Microsoft has made substantial advancements recently towards closing the gender gap in gaming and STEM, but you wouldn’t have known it from yesterday’s XBox party at GDC.
As several attendees took to Twitter to report, the event featured women in schoolgirl outfits who had been hired to interact with guests and encourage them to dance. The women, who The Verge reports were hired by Microsoft, rather than by the venue, performed on spotlighted platforms above the crowd.
Kamina Vincent of the Game Developers’ Association of Australia tweeted last night, “this is the first fucking time I’ve felt this unwelcome at a gaming event.” She later described the party to us over email:
I arrived at the GDC 16 Microsoft party and saw two women who stood out. They were immediately noticeable from their outfits because they seemed dressed completely differently to everyone else for the event, wearing a cleavage enhancing crop top and short miniskirt. She introduced herself and asked if we were having fun. I asked what her role was at the party. She told me that they had been hired to speak with attendees and encourage them to the dance floor. As I continued my questions about her presence and role at the party she quickly excused herself from the conversation and joined a group of men on a nearby sofa. It was a conversation that left me feeling very uncomfortable and I chose this moment to leave the party. The men I saw interact with these women seemed to be enjoying the attention, happily chatting and taking posed photos with them. I did speak with several women after deciding to leave the party and their views were all consistent with mine.
There’s nothing inherently sexist about hiring female dancers for an event, and if Xbox had featured male dancers as well, this wouldn’t need to be a conversation. Or at least not the same conversation—there’s a separate debate that could be had about the merits or drawbacks of having dancers of any gender at parties like these, which in my experience are usually an uncomfortable mix of people trying to network professionally and people ready to get weird.
The choice to hire only female dancers is an indication that Microsoft’s party planners didn’t consider the diversity of their event’s potential attendees. Dancers of all genders could have encouraged attendees to make use of the dance floor. Microsoft clearly didn’t think of the ways in which having exclusively female dancers could make women attendees feel unwelcome. As Vincent told us,
Having entertainment provided by women in that manner has lead to men confusing women involved in development as part of the hired entertainment. Decisions like these reinforce that women are decoration instead of a part of the industry. Games development skews heavily male. Events like this, leaving women feeling uneasy and devalued, contributes to women being marginalised in the industry.
In a statement to The Mary Sue, game developer Fara Khalaf told us the event was “absolute hypocrisy”:
I attended the event last night, and to be completely honest, I was shocked to see the girls there. I avoided that part of the venue the whole night because it made me uncomfortable. For a company that’s pushing for diversity and inclusion of more women in the games industry, Microsoft did a great job of isolating and alienating females that attended the event. It was absolute hypocrisy and unnecessary — we’re trying to move forward and become more progressive as an industry, but that won’t happen if the culture doesn’t change.
It wasn’t just women who objected to the way the event was organized, either; head of Xbox Games Marketing Aaron Greenberg said over Twitter that he was “very disappointed to see this.”
Many convention attendees were particularly surprised by the dancers, given that Microsoft also organized a Women in Games lunch for this year’s GDC. But it’s relatively easy to understand how Microsoft could have an event designed explicitly to celebrate women at the same conference where they also hired dancers dressed as sexy schoolgirls.
Being an ally is often about taking one step forward and two steps back, and although events like the WiG lunch are great, they ultimately still present women as the “other”, and accomplish very little of the nitty-gritty, deliberate, and frequently uncomfortable work required to address unconscious gender biases in tech culture. If they’re truly dedicated to inclusivity, companies have to be willing to examine biases in ways that aren’t easy; ways that don’t earn them easy points for progressiveness and may ultimately disappoint male fans.
It’s worth noting this apparently isn’t the first time Microsoft has featured similar entertainers at their parties. Game developer Brianna Wu said in a statement to The Mary Sue,
This is a pattern with Microsoft at their professional events. I have seen them hire scantily clad women to perform at their parties at San Francisco – most recently during Gamesbeat.
I’m a very sex positive feminist. The issue here isn’t the women, who are simply making a living. The problem is it’s very inappropriate for a professional networking event. Our industry has extreme problems in how we represent women, and this just reinforces the idea that game development is a frat house.
At Grace Hopper this year, I met so many women engineers on the Microsoft Hololens team. As an organization, they have instituted mandatory unconscious bias training. This undermines everything Microsoft is doing right.
I’d like to see them cut ties with whoever planned this.
Thankfully, it seems like Xbox agrees with their critics. Head of Xbox Phil Spencer told The Mary Sue over email,
At Xbox-hosted events at GDC this past week, we represented Xbox and Microsoft in a way that was not consistent or aligned to our values. It was unequivocally wrong and will not be tolerated. I know we disappointed many people and I’m personally committed to holding ourselves to higher standards. We must ensure that diversity and inclusion are central to our everyday business and core values. We will do better in the future.