Leigh Alexander and I agreed to move the chat we started via Twitter to email so that we could express and explain ourselves without the character limit. As Leigh tweeted, "Disagreement or the need for further discussion can't preclude respect among colleagues." The conversation:
Leigh Alexander: So I saw you as being displeased that people too easily leaped to attribute the wage gap to sexism, because they were eager to earn accolades for being politically-correct, and that they saw sexism where there might not be any in order to feel they'd won a moral victory.
Shawn Elliott: What bothers me is that they both attribute the wage gap to sexism on the part of game industry employers by arbitrarily banishing any serious consideration of alternative explanations from the realm of possibility, and proceed to issue moral imperatives, demanding that the accused address wrongs for which they haven't actually been convicted. In other words, when someone admits that they don't understand the actual conditions that contribute to an unfavorable outcome, then sentences someone all the same, and explicitly tells the accused that their “only valid response” is to rectify the perceived problem, they're moralizing plain and simple. I don't doubt or call into question their commitment to equality (more on this in a moment). I believe their commitment is sincere, and ask that you accept that mine is as well. But it's possible to come to dumb conclusions despite having your heart in the right place.
LA: On one hand, I completely agree with you that if we're going to address representational problems financially and otherwise, we do need a complete picture of the disparity, in order to make a stronger case that it can't be explained by other means. Logical fallacies don't help anyone's case.
SE: We need a more complete understanding of the causes of the disparity in order to correct if it is indeed due to discriminatory policies and practices. You can't fix what you fail to comprehend, no matter how nice it makes a person feel to pretend that they have sufficient info to tell a particular party that its their fault and that they need to fix it. If it turns out that the problem is more challenging and multidimensional, the finger pointing will not have helped anyone at all – in fact, it can contribute to the problem. It can lead you to overlook much more promising avenues for change. Poor reasoning can allow people to dismiss your concerns as well as your diagnosis. I'm taking pains here to clarify that I do not dismiss the underlying concern.
LA: On the other hand, that women are unequal in the games industry is a fact of life for us. Sexism, hostility and general alienation are the reality for many if not most of us. That isn't something that requires data or is up for debate -- women in the industry have been trying to talk about our experiences at increasing volume and at critical mass over the past few years. Many men will find any reason not to listen to us, but we are trying.
SE: I absolutely understand this, however, I addressed wage disparities among developers alone, not the treatment of women as a whole within development, and definitely not across the industry spectrum of reporting, blogging, streaming, forum-going, and gaming.
LA: So I don't think it's actually such an intolerable leap for some people to have seen that data and presumed some degree of logical correlation. Women are unequal in the games industry; women's pay is also unequal. You are right that we don't know the extent to which one fact causes the other, and indeed, it would help to know.
SE: It isn't a tolerable leap to say that, since women are exposed to persistent sexual harassment within games, for example, wage disparities among developers are necessarily due to sexist practices and policies on the part of employers. When you write that “Women are unequal in the games industry” do you specifically mean that devs are disproportionately male? (I'll pass on the pay aspect, as that is the point of this discussion.)
LA: But the correlation is a fair assumption. I would trade my right hand if further research into the pay gap found that sexism does not play some role (especially as you and others discussed women being relatively new to the industry or less-experienced -- why would that be the case, for example?). It is absolutely, at least, an abstractly-related discussion even if the data doesn't "prove" it.
SE: Again, my argument is not that sexism is unlikely to play a part in explaining why fewer women than men work in development, or even why on balance women developers are paid less than their male counterparts. When I wrote that “We must also study the male-female ratio among qualified candidates from whom studios receive applications. We must ask what percentage of women pursue educations in programming?” I meant to imply that sexism may enter the equation at any number of steps on the path from a woman's childhood experiences and environment up to her ultimate decision to pursue a career in development. I also cited the well-documented effects that marriage and career interruptions have on occupational compensation (and how this differs depending upon one's field of expertise), and sexism may play some part here, as well. But that blame is not necessarily the employer's. And that doesn't scratch the surface of the meaningful, multidimensional discussion occurring outside the walled garden of gaming industry coverage. (See Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman on gendered competitiveness or Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox on political ambition )
LA: And people are righteous about it because a certain degree of outrage has accumulated in the discussion on sexism, and justifiably. Whenever we talk about sexism, a man appears to find some way to either abuse or discredit us (even when "we" includes our men friends, who also increase their volume of outrage). A common derailing tactic when someone has a hostile political agenda is to play the "I'm simply discussing the facts" card, to veil the fact they're refusing to have empathy for the party that's requesting it.
SE: I find it a bit embarrassing -- as though I'm being put on trial – to need to explain that I'm wholeheartedly for equality and intolerant of sexism. Every woman who faces sexism (every woman alive?) has my empathy. At times, though, you do need to discuss known facts (and challenge unsubstantiated supposition), and doing so has nothing to do with evincing empathy.
LA: The numbers in the salary survey are not the entire conversation, you are right. But they're the beginning of a conversation, and I would have liked to see you frame your argument as asking it to go further, rather than discrediting others in your desire to prize facts or further research. At the very least, it shows more care toward underrepresented people if you presume their instincts about discrimination may be correct and you seek data to support that, rather than asking for data before you will consider their feelings.
SE: I accept blame for my poor writing. It was my intent to expand the scope of what I saw as constrained conversation, not to close it. With available data, though, I can't presume that instincts that say employer discrimination explains the wage disparity in game development are correct. They might be, they might not be. Not coming to conclusions about causes before adequate evidence is available doesn't preclude the ability to consider someone's feelings. I don't understand this argument at all.
LA: Because the statements made that you criticized -- things like how we need to train, hire and promote more women -- are pretty important goals for the industry that I don't think you'd disagree with. I was disappointed in your eagerness to banish them from a conversation about wage gap when even in absence of statistics, we know there is very probably some relationship.
SE: Did I criticize the notion that “we need to train, hire and promote more women”? I remember writing that “These are fine policies to follow.” That said, more women working in game development is a great thing – same for members of other groups that are less represented than women by far.
LA: Border House, or RPS, are allies of diversity. You say you want to enable them to be better allies through more information, but your clear disdain for their logic can unfortunately be read as derisive of their long campaigns for equality.It's a destructive rather than supportive approach.
SE: I'm not aware of their campaigns and was responding to what I read. I didn't intend to deride the spirit of their campaigns. And you're right in that my tone was too combative. I think the tone I took from the stories was “I'm going to tell you how it is and don't you dare argue or I'll dismiss you for who you are and not what you say.” I took that as a challenge and it immediately turned me off to RPS's approach in particular.
LA: Maybe I'm misreading you some, but then I'm not the only one. As it is now, you have commenters whose takeaway may be that allies of diversity are just getting uppity to score political points, or that someone like John Walker is insincere (men who champion against sexism are often accused of 'white knighting' or pretending to care in order to get laid or something, so your insinuation that these kinds of articles try to 'score points' is weighted). Or that "we need less outrage," etc.
SE: Fair enough. I hope that this discussion – if we publish it – will help clarify my perspective. The logic was so loopy that I supposed politicking or sheer naivete was at play. I found the former assumption more charitable. Again, my tone was too combative. And as I wrote on Twitter, “Suggesting that the potential causes for an outcome are more complicated than a specific speaker insists they are in no way says that emotional response to that outcome is improper. I'm not saying we shouldn't be upset by it so much as I mean to say that we shouldn't prescribe solutions when when we aren't certain as to the causes.” Although to add to that, I disagree with directing a strong emotional response at a group (“those in senior positions at publishers and developers”) before their guilt's been decided.
LA: When I worried you'd arm our enemies, what I meant is that every time a woman writes an essay about her personal experiences, there are commenters complaining she is emotional, irrelevant, lacks 'facts' to 'prove' she has been a victim of a situation, and so on. The commenters say things like 'we need to stop all this emotional manipulation and stick to games' or whatever, as a way of silencing people. And now they'll be able to grab your essay, which is about facts over outrage, and which can be read as attributing vocal writers' passion to an insincere 'political agenda', and use it as ammunition in that kind of argument, which I'm sure is not how you wanted to come across.
SE: I agree, anyone who dismisses concerns about sexism because a few writers used poor reasoning in one place is dumb. I should underscore that. I imagine you've encountered plenty of people who were willing to dismiss feminism as a school of thought because Harding characterized Newton's Principia Mathematica as a “rape manual” or because Irigaray argued that E=MC2 is a “sexed equation” or that “masculine physics” neglects fluids. (Not that the arguments I addressed approach that now legendary lunacy. ) But we can't be too timid to critique an argument simply because the sentiments of those who make them are in the right place. Another example: I believe that sufficient empirical evidence exists for me to be concerned about anthropogenic climate change, and for that reason I was upset by “Climategate” before it came to light that the controversy was manufactured.
LA: You totally could have made your point as regards all the things we have yet to know about the salary data, and why it's important for us to know them (so we can build better, more positive arguments for this equality we all want). in a way that did not target and dissect others who were only trying to express that commitment, albeit imperfectly.
Does that make sense? I think if you're joining the gender inequity conversation you do want to be very sensitive about the format you choose, and the tone and purpose of your argument, and which sides in the discussion you are really best enabling and expressing support for. Making fun of RPS for assuming 'moral DEFCON' just equips people to think sensitivity is something suspicious or worthy of ridicule. I really don't want to believe that was the tone you were going for.
SE: It isn't. See above.
LA: This isn't, unfortunately, the kind of thing we can treat with the same dispassion with which we handle other journalistic issues. We want to teach others to model compassion, too, and mobilize them to care about equality on every frontier, not to feel justified in defaulting to skepticism in every conversation. They already do that enough.
So many people look up to and listen to you. Please teach your readers that being angry about sexism, and wanting to enable more women to participate in the industry, are meaningful, honest and moral positions to take, not the province of the self-serving or uninformed. And that the reason we need more data is so that we can fight these battles better, not so that we can debunk outrage and passion.
SE: I understand and appreciate your concern.