Splash Damage, Diversity, and the UKIE Census

28% of the UK games industry identifies as female, with that percentage dropping even lower in development-specific or senior management roles. This information, while welcome, has thrown into sharp focus some of our own challenges.

In this piece, we dive into our studio’s diversity, where and how we’ve fallen short in the past, and what efforts we’ve made – and are making – to get better.

You’ll need a cup of tea for this one, it’s a long read.

In April 2019 we published our first Gender Pay Gap report. As part of a welcome amendment to the 2010 Equality Act, employers of over 250 people are required to report:

  • The proportion of males and females in each pay quartile
  • The mean and median gender pay gap in hourly pay
  • The mean and median bonus gender pay gap, and the proportion of males and females receiving bonus payment

You can read our extensive report above, along with comment from both Richard Jolly (CEO) and Kate Lindsay (HR Manager at the time). It marked an important moment for the studio (and many others in our industry) as we were faced with data about our own shortcomings.

This year UKIE published the first UK Games Industry Census with the aim of understanding diversity in all forms in the UK games industry workforce.

It’s the first report of its kind and is a brilliant document highlighting what many of us already knew; the UK Games Industry needs to be doing a better job at (among other things):

  • Hiring diverse talent from:
    • Underrepresented genders
    • Lower-income backgrounds
    • BAME backgrounds
  • Supporting staff who suffer from mental health conditions
  • Retaining staff as they get older

We’ve previously shared some of the work we’re doing surrounding mental health, including our wider wellbeing initiatives and some of our public discussion about men’s mental health. We’ll be talking in more detail about the changes we’re making to our benefits program in aid of mental health in a future piece as well.

This week, however, marks International Women’s Day, a celebration of women and everything they contribute across the world. Last year we celebrated International Women’s Day by highlighting some of the brilliant women who work here, what they do and how their careers started.

In light of the UKIE census, we thought we’d take the opportunity to talk about some of the findings, specifically with regards to women and underrepresented genders, and how our studio compares. We sat down with Cinzia (Operations Project Manager), Kate (Head of HR) and Steve (VP of People) to talk through the census.

“The frustrating thing about the Gender Pay Gap report, and our research for it, is it’s done for the previous year, so we’re only seeing some of our past failings now,” said Cinzia, Operations Project Manager.

One of these failings, which is the primary discrepancy in our Gender Pay Gap report, is the lack of women in senior leadership roles. “Honestly, I think we’re a few years away from it,” said Kate (Head of HR). “We’ve always had someone at my level and someone at Caroline’s level (Facilities Director), but there’s no-one representing women in those higher-level discussions.”

“You can trace this back to the founding of the studio in 2001,” says Steve, “It was three guys from the modding community, hiring other guys from the modding community. That perpetuated as they hired more and more people who were like them. That isn’t a slight on the founders at all, it’s how people operate by default. It’s one of the reasons we’ve done so much work and committed so much to the Unconscious Bias Training; we want everyone to be aware of the biases we all have through our upbringing and environment.”

So how do we get there? Over the past 12 months, the studio has put in an enormous amount of work to:

  • Address unconscious bias in both the hiring and promotion processes
  • Re-asses the salary and seniority bands
  • Simplify the career progression for all roles, with clear pathways to Lead positions

This is a start, and we’ve already seen success with the way women have been promoted, but is it enough?

“We’ve addressed these promotional rates, but women are still only being promoted to a certain level,” said Kate. “Where is the career path to those more senior roles? Is there one?” Steve thinks so, “but it’s very long… I want to see women at that level but, honestly, I don’t think it’s going to be quick enough. We have to address that.”

That isn’t an issue exclusive to Splash Damage; the UKIE census shows that “men tend to represent between 77% and 80% […] in most senior positions and an even higher proportion in core game production roles.” This is where opinions in the studio differ slightly on how to tackle this specific issue. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Cinzia, “Seniors or Leads are hired because this industry values shipped titles and ‘game-specific experience’ over anything else. And, given the average dev cycle of a game, the only people who have shipped that many titles are likely to be men! We need to hire more people from other industries, or at least be more open to it.”

“We need to move away from the idea of ‘experience’ as measured in time,” suggests Steve. “What does ‘4 years of AAA’ experience mean? We need to be talking more about what skills we expect candidates to have, no matter how long it took to get those skills, or where they got them. I’m generally in favour of looking beyond the games industry for candidates; skills across a number of disciplines are transferrable and if the person loves games it makes it even easier.”

“I want us to be doing more outreach,” laments Kate. “There’s always a temptation to stay in your little bubble, but we need to be more involved in local schools, we need to be supporting more STEM initiatives, going to all-girls colleges, etc. Women inspire women and yes, not having these senior, visible women can be a turn-off, but not having other junior women on your team can also be a turn-off, we can’t forget that.”

It’s possible, and necessary, to address imbalance at both senior and junior level simultaneously. Frances Light, Global Director of Diversity and Inclusion at King, recently wrote in PocketGamer.biz about addressing the whole talent pipeline:

At school age, we are a founding supporter of Ada, the National College for Digital Skills in the UK.

For new graduates, we created our GDC scholarship, which takes 15 femle or non-binary graduates to the world’s largest games event in San Francisco and offers them an internship at one of King’s studios.

For recruitment, we’re using a wider range of recruitment platforms, increasing our presence at Women in Tech events & talent fairs, and using blind rescumes during the application process.

Once in the ‘Kingdom’, efforts continue with initiatives such as our custom-designed bias awareness training for our managae, to help each of them build awareness around their own unconscious bias.

And for accelerating women into leadership, our Kicking Glass programme will specifically support and provide experience and exposure opportunities, coaching and mentorting high potential employees.

King’s approach is exemplary but comes with a word of caution; “[King] also know that [their] success will not be lasting unless the whole industry succeeds.”

RETENTION & DIVERGENT PATHWAYS

 

“Two-thirds of the UK games industry workforce is 35 or under,” reads the UKIE census. Not only that, but the disparity between gender representation widens in correlation with age. That disparity under 30 is smaller; 62% identify as men vs 70% overall, though the census carries a warning against the naive hope that that percentage will work itself out over time.

“The games industry definitely has some retention issues,” says Cinzia, “though it doesn’t seem out of line with other creative industries.” Kate agrees, suggesting that “the project-based nature of many creative industries leads to fairly high attrition. That said, I certainly want us to be retaining more people!”

“One area we spent a lot of time addressing last year to help with retention was our salaries, promotion rates and seniority bands,” said Steve. “Studies have shown, for instance, that men are promoted more on potential, whereas women tend to be promoted on past achievements. For this review, we built a model that charts progression across seniority levels and salary and compared everyone in the company against that to see if anyone was an outlier, or if anyone was being left behind.”

The loss of talented staff to other studios and other industries is common in games, but are women, and the women who work here, more likely to leave than men?

“The [rate of women leaving] isn’t out of line with attrition at the studio,” says Kate. “The biggest hurdle, and the most common thing that comes up in exit interviews, is seeing a clear career pathway. We need to do better with our line managers to ensure those pathways are clear and communicated but, as I said earlier, are also working hard to ensure those roles are open at high levels.”

We know that, especially in development disciplines, the career paths tend to be very fixed; you work to become a Lead or a head of your discipline. As an alternative, we always try and offer the chance to diverge from your discipline into a different role or to take on other responsibilities. Two of the people in this interview did just that.

“Steve (VP of People) and Cinzia (Operations Project Manager) have carved out these roles despite coming to Splash as something else,” said Kate. (Steve began life at Splash as a Community Manager, while Cinzia joined as Live Operations Manager). “We would never have advertised these roles because we didn’t even know that we needed them until we had them!”

“I think we tend to think about these roles quite organically,” said Steve. “Some of the responsibilities people might want to take on could be outside of their technical competency. Mac (Head of UI and Accessibility) became that because he really cares about accessibility in our games, but he moved to that role from being the studio’s Lead UI Programmer.”

It’s a tenant of Splash Damage’s culture; we want people to challenge themselves and be fulfilled and that’s led to people shifting roles and directions over their careers.

CULTURAL SHIFTS, DIVERSITY INITIATIVES & EXECUTIVE SUPPORT

That challenge and need to be fulfilled isn’t just in a professional capacity. At Splash Damage we run steering groups; cross-department teams committed to tackling issues that align with broader studio strategies and goals. This can be anything from analysing our Learning & Development efforts to looking at how we share tech between projects.

The past couple of years have seen more holistic initiatives being created and, crucially, pitched and driven by the staff. “We as staff do these things because we know they’re the right things to do,” says Kate. “It’s a testament to Splash’s culture that the Execs let the staff drive these initiatives.”

This past cycle has seen the studio commit to a number of brand new initiatives; we’ve re-assessed and re-written the company’s long-standing values, we’ve taken a hard look at our working environment, and we’ve formalised our diversity efforts with the foundation of the Diversity steering group and three ERGs (Employee Resource Groups): BAME, LGBTQ+, and WASD (Women at Splash Damage).

“When I started,” said Steve, “there were 35 people in the studio and just one woman, our office manager. It was a very straight white male environment and, for me personally, I just didn’t feel comfortable coming out then. The studio today feels completely different from those times, and we’ve done a lot of work in giving underrepresented groups a voice within the studio.”

“When I first joined there was no LGBTQ+ group, no BAME, no WASD, and no diversity initiatives,” said Kate. “I had no idea that we needed them; it wasn’t until we started doing them that I realised just how desperately we did need them.” This is a sentiment echoed widely across the studio. “You don’t see how bad something is until it begins to change for the better,” says Cinzia. “The company is so much better now. It looks the same but feels completely different. After the Diversity SG was founded, the LGBTQ+ Slack channel opened, etc and these topics became normalised and we saw a real enthusiasm towards them.”

Splash Damage has always had women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and BAME employees on its staff, but it’s only been the past two or three years that we’ve seen concerted efforts to create support structures for under-represented groups.

A lot of these efforts have been grassroots, and there are frequent debates among the staff involved in those groups about the Exec layer and their support of those initiatives.

“Our senior leadership team, understandably, spend a lot of their time on business-critical things,” said Cinzia. “But I think they can underestimate just how much impact they can have on these causes.”

“For me,” said Steve, “I prefer the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach. For example, during Pride, all of our senior leadership bought rainbow lanyards (which they all still wear). That is, I think, a much more powerful statement than someone saying “Hello, I care about LGBTQ+ issues now” in a company update — that can feel very hollow.”

SPLASH IN 2020 AND INTO 2021

The past two years have seen enormous shifts in culture, hiring practices, data analysis and our understanding of our own responsibilities – to our staff, our local community and the industry at large. But we know it isn’t enough, and we have more to do.

But where do we want to be this time next year? What do we want to have
achieved, and what progress do we want to have made to increase representation in our studio?

“I want us to publicly commit to diversity efforts,” said Cinzia. “This is a great start, but I want us to commit to hard targets. My realistic hope is that if we have this discussion again in 12 months’ time the percentage of underrepresented groups in the studio has improved.”

“I want to see the Execs start to embrace new voices,” said Kate. “I love seeing work driven by the staff, but meaningful change has to start from the top. That said, I want to see more new ideas coming from staff, more initiatives being driven without the worry about senior buy-in!”

“I want us to keep going,” said Steve. “We have so much momentum in the studio right now to grow these support networks and keep giving platforms and space to underrepresented groups. I want to continue to enable people to be their whole selves at work; not to worry about putting on a front, or being within themselves, or even changing the way they dress to come here. I want this to be a safe space for everyone.”

I can’t wait to see the studio in 12 months’ time; the things we’ll have achieved and the people we’ll have here. I’m really excited.”