For Donna, being a young woman working in the heavily male gaming industry has been a bit like walking a tightrope.

Veer too far from the line you’re expected to walk, she said, and you can find yourself ostracized or labelled as 'difficult'.

“If a project is taking a direction that might not be very flattering to women, as long as you don’t speak out about it, you’ll be all right,” said Donna, who would only agree to speak anonymously – fearing the impact on her career.

“Especially if it was someone up top putting out this vision, if you speak out against it, then people are going to be afraid to support you, to be seen with you because you’re a touchy subject.”

While the number of women working in the industry is growing, game development remains a male-dominated world.

In Canada, around 24 per cent of the workforce in software publishing is female, according to the 2011 National Household Survey. By comparison, in the film industry, the ratio of female to male employees is closer to 40:60.

That gender gap in gaming is one that the larger tech industry is also struggling to close. Google, Apple, Facebook and other tech giants have all launched initiatives to encourage more diversity in their workforce.

The struggle to prove yourself

Women working in the gaming industry say change is happening, but it’s a slow and, at times, frustrating process for those blazing the trails.

Rebecca Cohen Palacios, co-founder of the women-in-games initiative Pixelles, says women in the industry still have to work harder than their male colleagues to prove their worth.

“Especially as a programmer,” Cohen Palacios said. “You have the whole tech barrier on top of that. It’s double-male culture.”

Pixelles aims to encourage women, regardless of their background or experience, to learn more about the industry and consider a career in gaming. 

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"It’s just been war stories from many women in the industry, and video games as a culture [are] very much geared toward men, so that can also be off-putting to women who want to join games," Cohen Palacios said.

Hiring the best talent

The need for diverse voices – and comfortable, creative workspaces – isn’t lost on the larger players in the industry.

But many are still trying to find the best way to augment the number of qualified female applicants.

Cedric Orvoine, vice-president of human resources and communications for Ubisoft Montreal, says a long-term strategy is in the works to encourage more women to acquire skills that are valued in the industry.

“If you look at Silicon Valley, we’re really, I’d say, a year late,” he said.

“In the last year and a half, the Googles, the Facebooks, the Twitters have been kind of public in recognizing that there’s some work to be done, and they’ve committed to some sort of ratios," Orvoine adds.

"We’re looking at what they’re doing and how it can influence what we’re doing.“

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The idea, Orvoine said, is not to institute quotas or set ratios to enforce diversity. Rather, he said, it's to work with high schools, CEGEPs and universities to make software-engineering programs and other related fields more appealing and accessible, so that there will be a deeper pool of trained female talent to draw from.

Subtle sexism

Carla, who has worked in the gaming industry for a decade, said increased awareness of the issues women in the industry face is a good first step. 

She says she didn’t immediately recognize the subtle sexism she now sees in parts of the industry and, like Donna, says most of it is inadvertent. 

“The people that I work with don’t hate women. They absolutely don’t,” said Carla, who was also not comfortable speaking publicly without anonymity.

“In many cases, they love them, and they want more women in the industry, and they really want to be better allies."

She said gaming-industry employers also need to increase the public visibility of the women working for them now.

“It’s great that there are more initiatives to get more girls into [the industry]," she said. "But if they don’t have role models to look up to, how are they going to know where they can get to?”