Does gaming have a sexism problem?

| By contenteditor | Reading Time: 12 minutes
The gaming industry has a sexism problem. It’s the fact nearly everyone in and around it knows. It’s a fact most of the men within won’t acknowledge and something many women won’t speak up about for fear of retaliation, firing or harassment. But it’s true, and it’s been that way for a long time.
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In this piece, we talk to four women – whose names, titles and employers have all been changed or made purposefully vague to protect their identities – about their experiences with sexism in the gambling industry. 

Their stories represent the constant thread of sexism and misogyny within gaming companies: suppliers, operators and everything in between. They are not all-encompassing. Rather, they paint a broad picture of how women in the industry are treated, and the sacrifices they must make to stay safe and keep their jobs. 

We have kept many details deliberately vague, though we would like to offer a word of caution that the following sections include stories of harassment and mistreatment.

Anna’s story

Michelle’s story

Natalie’s story

Olivia’s story

Women in gaming: “It’s a boys’ club”

Let’s begin with the stark truth. When you’re a woman in gaming, you’re in the vast minority. One term came up multiple times in our discussions with women who have worked in the industry.

“If you spend five minutes in the gaming industry, then you know it’s a boys club,” says Anna, who worked in various HR-related roles at a major gaming conglomerate. “I always felt like there was very little representation of women at any level of the organisation.”

Natalie, who served as a marketing and communications professional during her time in gaming, says: “From my perspective, it was a boys’ club. The attitude was ‘we’re all dudes; we can say what we want’.”

Another perspective strikes much the same chord, though without the “boys’ club” moniker. 

“I feel like that’s a problem to begin with,” says Olivia, a former assistant on the operator side. “There are unintentional barriers to entry because a lot of women aren’t in tech roles… there’s this old masculine-driven mindset of ‘this is the way we do things’.”

Olivia notes the executives she supported used that phrase, or a version of it, constantly. Tradition often trumps progress.

Michelle worked in various roles at a gambling supplier, most of them under the marketing and sales umbrella. 

“I am a very direct, outspoken individual and I think I was probably viewed as bitchy, high-maintenance and challenging to work with,” she says. “The quality of my work was my saving grace.

“I don’t know that they would have put up with a personality like mine with lower delivery or performance.” 

When Michelle decided to start a family, her goals changed. “I wasn’t going to be able to crush myself with 70-hour weeks any more… and I think there is a perception that you’re not as valuable once you become a mother.”

The unifying thread in all of our conversations was a simple message: when you are a woman in the gaming industry, you have to work harder to prove your worth than any man does. The pay doesn’t increase, but the work does (we’ll get to that later). 

And you are always under extra scrutiny, whether it’s suspicion that your priorities have changed, your emotions are getting in the way of your work, or you’re pushing back and standing up for yourself to the men you work with. 

Let’s be clear before we jump into the specifics. Every woman we spoke to said many men supported them, stood up for them and advocated for their wellbeing. But the larger systemic issues at play, particularly at a leadership level, made them feel burnt out, uncomfortable or insignificant. And many men were part of the problem.

The day-to-day

Women in the gaming industry live under a lens of scrutiny rarely applied to their male colleagues. They are often forced to juggle multiple responsibilities, all while dealing with rampant sexism on a daily basis. The form it takes differs for everyone. These are just a few of the stories the women we spoke to felt comfortable sharing. 

Anna’s story

Anna says she met a director to discuss helping him fill a new role. “I don’t remember how it got there,” she says, “But he went off. He called me a glorified secretary to my face. I went into my office and cried under my desk.”

She continued working with the director and they eventually filled the role. 

Later on in her career, Anna had a series of interactions with an executive.

“I met with this guy for coffee,” she says, “And it was a nice chat. We spoke for 30 minutes or so, just getting to know each other, knowing we would work together. We talked about books, personal interests and stuff like that. He followed up and asked for my address because he wanted to send me one of the books he recommended.”

Anna gave the executive her address and he sent the book. But then things took a turn. 

“He started to send me so many gifts,” she says. “I started to feel uncomfortable. I was getting all these flowers, bottles of alcohol, nice pens, all this random stuff. He asked me if I wanted to go on a Zoom date.”

Anna agreed to the Zoom date and the gifts escalated. 

“I told him, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with this. Please stop.’ He didn’t stop. And I thought, do I need to tell my boss about this? Am I going to get in trouble? Am I going to get retaliated for shutting him down?”

Luckily, the executive eventually stopped and left Anna alone. Anna didn’t go to HR. 

“I, like many women, didn’t come forward and tell HR. You get afraid of retaliation. I thought, what if I tell my boss and she thinks I’m at fault?”

Soon after, Anna left the gaming industry. When asked if she would go back, she keeps it simple: “Not for a million dollars. Not for anything.”

Michelle’s story

Michelle’s experiences range from microaggressions to outright misogyny at work. In her role, she worked closely with members of all departments. 

“You walk into meetings and you’re one of maybe two women in a room full of men,” she says. ‘You have ideas but you get cut off. Or your thoughts are repackaged as though they came from an executive.”

“I was doing good work behind the scenes and not getting the credit,” Michelle continues. “All that existed, but then there were things very specific to the gaming industry. I remember sitting in a room with two executives, and we were planning a trade show. They asked me to hire models.”

“What kind of models do you want?” I asked them. And they were trying to tell me they wanted sexy women to stand by our products without actually using those words. They wanted me to hire women who would be in our trade show section without any purpose or knowledge of the products.”

The executives then gave Michelle a talent agency to look up. 

“So there I am, in my late 20s, flipping through pictures of women in lingerie to hire models for this show. That was the first time I thought, what did I get myself into?”

One example rings true for many women we spoke with. Michelle says it happened on countless occasions. 

“This one drove me up a wall. I was sometimes not even the lowest-ranking person in the room (not that I care that much, but for example’s sake), but there were 10, 15 people in there and if you were the one woman, they all look at you and say, ‘Hey, can you take notes and send a recap?’ That was always mind-boggling to me, and I don’t know that I ever pushed back. I never said no.

“Then there was one year at a trade show, and I was in the back room where you would store coats and bags. My teammates brought back a gentleman and introduced me. I was wearing a business suit and a name tag with my title on it. He handed me his coat and asked, ‘Do I get a ticket? Or how does this work?’”

Michelle says it took her a second to realise this man – an investor – assumed she was the cloakroom attendant. 

“I wish I would’ve corrected him, but I just took the coat and hung it up. He came back later and I was writing something, so I got up and handed his jacket back. He took it back and left. There are a million things wrong with the whole scenario, but bottom line: if he thought I was a coat check girl, why didn’t he tip me? Can’t he spare a fiver? What the hell?”

Michelle says various iterations of this interaction have happened. She would walk up to people chatting around the bar to tell them last orders were imminent, then they’d try to place an order with her. 

“Get your own drink. That’s what I wanted to say. But it’s touchy in those situations because, in those instances, they were usually customers. I didn’t feel confident talking back because I didn’t want them to say to whoever their rep was, like, ‘Hey, you have this bitchy chick in the back who wouldn’t take my jacket or get me a beer.’”

Michelle says you have to be polite in those situations, but the behaviour still needs correction. 

Natalie’s story

Natalie’s short tenure in the gaming industry was cut short when she was caught on the receiving end of a male executive’s ire. 

Part of her role involved improving workplace morale by coordinating with different departments. She formed a relationship with the CEO of her division so she could bridge the gap between the C-suite and the various teams in the office. 

“I started to build a relationship with the CEO,” she says, “and I noticed that a senior person started to get, like, funny with me. It was almost like he didn’t like the fact that I was building a relationship [with the CEO of her division]. It came as a surprise because this person previously made me feel comfortable. I shared some of my vulnerabilities and issues so we could work well together. But then those things were used against me after I started building a relationship outside of my work with him.”

Natalie’s work crossed over with HR quite a bit, and she’d noticed behaviours in that department she didn’t appreciate. She expressed her concerns to the higher-up with whom she thought she had a good working relationship. 

“The next day, I got told I was moving to the HR team. He knew I had a problem with them, and he knew how much I liked my existing team. He physically moved me away from them and onto a team I had expressed real concerns about.”

Natalie was called into this person’s office, where he berated her for being unhappy about the forced move. “He said to me, ‘If you want to tap out, tap out. If you need time, take it to sort your head out,’” Natalie recalls. 

She started to question herself, thinking the toxic environment had made her too negative. 

“He told me he liked my work, but he expected me to be happy and positive all the time.” These expectations weren’t levelled at other team members, Natalie explains, at least not to the degree they were thrust upon her. 

“He then threatened to put me on an improvement plan right after explaining he liked my work,” she continues. “And I do think, if I was a man, he wouldn’t have used those threats against me. It felt like, you’re a woman, you’re weak, emotional, vulnerable. He didn’t think I would stand up to him.”

Natalie knew she was on the way out anyway; she didn’t feel capable of winning this particular battle. “When he decided he didn’t like someone, he was going to get them out.”

When Natalie quit – less than a year after starting in the industry – she said she experienced self-doubt and negativity for a long time. 

“He asked me to draft an email to the team the day I quit,” she says. “Wanted me to make up some sort of excuse about why I was leaving, and he made sure he got to read it before I sent it. I did it, then left.”

Olivia’s story

Olivia’s work fell under the myopic view of the people she supported. 

“As an administrative assistant, I was doing travel booking, expenses, and calendar management. I was rarely supervised. They didn’t care what I did, so I could take on side projects or other things I wanted to do, but there was no vision for my career path or trajectory.”

Olivia expressed multiple times that she wanted to branch out and learn other skills so she could move up in her career. Her bosses were always supportive, but with the caveat that she would still be expected to manage the minutiae they didn’t want to handle themselves. 

“If I had said I want to get into graphic design, they would’ve said sure, go for it, but I wouldn’t be able to do anything with it.” She was locked into a role she had quickly grown out of. 

Outdated views

Her managers fostered a certain image of her role, despite their “commitment” to her growth. One employee came to her separately and paid her out of pocket to work on his expenses. 

“I thought it was weird, but I wasn’t getting a raise any time soon, and it’s $100. He thought he was above doing expense reports; he thought he should have someone to do them for him.”

Olivia says the man would spend exorbitantly during travel, putting it all on the company. 

She also emphasises the outdated view of assistants in general. “I’m hyper-aware of how people think of assistants. People think it’s a secretarial role, but you actually function as more of a chief of staff.”

After her organisation endured numerous restructurings, Olivia left to join a tech company. Would she go back to gaming?

“No.”

These stories come from women in different areas of the gaming business, and many of the comments or stories they shared didn’t make it into this piece. The experience of being a woman in gaming isn’t necessarily universal, but there are undeniable parallels in all of their stories. They are treated as though they are secretaries, too emotional, or there just to serve those higher up in the organisation. 

This leads into another major issue, which is by no means exclusive to gaming but is certainly prevalent within it. 

More work, same pay

Take that section title as literally as you possibly can. Every woman we spoke to had something to say about their pay – and for good reason.

At one time, Olivia was managing two executives. She later managed five and received a $5,000 pay rise despite taking on two and a half times more work. 

“Looking back,” she says, “I know it was worth way more than $5,000. I was supporting five people, doing their scheduling, meeting with them weekly, doing their expenses, booking their travel.” 

But then her work dwindled after some execs left or were fired. Her pay stayed, but the work dried up, as she describes in her story above. 

Anna says she was at peak performance at one point, far outpacing her male predecessor who made twice her salary. “That year I had broken records and smashed my performance goals. They gave me a $1,000 raise.”

When she first joined in that role, Anna knew her previous counterpart’s salary. “He left, and when I took his role, they paid me $50,000 less than what he was making. I felt grateful they had picked me. I didn’t counter, I accepted. I was so underpaid.”

During her later years in the industry, Anna was primarily recruiting. Then she joined HR – despite having no training in employee relations or benefits – because the team was short-staffed. 

“There is little to no consideration for our experiences or how things might be challenging for us,” she says. “They think we’re assistants or secretaries or really old antiquated archetypes that just aren’t true.” The archaic ideology extends into women’s salaries.  

Michelle says women are often forced into “prove yourself” scenarios as an excuse for not getting equal pay. 

“You’d have a title and a role and you would do it well. Then they’d want more and they treat it like an opportunity. They say, ‘Prove yourself, do it for six months.’ So you do it, and after six months you ask for a promotion, but you’d have to fight tooth and nail to actually get the money for work you were already doing capably, if not better.”

“What’s the point?” she laments. “There are probably a lot of women who didn’t say anything and just kept getting dumped on, work-wise, under the guise of ‘this is an opportunity,’ when really, they were doing more work and not getting recognised for it. It’s hard to watch. It’s hard to experience yourself.”

What can be done?

It’s a question that’s hard to ask for a piece like this one. The women who contributed to this piece have shared their experiences and offered a glimpse of what it’s like to work as a woman in gaming. To turn around and burden them with a “well, what do we do?” feels disingenuous. 

Luckily, those we spoke to offered their insights on small ways to work towards change in the gambling industry. However, it should be noted that every one of them, though happy to offer advice or possible avenues to change, expressed vehemently that they would not return to the gaming industry, even if they were made a lucrative offer. 

That alone should signal that we’re a long, long way away from meaningful inclusion, representation and treatment of women. 

“There was never a willingness to evolve, educate, learn or change, but the world around us was doing just that,” Michelle says. “They’re stuck in their ways; you can’t change if you’re not open and willing to change. You have to be emotionally intelligent enough to do some self-reflection.

“The only thing that caused any movement was fear. The looming of the Me Too movement made the industry’s men want to cover their arses. It wasn’t coming from a place of sincerity. There are people who care, but as a whole, that fear was the only thing that started to right the path.”

Michelle says she met with women at her company frequently before leaving, and she finally started to feel like they were working together rather than competing against each other. She doesn’t know if that carried on in her absence. 

At her company, Natalie noticed the fear, too. “The toxic culture made everyone feel scared. One co-worker had a family, a son, and she would tell me she goes home, cooks dinner for her family, then works for hours at night.”

Natalie says diversity and inclusion programmes are a good first step, but they need to have backing and actual care put into them. You can’t slap a bandage over the problem; it needs to cure the actual illness.  

There’s also a lack of empathy and understanding – from all corners of the industry. 

“Diversity and inclusion programmes are good,” Anna says. “They can help people understand each other. Also mental health. People need to know they are valued and cared for as people, not just professionals.”

Olivia says change needs to come from the top, a place mostly inhabited by white men. 

“The people leading these companies need to change, which is an industry-wide problem. It’s all older white men that have been doing things a certain way and don’t want to change it, whether it’s diversifying the workplace or adopting new technology. They are scared of change.”

To make the industry hospitable or even valuable for women, change needs to happen from top to bottom. The ways of the past aren’t working. They’re making the problems worse. Women are expected to carry the torch of change while working multiple roles to “prove themselves”, earning less and trying to enjoy a personal life. 

Meanwhile, the men they work with simply do their job and clock out. The burden placed upon women is crushing, and it’s no wonder the four we spoke to (among countless others we didn’t) seek opportunity somewhere more progressive. 

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