Creating a game is a time consuming undertaking, for most devs it’s one of the most important things in their lives. Not because that’s how they earn their money, but because they spend so much time working on the game. That’s why it is important, that you can identify on a deeper level with the project you’re working on.
As a woman in tech, in the game industry more specifically, gender bias and sexism is something you run into every now and then. For me it started when I was a little girl, and people were confused by my preference for cars and knights over dolls. What followed were almost 30 years of constantly being confronted with the opinion that my physical features do not match my interests and behavior. From being beaten for having short hair, over life threads in video games to bosses calling me emotional every time they don’t like my opinion.
Being born with a rather independent and fierce character, I always thought meeting tons of resistance when trying to be yourself was normal. It’s the only thing I knew. Meeting people, especially women, who say that they don’t experience sexism is still deeply confusing to me, since it was and is a part of my everyday life since the very beginning of my conscious memories. And that’s why I wanted to make a game about it for a long while now: I can talk about something that has a deep impact on my life while doing something I love.
But something being important to me doesn’t mean that it is important for society, right? Some people are tired to talk about misogyny and sexism. A lot of good stuff happened in the past: Women are allowed to vote and to work, the gender gap was getting closed in the last century. Is it still necessary to make a big fuzz, when gender equality is closer to being reality than it ever was?
While I agree that we already achieved many great things, I think the mindset of ‘well, it’s already a lot better than fifty years ago’ is very dangerous. Concerns of people experiencing gender bias are getting belittled, they are labeled as hypersensitive and weak individuals, a behavior that prevents change. All this while there are tons of reports about sexism in tech industry, as well as studies that measure the negative impact of gender bias in modern society.
In the spirit of the female stereotype, concerns about sexism gets branded as subjective and emotional, which suffocates the claim that the problem is real and existing and not just made up.
So to support my claim that sexism is still a real and harmful thing, here are the my concerns I feel are the most dangerous, accompanied by by their scientific counterparts:
Self-perception is not controlled by yourself
Regardless of how strong and independent you are, your self-perception is not just what you think of yourself. It’s heavily influenced by what you learned all your life – what people told you, what you’ve seen and heard in media, and so on. Even if you don’t believe in stereotypes, they still influence you and your perception of yourself.
In a study, a group of French high school students had to rate the truth of gender stereotypes concerning math and art skills. Afterwards, students had to rate their own abilities. They were asked about their performance in a standardized test earlier on, and unlike students in a control condition, students in the stereotype-salient group reported their performance according to the stereotypes: Girls remembered doing better than they really had in arts, while boys reported doing better in maths than they did in reality(see 1). So even if the students thought that stereotypes are in fact not true, they still perceived themselves according to the stereotypes, because they were confronted with them.
In conclusion: As long as we are confronted with sexist stereotypes in media and society, it will influence us, if we want it or not. It might affect our choice of job, our assessment if we can master a task or not, and our self-worth.
Social Identity Threat
The Social Identity Threat or Stereotype Threat describes the real-time threat of being judged and treated poorly in settings where a negative stereotype about one’s group applies. This threat often leads to members of a stereotyped group to perform worse than their actual abilities. A study conducted at the City University of New York in a difficult calculus class gave a number of students a test made up of questions from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) Maths test and, to motivate them, were told that they would get extra credit based on their performance. The test primed the students with some information about the test itself: Students in the stereotype threat condition were told that the test was to measure their math skills, to study why some people were better at maths than others. While this is not a statement about genders themselves, but it’s more than enough to create a stereotype threat for women, who know that they are supposed to be inferior at maths. Additionally, the test in the nonthreat condition contained the information, that despite testing thousands of students, no gender differences could ever be found.
The men and women in the two groups had, on average, all received much the same course grades (in the class itself, not the test at hand).
So by only conducting the test with people of the same skill level, you’d expect them to score accordingly. And indeed, the males and females in the the threat condition, as well as the men from the nonthreat condition all scored around 19 percent (remember, it was a difficult test). But: The women in the nonthreat group scored an average of 30 percent, which is a respectable 11 percent more than every other group, including all men, regardless of their group (see 2). This study poses the question if women – in classes where they are under stereotype threat – are in general better than their peers. And indeed, data from dozens of stereotype threat experiments at Stanford University showed, that negatively stereotyped students academic performance ‘like the time of a track star running into a stiff headwind: It underestimates her time without the headwind.’ The Stanford scientists confirmed that negatively stereotyped participants (namely female math students and non-Asian minority students) performed worse under stereotype threat. But more importantly, the stereotyped groups outperformed their nonstereotyped peers of seemingly same skill level (measured by real-world tests), as soon as the stereotype threat was removed (see 3).
This suggests that women in tech actually might be more skilled than they appear to, because they constantly are under stereotype threat. I think this is especially concerning, since some are strictly against minority quotas ‘because somebody less skilled might get the job just because they are from a minority group’.
Stereotype Threat might be more harmful than ever
Studies show that subtle triggers for stereotype threat actually are more harmful than plain and blatant cues (see 4). Which means that stereotype threat actually might be more dangerous today than it was ever before. While for the bigger part of the last century it was society’s consensus that women are inferior to men when it comes to some skill sets, we are way closer to gender equality than we ever were. Some people see sexism as a thing of the past, and we have to lead discussions if sexist behavior in fact even is sexist (see the Google Manifesto for example). So with misogyny and sexism which express themselves in a rather hidden fashion, the impact of stereotype threat might have risen in the recent years.
In the last months we heard a lot about sexism scandals in the silicon valley. I’m glad that more and more women gathered the courage to speak up, despite of the backlash and the hostile reception they got from many sides. Still, I think it’s important to talk about the topic outside of the silicon valley, outside of the US. People tend to dismiss the issue because it’s ‘not as bad as in the silicon valley’ in their own environment. Members of the Swiss tech industry for example think that there is no gender bias or sexism in their own ranks (see 5). From my own experience I can say this is absolutely not true. And while I want to talk about it, I don’t think that blaming others is the right way. To experience is to understand. And that’s where the game comes into play. Letting people experience what I and many more women in tech feel might lead to more understanding. And that’s why I wanna spend my time working on a game with that topic.
List of references
- Cordelia Fine, ‘Delusions of Gender’, 2010
- C. M. Steele, S. J. Spencer, & J. Aronson, ‘Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat’, 2002
- Walton & Spencer, ‘Latent ability: grades and test scores systematically underestimate the intellectual ability of negatively stereotyped students’, 2009
- Marx, D. M., Stapel, D. A., & Muller, D., ‘We Can Do It: The Interplay of Construal Orientation and Social Comparisons Under Threat’, 2005
- Simone Luchetta, ‘Im Chauvi-Valley’, 2017, (article in German)