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Women Who Tech Are Dangerous: Portraits and Stories in the Age of #metoo

All portraits and interviews by John Davidson

johndavidson-photography.com

Autumn Rose Taylor

Autumn Rose Taylor

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Autumn Rose Taylor

Job Title: Studio Director, Marketing, KnOWLedge at Owlchemy Labs

Years in the tech industry: 3

On her role at Owlchemy Labs:

Owlchemy Labs is a creative studio that produces unique VR experiences and games. My role, like all our developers at the studio, involves wearing many hats. On any given day I’m managing: marketing and public relations, social media and community management, partnerships and business development, event planning and logistics, and studio operations — just to name just a few. Our work, and VR in general, moves very quickly. We’re constantly prototyping and iterating, which means my work is constantly evolving, as well. It’s exciting work, and extremely fulfilling to see ideas come to life so quickly.

Climb any mountain — on family values:

My parents were always incredibly supportive in all that I wanted to pursue. They instilled in me a strong work ethic and belief in equal opportunity, always encouraging me to strive for more and to never limit myself. Any challenge I encountered was merely an obstacle — one that I could overcome.

Education for all — on the importance of equal access:

I went to school in a very rural community, where unfortunately a wide range of STEM-related subjects weren’t available in the curriculum or extracurriculars. Despite this, I maintained a pretty healthy interest in technology and computers that many of my teachers encouraged — whether it be via projects or extra credit.

While I ended up in tech — albeit in a roundabout way — I sometimes wonder if my path would have differed if I had access to these topics in secondary education. The accessibility of technology has exploded in just the past decade, and at times I’m a little envious of all the knowledge that students have at their fingertips these days. Thoughts like this push me to help make technology like VR and coding curriculum available to rural schools — I think VR will be an incredible tool moving forward to catalyze learning and growth for kids seeking a career in tech.

Getting her game on — on forging a career path:

It’s so funny, to look back through your childhood and adolescence and pinpoint various moments in your life that signal your trajectory down a particular path. For me, it seems so obvious looking at my hobbies that I would end up in games. I was interested in video games from a young age, and that interest manifested in more tangible, creative ways as I grew older — from modding and creating custom meshes and textures in The Sims 2 to building interactive, branching narrative games with a tool called Ren’Py.

Despite majoring in public relations, I joined the game developers club while in university — why not? Members of the club would often participate in hackathon-style events called “game jams” — events over a set amount of time where the goal is to make a game by the end of it. Game jams are absolutely brilliant, and are the kind of hands-on learning I find essential to developing a skill set in games.

The fact that I am here today, thriving in this field after such a traumatic incident, makes me especially keen to fight for others and carve a space for them in the industry.

Personal history — #metoo:

A very personal incident at the beginning of my interest in games as a career defined this issue for me. I was harassed pretty badly in college by an industry professional, and the incident left such an impression on me that I swore off games as a career path. Later down the road, I was pulled back in by the exciting potential of VR, overcoming the anxiety associated with that incident through the support of mentors and peer allies.

I suppose that’s my #MeToo story.

It was traumatizing, humiliating, and just sucked. It’s in the past now, but I can’t help but feel lucky that I made my way back to the industry I feel so passionate about. The fact that I am here today, thriving in this field after such a traumatic incident, makes me especially keen to fight for others and carve a space for them in the industry. I never want someone to feel the way I did — like I didn’t belong or like the actions of someone else defined me.

If there is a young woman who wants to make video games, I will do everything in my power to help make this industry a place for her. Nobody gets to take that away from her, not for a moment.

On whether the #MeToo movement and its offshoots have given women a stronger voice, allowed them to feel more confident in their ability to push back when confronted with inappropriate comments and behaviour:

I think the visibility that gender issues have seen in just the past year has made significant changes in the collective mindset of industry professionals. The games industry has seen several terrible news cycles surrounding gender issues, with more and more women speaking out and demanding change. These things can’t change overnight, of course, but nobody expects them to.

In my eyes, movements like #MeToo have provided not only solidarity and validation of women’s experiences, but strength.

While it can be tiring to speak up about inappropriate behavior again and again, it’s necessary to be proactive in order to tackle culture concerns and the diversity debt facing the industry. That still doesn’t change the fact that it is tiring. What #MeToo and other movements have provided is the proliferation of expectations surrounding what’s acceptable and what’s not, and a level of accountability that removes the burden of speaking out from weighing too heavily on any one person.

It’s liberating to know you have a voice. It’s liberating for others to hear it, and feel inspired to use their own voices. For years this has all happened behind the scenes and through whispers, but now people are being open about their experiences. Whispering takes less energy and risk than shouting does, but has less impact. When we speak up in solidarity, though, the impact is greater than both. It’s a roar.

I feel it is not and should not be the responsibility of women alone to fight this fight. Anyone in a position of power has to lead by example in order to change mindsets around diversity at an industry level.

We are allies — on the importance of women AND men being the change:

The only way we will see lasting change is if we — women and men — continue to lift each other up and stand up for what’s right. It can’t be solely an effort on the part of women. There has to be a great deal of allyship from male colleagues and those in leadership positions.

At the end of the day, we all just want to do our jobs and lead fulfilling careers. I feel a great deal of purpose when it comes to advocating for diversity and inclusion, but am keenly aware that it’s challenging work, and not for everyone. I feel it is not and should not be the responsibility of women alone to fight this fight. Anyone in a position of power has to lead by example in order to change mindsets around diversity at an industry level.

Allyship from industry leaders is the only path forward, and both men and women in games have to hold leadership to that responsibility.

On what the game industry looks like in terms of gender balance:

What it looks like to be a woman in the games industry…well, it’s just 21% of an entire industry looking like you. That’s the percentage as of 2017 that represent women in the games industry according to an IGDA survey published in January this year.

That number is obviously abysmal, but the trend is on the up, with companies making amazing efforts to diversify their workforce and more young women pursuing the skills to make games.

On what the game industry FEELS like in terms of gender balance:

What it feels like — that’s another thing entirely.

On some days, it means feeling invigorated by just existing as a woman in games, someone who belongs and is skilled and proficient in their craft. This industry is full of truly incredible women who are constantly and consistently kicking ass.

We are here and we will be heard.

On other days, it means feeling defeated by just existing as a woman in games, having to defend the right to be a part of making something you love, to defend the right to merely exist.

I am here, and I am tired.

I won’t sugar coat the reality of what it feels and looks like to be a woman in the games industry, but at the same time, I wouldn’t trade the experience of being in games for anything. It’s such an incredibly fulfilling field to work in. When I see the impact that my work and our games have on people — those are cherished memories and stories, real moments that people will have with them forever. Games are not just entertainment, they matter. Games impact lives.

On whether gaming as an industry feels welcoming to women:

It’s hard to paint a picture on this topic with such broad strokes.

It’s a difficult time to be a woman in games, with a culture where “meritocracy” is a facade for gatekeeping and misogyny, and toxic fans are weaponized with tools to terrorize careers and lives. GamerGate is still fresh on the minds of many, and a daily reality — a terror that’s constantly lurking just beneath the surface. “Could I be next?”

That anxiety is hardly “welcoming”, but at the same time I feel as if there has never been a better time to be in games. Creativity is bursting from the seams, so many interesting and diverse projects and voices being shared. The democratization of game development through accessible tools like Unity are arming the next generation of developers, one that will shatter all barriers placed before them.

On the turning tide — and the significance of supportive colleagues:

Things are changing rapidly, and for the better! I’m very lucky to have incredible colleagues and allies that make me feel welcomed and valued. Their trust in my competency has empowered me to succeed. I think the general tide in games is shifting in that direction, with many opening conversations about how to empower women in the field.

I hope as studios become more conscious of this and include women in every part of the development process, games themselves will reflect a more inclusive mindset, which can then be transferred to players and the culture therein.

A technology of one’s own — on whether a new technology like VR affords women opportunities to carve out their own space:

The beautiful thing about the virtual reality industry is how it cuts across so many verticals — virtually every industry out there is touched by VR, or will be. The field is so new that it demands skill sets and perspectives from every discipline and background out there.

That inherently makes it more diverse, but I find that overall there is an attitude that it’s a new beginning for those who have found friction in other industries — be it general tech and software development, gaming, or film. That being said, VR has had a higher barrier to entry than other tech fields in recent years (the need for expensive hardware and highly technical skillset), which means evangelizing its potential to underrepresented groups has to be very intentional effort by leaders in the field.

The people working in VR are some of the most passionate people that I’ve ever met, and we all share the sentiment that we feel the responsibility to pay it forward to those looking to break in the industry — A rising tide raises all ships!

We’re determined not to let VR be exclusive of women and other underrepresented groups. There’s simply no room for it in a future where VR succeeds. VR is a medium to share the human experience, and we need diverse creators to create diverse experiences and have their voices heard.

It’s easy to assume that something as basic as “don’t harass women” is implied, but it’s important to be explicit and set expectations up-front in organizations and communities. An inclusive culture doesn’t just happen, it has to be intentional.

Be mindful — on creating an inclusive culture:

For the majority of men in games, they will never see an act of discrimination or harassment. What’s important is that they mindfully reproduce an inclusive culture in their teams and professional communities regardless. That way, women can feel safe to speak up at all, and known they will be heard.

It’s easy to assume that something as basic as “don’t harass women” is implied, but it’s important to be explicit and set expectations up-front in organizations and communities. An inclusive culture doesn’t just happen, it has to be intentional. And I’m seeing a lot of male peers stepping up to do this work.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be involved in developer communities where I’m surrounded by male allies, as well as working for a company with diversity-minded leadership. I find my confidence has increased by leaps and bounds knowing I’ll be heard on these issues, and encourage leaders in particular to make themselves accessible to the women in their studios to listen, learn, and grow.

On mentorship:

The mentorship I’ve received from other women has been pivotal in my career, especially when it comes to self-esteem and confidence. One incredible mentor I’ve been lucky to have is Cy Wise. She was one of the earliest individuals I met in the VR space and has had a huge impact on my life, even beyond my career.

One of my role models in the games industry is Rebekah Saltsman, the Co-Founder & CEO of indie developer/publisher studio Finji. Bekah is a boss.There’s really no other way to put it. I met her through a community event while I was still in university, and have always been astounded by her tenacity.

In the VR space, Helen Situ, CEO of MomentXR, is someone I’ve looked up to since I first became interested in VR. Since I met her, she has been incredibly kind and considerate, a community-minded individual always looking for ways to lift others up. She’s paving the way for women in VR in a huge, meaningful way through the conversations she starts and the connections she enables.

It’s so important to have a mentor to share your experience with, someone to guide you through the choppy waters they’ve traversed before. Imposter syndrome is a very easy thing to get wrapped up in, a good mentor helps keep it at bay.

It’s hard to quantify the impact of having someone believe in you and give youpermission to be exactly you. It has a ripple effect — it’s a gift you want to pass on to others in the hope that one day they will share it with someone else in turn.

I’ll be your mirror — on giving back:

I do my best to mentor and lift up other women when I get the chance — make connections, provide resources, or simply provide validation of their career choice. The women I meet in games are such bright stars, sometimes they only need a mirror to reflect back at them, a reminder to keep shining their light.

Outside my professional role, I spend a lot of time doing community organizing — I’ve been a co-organizer for VR Austin just over 2 years, and recently joined the Board of Directors for Juegos Rancheros, an Austin-based community of game developers and fans.

I think it’s essential to give back to the communities that have both enabled my success, and the success of so many others — not to mention the industry as a whole!

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear…

Long term, I’d like to keep working to improve diversity and accessibility of VR, both on the industry and consumer-facing side of things. A big goal of mine is to help make development resources more accessible to students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds and lower socioeconomic status. How that manifests in my work is yet to be determined.

The future looks incredibly bright — good thing I’m usually wearing VR goggles!

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Lynette Barksdale

Lynette Barksdale

Sara Inés Calderon

Sara Inés Calderon