As a young woman at Microsoft I have been very vocal about the importance of inclusivity and equality in STEM careers. I know firsthand the barriers women face trying to break into the tech – and if you don’t believe they exist, you are not qualified to comment on the difficulties we face.
The gaming community is a notoriously negative space for women and female developers. That’s why it is not a surprise, but a profound disappointment that scantily-clad dancers were hired to perform at the Xbox party at GDC. This is not the first time something like this has happened. But for all us women in the industry, it is a reminder that, despite all the messaging about equality and the push towards gender parity, the bias is still there.
As industry leaders, the Xbox party planners should be well aware of the diversity issue – we all go through mandatory inclusivity training at Microsoft, so there’s no excuse – and they should be trying to influence the industry in positive ways. You can talk about body positivity and freedom of sexuality all you want, but there is no denying that hiring female dancers dressed in tiny schoolgirl outfits alienates the female audience.
You don’t need to go around congratulating female developers for our existence (which is what many who oppose the women in tech movement think we want). But you have to realize how alienating it is to a woman when she, at a professional event, looks around to see a room full of men gawking over half-naked girls who are there solely for their sex appeal. Suddenly we are reminded exactly how different we are and that, no matter how professional we are or how much we prove ourselves, we will still have to work so much harder than our male counterparts to be seen as equal.
At the root of this problem is unconscious bias. Whoever signed off on those dancers clearly didn’t realize the issue, and may not even have considered female developers at all. The unfortunate truth is that some people in the industry truly don’t see how their decisions can impact another person’s sense of belonging. And whether you’re making a decision on an individual level or on behalf of a Fortune 500 corporation and industry leader, your actions have impact.
And it only takes one of these decisions on a big scale to taint the entire perception of a company. Despite the utter disappointment I have that this happened, I want to acknowledge that this does not reflect Microsoft’s culture as a whole. Microsoft is one of the most inclusive and diverse companies I’ve had experience with, and I have never felt personally discriminated against by my colleagues. We have active groups and events that celebrate our diversity and promote inclusivity, and as a young woman I feel very welcome at Microsoft. When something like this happens the accountability should be on the shoulders of the person who signed off on it, not the CEO or the whole company. As easy as it is to attack the public figure, it is important to recognize that there are over 100,000 other Microsofties out there, many of whom are also unhappy about what happened at the Xbox party. There are many Microsofties of all genders who promote inclusivity and are doing amazing things to make this industry a more welcoming place for everyone.
But that doesn’t mean I think the issue has been resolved. Public apology is great and necessary but, as I said above, the responsibility should rest on the shoulders of the person who hired the dancers. It is not enough for the Xbox lead to simply release a statement saying the entertainment “was not consistent or aligned to our values” (Huffington Post). Two things should happen: the person should face consequences and inclusivity policies should be put into place for events. Unless we learn from these mistakes and make it clear that they are not tolerated, the upper-level proponents of diversity and equality are not as committed to gender parity as they say they are, and the industry cannot make the necessary steps towards equality.
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