too critical and opinionated”.  He immediately deflated when I pointed out to him that being critical was a defining characteristic of doing QA work, but I was never able to reestablish rapport with him afterwards.

Tensions finally came to a head when some of my coworkers discovered that I had publicly criticized another game on an online forum for its poor representation of female characters and its male-only protagonist. Both coworkers separately wrote me private emails, chastising me for my comments. They felt that my comments reflected badly on them because the developers of the other game were their personal friends.

How was working at a startup similar to working for BioWare?

In some ways, Stoic felt like a magnified version of Bioware.  The lack of clear supervision and direction was significantly more problematic when the entire company was only 6 people. The isolation I felt at Stoic was increased a hundredfold. I had no support and no allies. I lost track of how many times I was locked out of the office because my coworkers would go to lunch without me and forget that I was in the bathroom. (The restrooms at Stoic were in another building.)

The combined experiences of working at Bioware and Stoic made me realize that my 25+ years of working almost exclusively in male-dominated environments had finally taken its toll on me. As much as I enjoyed working on video games I felt that my time and energy were better spent speaking and writing directly about gender inequality, rather than experiencing it myself on a daily basis.

Based on your experiences and where you see the industry heading, what would you say to women interested in getting into the game industry? Would you advise them to choose another profession?

I would strongly encourage women who are considering going into any male-dominated profession to develop a good female support network.  Seek out women’s organizations that are affiliated with your interests and obtain a female mentor, if possible.  This is imperative, because the isolation that you may feel will greatly impact your self-esteem and confidence.

I also recommend that the gaming industry not be your first job, even if it’s really what you want to do. Having some traditional work experience under your belt (even if it’s really boring) will give you a better foundation with which to deal with the unique challenges of working in games.

In conclusion

As dire as this might sound, it’s important to point out that this is not intended as a universal indictment of the video games industry. I know women working for games companies that are quite happy with the work they are doing, and the companies they are working for. There are also increasingly companies that are owned and operated by women, especially in the area of mobile games.

So I’ll end by quoting Leslee one more time, since hers is a sentiment I agree with whole-heartedly:

My only request for this post is that I don’t want it to be wholly negative in nature. I also don’t want it to simply be a criticism of Bioware and Stoic, because I had some really good experiences at both companies and I don’t hold any animosity toward either of them.

Yes, I’ve endured a great deal of workplace sexism over the past quarter century, but I’ve also spent nearly as long discussing the issue with almost anyone who would listen to me. Sure, I got a lot of eye rolls and dismissals, and sometimes blatant antagonism. But I also got a lot of people to think, and talk, and sometimes change. It can be a burden, but a necessary one, and one that I know I’m strong enough to handle.  I want this article to be about awareness and acknowledgement of the problem, and an opportunity for dialogue.

5 thoughts on “Inside industry sexism: Q&A with a former female BioWare employee

    • I know you mean well, but this isn’t really a helpful response. Expressing empathy or solidarity would be much more welcome, or even what you personally are trying to do to change the system.

  1. Someday, I want to play a BioWare style RPG where you can make a character of any gender, and the company itself had better representation for people of all genders.

    And maybe you could skip all or most of the tedious grinding, in order to get to the real character-defining moments.

    I think I just described a visual novel with a female author.

  2. Thanks for the interview (Both wundergeek for typing it up, and Leslee for agreeing to it)!
    In honor of star wars coming out, I decided to finally import my Mass Effect 1 save into 2. (Fem shep, no romances because I was waiting to romance Mordin. Sadly mistaken.) It’s really interesting to get this glimpse into how the company that made the game worked during KOTOR (which I’ve already played).
    And also, thanks again wundergeek for your more in depth looks at the positive and problematic elements of Mass Effect 2, now that I’ve had a chance to get more context.

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