The Rolodex


“We should hire based on merit rather than gender.” It’s a great idea in theory, but can it work in practice?

Editor’s note: One of my strengths, debatably, is patiently explaining certain concepts to my two core demographics—straight guys with good intentions, and my readers’ own Baby Boomer moms. A lot of these Explainers are mortifying for me to revisit, since they tend to be loaded with outdated or problematic verbiage, an only rudimentary grasp of basic social studies, and my significant ignorance of intersectional issues. Still, I was relatively late to deconstructing my own internalized beliefs and, as my own values became more cohesive, I’d feel a deep obligation to describe them to the men who are my peers. (I was never perceived as particularly “radical” until August 2014, and I probably really wasn’t.)


Somebody once said:

…[W]e should hire based on merit, and not gender.

I would like to compose a reply directly to that person. But as a “comment” my reply is too, too long, I think, so I’m posting it as a blargh over here instead.

Friend, I’ll be honest: Every time I hear this phrase uttered anew, my brain explodes. The unfortunate — and unintended, I know! — insinuation being made here is that “merit” and “gender” (or “race,” or “sexual orientation” or whatever) are somehow mutually exclusive. Yikes! Instead of letting people own their personal achievements, we perhaps suspect them of being hired according to some mysterious “quota.” Yikes again!

No one is saying “hire a woman instead of a competent, qualified person.” Yikes, yikes, yikes!

But I know that isn’t what you mean by “merit-based hiring.” You mean, in an ideal world, to never take gender into account when choosing the best man for the job.

Incidentally, a friend and colleague of mine said exactly this same thing to me — about how we should hire “according to merit” (or experience) “rather than gender,” and he said this word-for-word — last week during GDC. I’d like to tell you exactly what I told my friend:

“Pretend I’m a guy.” (“Ha, ha,” my friend said.) (“Okay,” I said, “wait. I think my analogy might work even if I’m not a guy. But follow me here.”)

(“Okay,” said my friend.)

So here I am with my super-great idyllic childhood, okay. I get adopted by an upper-middle-class family living in a small, mostly-white town, so I have mostly white friends. I’m “privileged” in every measurable sense of the word. I eventually go on to a highly-ranked university, thanks to a rad letter of recommendation from an alumna (my high school geometry teacher, actually!). I land myself a spot in a pretty competitive major that contains only, say, fifteen students total, most of whom are white, half of whom are young men, half young women.

These people go directly into my Rolodex.

By 2006 I am salaried at a company where I am one among a teensy handful of women, where most of the people I work with — the people I communicate with during any given day — are mostly men, often white. And I don’t just mean my coworkers, here; I mean, literally, every other person I communicate with, whether at Konami, Activision, maybe a PR firm like Edelman…! Whoever it is, I’m talking to dudes all day. It’s dudes all the way down.

So, naturally, I put all these people into my Rolodex.

(“I like how you keep saying Rolodex,” my friend teased me.)

(“It’s not a metaphor!” I told him. “I literally use a Rolodex! It’s totally a holdover from that old desk job.” The Rolodex, already full of contacts, was sitting on my desk when I got there.)

So now I’ve got a Rolodex full of people I’ve worked with, people who I know to be talented and trustworthy. If you were to ask me “Hey, Jenn, who’s a good person for [literally anything],” I might thumb through my Rolodex and pull out a white dude and go, “I can vouch for this person; he’s good.”

Now, I’m not deliberately being malicious or nasty or sexist, here; I’m not, like, going out of my way to NOT promote women or other outliers. It’s just that, for my first six-odd years in this industry, I mostly knew dudes. And you can’t convince me my “old guard” Rolodex lacks merit, right? These are the people with whom I’m most comfortable working. This is what I know.

“We all have Rolodexes, so to speak,” I said to my friend, “and we all believe our Rolodexes contain people of merit and real value. And of course I’ll get offended if you tell me my Rolodex is ‘whitewashed’. But it IS whitewashed, because these are the people I’ve always interacted with, have always worked with.”

My Rolodex used to be an echo chamber: It resembled, I suspect, a lot of other industry professionals’ Rolodexes.

This Rolodex analogy is how we keep perpetuating something called institutionalized sexism (also, institutionalized racism, plus institutionalized homophobia and transphobia). Really talented people — people who aren’t yet in a fellow colleague’s “Rolodex” — never quite get that foot in the door. Of course they can’t, because we’re all too busy consulting these Rolodexes of people we already know, rather than seeking fresh — and oftentimes unproven! — talent.

The reality is, there is an unconscious “gender bias,” according to Scientific American. That uncanny bias repeats itself in every field. It is both institutionalized and internalized: Even women and minorities ignore academic queries and requests from other women and minorities. (One peer, a Mx. Io Brindle, put it really well tonight: It isn’t that we actively discriminate against anybody in particular. It’s that we constantly discriminate IN FAVOR of white men.)

So I have a certain ethical responsibility, I told this friend of mine at GDC, to kind of combat my own established Rolodex. I’ve started asking around about who maybe isn’t on my radar yet. Maybe I’ll keep my ear a little lower to the ground during GDC or IndieCade. Maybe I’ve started to realize my colleagues’ Rolodexes are a little better than mine — “diversified portfolios,” as an investment banker might call them.

Maybe I’d like to start signal-boosting competent, talented people who don’t yet have fleshed-out résumés, “if for no other reason,” I said to my friend at GDC, “than to NOT BE BORING. Being BORING is the greatest crime you can do unto another.”


(This is actually a “shoe rolodex,” but you take my point.)


And we ARE being boring! In the U.S. — and this should be a galling factoid, regardless of who you are — white men account for 34%of the population (and about 80% of the decision-making, oh ho ho ho). White guys really are the majority, in the sense that they make up the widest swath of people, but they are overrepresented in, ah, basically every sphere. (Women love fashion design? Name me one woman NOT VERA WANG who designs clothes, fellows. Women love cooking? Name me one NOT RACHAEL RAY celebrity chef. Women love hair? Name me a single hairstylist who isn’t Paul Mitchell. Even the superstars of “women’s work” are men.)

To compare: half the U.S. population is Women, All Women. So when anyone issues a challenge like “How about employing a lady in that particular type of position, for a change,” that person is asking you to limbo under a bar with some hilariously spacious berth.

“We should hire based on merit, rather than gender.”

These are bold words to speak to a class of people that, even now, is consistently written out of history books and continues to receive unequal pay. Our collective “merit” is diminished each day of the week, regardless of our individual achievements.

In his book The Sky Is Not the LimitNeil DeGrasse Tyson writes at length about the people who, at every turn, encouraged him to leave astrophysics. “To spend most of my life fighting these attitudes,” he writes, “levies an emotional tax that constitutes a form of intellectual emasculation.

And while DeGrasse Tyson graciously never names the university that caused him so much pain, he does go on to credit the university to which he transferred, his alma mater Columbia, with a portion of his success:

“There are no limits when you are surrounded by people who believe in you, or by people whose expectations are not set by the short-sighted attitudes of society, or by people who help to open doors of opportunity, not close them.”

They’re beautiful, optimistic words, words that ought to serve as a clarion call to people in every field of work.

And yet, and yet: If reaching your full potential only requires a supportive network and culture of people, it is small wonder so many women, BIPOC, and other marginalized individuals shy from the video games industry. (DeGrasse Tyson says exactly the same, of women in the sciences, here.)

Just some food for thought.

*addendum: Thanks to my unnamed GDC convo-partner, if he sees this, for the content in this blog post. (Hi!) Thanks, too, to Shawn Allen. Also, Elizabeth Sampat’s necessary, must-read blog is what put me into this headspace — it’s the first article I can remember in recent history written for other women in the industry, and only for them, by a woman.

Everything above came about because I wanted to very explicitly respond to a comment left on Sampat’s post. I feel a little weird in that I admire Sampat’s post’s willingness to talk to fellow women, while I — once again — am writing directly to other men. I’m not sure what this means, either, but I do acknowledge it.


JForiginally featured at Game Developer



Jenn Frank

I started writing about videogames professionally in late 2005. I like vintage computer games and preservation, books, and horror games.