Women account for almost half of the global gaming community and they’re becoming increasingly involved in all its aspects, from development to esports. To accurately reflect this dynamic, it’s important for video game companies to diversify—particularly among their leadership roles.

To get deeper insight about the state of the video game industry, AListDaily spoke to Kongregate CEO Emily Greer, Digital Extremes VP of publishing Meridith Braun, Blue Planet Software (the sole agent for the Tetris brand) CEO Maya Rogers and Maureen Fan, who worked at Zynga for six years before becoming the co-founder and CEO of Baobab Studios, which creates animated virtual reality films. They recount their experiences as executives in the games industry and share their thoughts on how it can be improved.

Recognizing The Problem

When it comes to gender diversity at the top levels, Greer would score the industry pretty low, stating, “It’s at a point where if I’m in a group of 20 other leaders in the games industry and there are two other women, it feels like a lot. Very often it’s just me and maybe one or two other people.”

Maya Rogers, president and CEO of Blue Planet Software, the sole agent for the Tetris brand

She isn’t alone in observing that gaming has some diversity issues. Although all four women agree that the industry has come a long way in the past decade or so, both Fan and Rogers said that there is plenty of room for improvement.

“To this day, I don’t think we see nearly enough women in key leadership roles,” said Rogers. “It’s a shame, because the women I have interacted with in more senior roles are absolute rock stars—creative, innovative and strategic. They’re great mentors for all their employees, not just women.”

“There needs to be more progress when it comes to gender diversity in both leadership roles and in non-leadership roles,” Fan added. “It is good business sense. Don’t we think women could have an edge designing for female audiences? All the research also shows that having female in leadership roles at companies increases profits too.”

Fan also said that research has shown that women are just as ambitious as men are to rise to the C staff level, but many “drop out”—not because they don’t want to reach the top, but because they see the system stacked against them.

All agree that the challenges that women face are not unique to the games industry, and issues such as pay inequality and difficulties rising to senior roles can be found in all sectors. However, Braun, who has been in the games industry since 1999, is the most optimistic of the group, stating that the opportunities to advance are present, but more women need to be made aware of them.

“I feel that the people who have the most qualifications, who pursue these opportunities and put in the effort and dedication to learning the jobs are the ones who should be in those jobs, no matter what gender they are,” said Braun.

While Rogers is glad that there are now twice the number of women in the industry than when she entered it in 2003, Fan observed that people tend to hire people that they’re comfortable with, which oftentimes means people like them. Therefore, for women to get to the top, women need to be at the top, either by starting their own companies or getting male advocates in existing ones as there are at Zynga.

CEOs Aren’t Exempt From Harassment

Emily Greer, co-founder and CEO of Kongregate

Greer is an example of someone who co-founded her own company alongside her brother Jim Greer, who had already been involved with the gaming industry. But even though she admits that, having always been the boss of her own company, she hasn’t had to face some of the struggles that other women have, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been challenges.

Although Greer says she has always felt welcomed in the games industry and describes her overall experience as a positive one, she has felt doubts from investors who may not have believed that she knew enough about games to be a CEO. Furthermore, she has been harassed by the gaming community, which she wrote about in a blog post three years ago.

Greer discovered that even though she and her brother both received about the same number of messages from community, she received 4X the number of sexually explicit messages than her sibling (who barely received any), some stating that the two were having an incestuous relationship.

“I’ve never experienced sexual harassment at conferences until I joined the game industry,” said Greer.

It’s important to note that the Gamergate controversy also arose 2014, where a loosely organized movement formed a harassment campaign against women in the games industry.

“Running these numbers through a statistical significance test confirms what should be obvious to anyone following Gamergate,” Greer wrote at the time, “with a 99.9 percent confidence level it is harder to be a woman than a man in the game industry, independent of what you say or do.”

The industry largely stood together against what Gamergate represented, but it left a mark and has led more companies to focus more on online harassment.

“Awareness is the best way to start to ferret out those bad aspects of the industry,” said Braun. “I find it absolutely horrific that women today get treated so poorly in some cases just because they want to play video games. That makes no sense.”

Improving The Industry

Rogers and Fan both said that women are not rising to leadership roles at a fast enough pace, but all four agree that opportunities will arise as the industry continues to grow. Much has to do with educating both men and women.

“Educating men is the greatest opportunity,” Fan explained. “If the men are in charge and they hold the keys to the system, informing them of our inherent biases can help them change the system.”

Fan also said that as a female CEO in the entertainment industry, gender diversity within her company is a very important topic for her. She said that Baobab is constantly looking to improve its gender diversity by examining its hiring practices and engaging in public forums about the importance of gender diversity.

Maureen Fan, co-founder and CEO of Baobab Studios

“Women may feel pressured to act more like men—to be seen as more leader-like,” Fan continued. “Yet, the best form of leadership is authentic leadership. Why should you have to be someone you’re not to be accepted by others? I feel men should meet women half way. Instead of asking women to change, men can value the differences in women.”

Greer, Rogers and Braun stated that there was no grand plan behind the diversification of their companies. Instead, they largely happened naturally. According to Greer, Kongregate ended up with a 35-40 percent female representation, which she said is on the higher end of the industry average, as a happenstance of having both a man and a woman as its leaders fostering a welcoming culture.

But Greer also stated that some mindfulness has to go into hiring, citing an example where the company brought two women to a predominantly male engineering team so that there wouldn’t be a lone female member.

“Think about it from the start,” said Greer. “It can be really hard to be one woman on a 20-person team in ways that are unconscious for everybody. When you start a new company, don’t have it be something that you think about after three years when you’re already at 90 percent male level. That can be hard to get back from.”

Additionally, Fan encourages women to research how they are being perceived so that they can gain awareness and make changes accordingly.

“In my experience, the men in my team always asked me for promotions and raises. The women didn’t because they expected to get it when it was fair,” said Fan. “You’re disadvantaging yourself by not asking because everyone else is.”

Meridith Braun, VP of publishing at Digital Extremes

Kongregate has also brought in people from outside the industry. Individuals who began as volunteer moderators within the Kongregate player community were hired to do community and customer service management, giving them career opportunities that they might not have otherwise considered, and some were later promoted to other roles.

Rogers, whose admittedly small team at Blue Planet is mostly female, said that the gaming industry needs to bring in women at all levels, from development to executives, to address the female gaming audience.

“Ensure development teams have women in all key areas of game design,” said Rogers. “Plus, encourage females in executive roles to drive strategies for capturing this growing market. This isn’t a new concept. Other industries, such as automotive, electronics and appliances, have been doing it successfully for years.”

Both Fan and Braun believe the key to achieving that is through better education for girls at a young age.

“The opportunities are there, and just like any other industry, [gaming] has to work on awareness of those opportunities so that girls know about them at an earlier age and how to pursue them,” said Braun. “There is no role you can’t rise to if you have the dedication to learning everything you can and put in the effort to build the skills to achieve them.”

“Partner with women and under-served communities through development schools, schools and internship programs. Increase the funding resources for indie creators, along with stronger executive mentorship programs,” said Fan. “The more diverse a company is, the greater the chance new ideas and unorthodox approaches make it into the project. Games that bring something unique are the most popular and heavily promoted.”