Women are being “left on sidelines” in the “video game revolution”, according to the LA Times:
The video game industry is flourishing, especially in California, as sales continue to climb despite a faltering economy. But the hiring has largely bypassed women. They comprise fewer than 1 in 5 workers in the business, according to a 2007 survey by Game Developer Magazine. Among game programmers, the number is a paltry 3%.
And this is a Bad Thing, according to many pundits:
“It’s important for women to be involved creatively because we need to broaden the reach of games,” said Simon Carless, publisher of Game Developer Magazine. “They should be a universal art form.”
But the real question is – assuming it is, indeed a Bad Thing – what can be done about it? And the answer to this, I fear, is not much.
There are gender imbalances in many careers, and not always slanted in favour of men. For example, primary school teachers are dominated by women, often by ratios of up to 10:1, in many Western countries. Nursing is another example, and the imbalance is even more pronounced: only around 6% of nurses in the UK and Canada are male; around 8.5% in Australia.
Why do these imbalances occur? The oft cited causes are sexism, bias in education and lack of role models – all environmental factors. I don’t doubt that all three factors are at play to some degree, but I don’t think they tell the whole story. For they leave out biology.
The fact is, many jobs in game development require a high level of not only proficiency, but interest, in mathematics – an abstract subject if ever there was one. Note that women make up 20% of the games development workforce, but only 3% of programmers.
The Controversial Bit
There’s evidence to suggest that this is because women simply aren’t as interested in such high-level abstract subjects, and are drawn away to other subjects during their education and subsequent career.
But there’s also evidence – and this’ll sound controversial… heck, it got Larry Summers booted from Harvard for mentioning it – that women also aren’t as proficient as men in high level mathematics.
The study that shows this is a significant, and oft cited, one – not fringe research. It’s by Xitao Fan and Michael Chen from Utah State University and Audrey Matsumoto from Andersen Consulting Education, and it was published in 1997.
Looking in detail at national mathematics test results of high school students across the United States, it found that while the mean performance of males and females was similar, the standard deviation for males was greater. For those of you who are lucky enough to never have studied statistics, this basically means the average scores were the same, but some males performed a lot worse than the average, and some performed a lot better.
The significance of this is not necessarily obvious. So… a very small percentage of males perform significantly higher than average, and even higher than the top performing women. But consider the kinds of people who are likely to enter a career in mathematics – or game programming. It’ll be those who have a natural aptitude for mathematics. It’ll be the outliers, not those around the mean.
As a consequence, it’s not surprising that there are more males in game programming jobs than women. And it’s also not such an easy thing to change artificially without nudging people who either don’t particularly want to be programmers or who aren’t particularly suited to being programmers into the job.
Does this mean we shouldn’t encourage women into jobs in game development? Absolutely not! We should provide every encouragement for anybody who wants a job and is capable of bringing valuable talent to it. And game development isn’t all about maths. Women have a great deal to contribute – but we will have to acknowledge that we’ll likely never see parity of men and women in the field, especially in programming.