Women share game industry career advice

Scores of game industry women gather to talk about how to balance work and life.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
REDMOND, Wash.--When a friend was returning from maternity leave a few years ago, video game professional Shannon Loftis made a point of sending her a lengthy e-mail spelling out the things she had learned upon coming back to work after the birth of her own son.

Later, the friend asked if she could pass it on to another friend who had just had a baby. Loftis said yes.

Nearly four years after that, as Loftis was finishing up maternity leave after the birth of her second child, the very same e-mail--detailing strategies for handling the many demands of family and the office--found its way into her in-box.

Loftis' story was emblematic of the issues that all video game professionals, but perhaps women more than men, deal with as they navigate the realities of a profession that requires long hours and doesn't do much to help employees manage their dual--home and work--lives.

That's why at least 150 people gathered here, at Microsoft's RedWest facility, for Women in Games International's one-day conference, "The Balancing Act: Game Industry Careers and Quality of Life."

Women's long-term quality-of-life issues are different than men's.
--Bonnie Ross,
Microsoft Game Studios

Over the course of several hours, a keynote address, two panels and several workshops, those in attendance discussed how to keep happy while working in an industry famous for the stresses under which it puts its workers.

The event was seen by some as a replacement for the Women in Games conference that last year was held in conjunction with the Austin Games Conference. This year's AGC, held earlier this month, did not host a women's event.

Befitting the interest that so many women have in learning how to tackle these issues, the ratio of men to women at the event--usually at game industry confabs there are at least 10 men for every woman--was turned on its head. If 10 percent to 12 percent of the industry's professionals are women, it seemed almost like all of them were on hand here Saturday.

The day started with a keynote address by Bonnie Ross, director of production for Microsoft Game Studios publishing. She addressed the issue of some of the differences she'd seen over the years in how men and women deal with the fragile work-life balance, something that has come to the forefront of industry human resources issues recently, especially after well-publicized complaints and lawsuits by employees of Electronic Arts, Activision and other video game industry companies.

"Women's long-term quality-of-life issues are different than men's," Ross said. "Many of us will slow down and stall our careers to affect this balance. Men have a slow curve upward toward the pinnacle of (professional) expertise. Women will take a couple of dips."

As a result, she said, many women's video game careers never reach their full potential, and some end up leaving for other work. Thus, she said, it is imperative that the video game industry work harder to come up with ways to address women's needs.

Part of the solution, she said, is finding ways to bring more women into the industry in the first place. And that starts with intentionally promoting diversity.

"A more diverse environment is also a comfortable workplace for diverse people," Ross said. "So hopefully, they want to stay longer."

Part of making that happen, she urged the audience, begins with having women in the industry learn that they need to do a better job of networking, both for their own advancement and that of female friends and peers.

At the same time, said Paula Fellbaum, director of human resources for game publisher THQ's Relic Entertainment division, women may well force the industry to come up with new ways to handle the delicate balance between work and life.

"Women demand a better work-life balance," Fellbaum said. "As more women are coming into the industry, (they) are forcing that change and saying, 'Look, we can do this smarter and better. We don't have to work harder. We can work smarter.'"

Gano Haine, vice president of product development for LimeLife, agreed. She said it's hard to imagine a video game industry without the occasional crunch period, but she suggested that women may be better at coming up with ways--such as treating the management of life at work for themselves and co-workers as they would do at home for their families--to handle such pressured periods.

Further, Haine said, women are better than men at saying no to the kinds of demands put on video game employees. But that doesn't always mean they get their way.

"The difficulty in this industry is staying around long enough to make that 'no' stick," Haine said.

That's an important element to effecting larger change in the industry, said Lisa Waits, head of Nokia's Snap Mobile division, but one at which women may not be particularly good.

"Unless you have some longevity, it's really tough to get into executive positions," Waits said. "(Women) as a whole do not do a good job of articulating our career ambitions and promoting ourselves."

Regardless, it's important for women to establish boundaries of what they will and will not put up with, several panelists said Saturday, something that's more important for women than men because of the realities of the difficulties of bearing children and maintaining a career.

Loftis recalled how, after giving birth to her first son, she had gone on a long business trip to England. After seven days, she said, she missed her son so much that her arms hurt any time she thought of him.

Afterward, she continued, she committed to never going on business trips longer than seven days.

Shari Graner Ray, an author who writes often about the issues women in the industry face, told a story about how she had been in Austin for her wedding when her chief executive called to tell her he had laid off a third of her employees.

She said she considered calling off the wedding and going back to New Mexico to deal with the fallout from the layoffs but decided in the end to continue with the wedding. Saturday, the audience broke out in applause upon hearing Ray's story.

All in all, Saturday's event was more informative than definitive. Much of the content had more to do with general work-life balance issues than those specific to women. But for some of those who attended, getting the chance to be alongside so many female industry professionals made the conference well worth attending.

"It's great to be involved in such a supportive and constructive environment," said Cheryl Platz, a producer for Amaze Entertainment in nearby Kirkland, Wash. "People (here) want to fix things...It's really important that we talk about how to fix the industry as a whole."