Meet Meredith, 29, a freelance communications and marketing professional from Melbourne, Australia working in the video game industry.
“In representations of powerful women they’re always really serious and cut-throat. They would cut down the people around them for their ambition. That’s not my personality, but that doesn’t change the level of ambition that I have for my life.”
Here’s the rest of our conversation (edited for length and clarity).
When I’m meeting new people I tend to come across really fun and silly. That’s how I connect with people. I remember having a conversation where one of the managers actually said, “Your secret weapon is your maturity because you can handle difficult conversations, but people don’t have that expectation of you, so when it comes out, it’s this surprise.” And that’s something that, over the years, I’ve really had to think about entering into new roles, because I don’t want to change my personality of being a friendly, outgoing, fun, kind person purely to be taken seriously.
There’s this sense of, if you’re kind, you won’t be able to secure the funding that you need for your team, or you won’t be able to get into the right rooms to have the right conversations.
That’s definitely something that I’ve had white male directors tell me in the past, like, “Oh, well, this is the way it’s done”, despite having no evidence to the contrary. This sense of entitlement and clarity of like, “No, No, I know what’s right, because I’ve been in business for a while”, without recognizing the changing pace of our online ecosystem. And a lack of ability to step back and be wrong.
I think often women are more willing to do that, and that’s why a lot of the time we’ll end our sentences with, “If that makes sense” or, “If you get what I’m saying”, because we’ve been conditioned or socialized to have a conversation where we can accept wrongdoing. It’s an empathetic tool to me, and I don’t think that it is something that we should change to fit the mold of the environment around us.
Like, why should we delete all the exclamation marks for our email? I’m excited. I want to talk to you and I’m pumped. I don’t think that should make me any less professional or any less able to have a difficult conversation with you because I do that.
There have been multiple times in my career where I have been ready to walk away from the industry entirely because of the way that it treats me.
And the only reason that I stayed was because of women and marginalized people that reached out and were like, Hey, here’s how I coped or hey, you’re not alone. Here’s who you can talk to. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but I’m grateful that it is, and that I have that support.
There’s an event that happens yearly – this big expo of games. And I was having a conversation with the director at the time about that conference, and he was saying, “I just don’t understand why they need to have a ‘A Women in Games’ panel. Why do we need to keep talking about women’s experiences in this industry?”
And I was like, “Well, because their experience is often really difficult”.
He’s like, “We’ve solved those problems. There are women in studios everywhere. This is not a problem anymore”. My immediate response was, Oh my God, I hope the women in my team aren’t hearing this. Like, I hope the people in the other room aren’t hearing this and aren’t feeling like their experiences aren’t valid.
And this was someone who felt very much that they were really doing a lot for women and for marginalized people, by hiring them by bringing them into the team. And to some degree, had the right intentions. But the understanding was so far removed and they didn’t recognize the way in which they treated the women in the team versus the men in the team. There was no space for that reflection as a leader. They very much bought into this idea of like, Oh, well, you know, there’s this brilliant asshole and we’ve got to protect them and they have great ideas. Like he was willing to give all this space and leeway to the men that were around, even if they were creating no output, but absolutely would not hear the women on his team and what they were telling him to do or to think about or to explore. That was common.
One day I was explaining to the director that people were upset with something that had occurred, and he was like, “Well, I don’t understand? Why don’t they come and talk to me?”
And I was like, “Because people are afraid to talk to you. They don’t think they’re gonna be heard. They don’t think they’re going to be supported.”
And he was like, “Oh, that’s ridiculous. Who feels that way?”
“I’m not going to name the people that are uncomfortable to speak to you and put their head on a chopping block.” I just remember, he was so angry that there could be people in his team that wouldn’t speak to him, but he had put in no effort or no structures to make them feel heard.
He’d talk about, “I really want you to feel heard”, and then he would talk at the team for an hour and not hear a thing.
I felt a responsibility to be the person that could hear people within that team. It is this sort of ‘fall on the sword’ thing that I think a lot of marginalized people do. They want to protect the other people who are more junior or who are having a more difficult time, but in the process you literally eke out little pieces of yourself and offer them up.
I worked alongside another person who was slightly above me but at a similar level, and I used to have to prime him when he went into meetings. I was like you need to go in and say we need to do A, B, C and D, because these things are really important and he’s not going to hear them if they come from me.
That was really damaging me emotionally and making me feel like I had nothing to contribute to the industry.
I got really lucky. I got pulled out of that environment into a role that really changed my life in a lot of ways, where I went into it knowing I would be heard and that allowed me to heal. I was able to build new relationships and get feedback that I had never had and get support that I had never had, and be mentored in a way that I never had.
I have seen marginalized people leave the industry over and over again.
In the games industry, if you last five years, which is what I’m coming up on, that is essentially seen as veteran status for a lot of women, and a lot of marginalized people. Because it can be a meat grinder for young people who are passionate about the work. They come in. They are ripped to shreds by the process or by leaders who never learned how to lead. And it’s just too much. They leave, and we lose really, really talented, clever, wonderful people who could continue to help make that industry better.
But is it really the responsibility of marginalized people to work two jobs just to stay in an industry? Should we really have to run interference for diversity and inclusion and understanding as well as doing our job? That is a huge emotional toll to ask people to be taking, so I understand why people go.
But for a lot of people who’ve been in that industry for a long time, or people who the industry caters to, they don’t see that, so they don’t understand that. They go, “Why on earth are these people not staying, like they clearly aren’t cut out for it? They clearly aren’t committed. They clearly aren’t passionate.” When really, they just want to stay alive. They want to live and not wake up every day feeling exhausted.
When I started, I was so excited and so passionate. I was working outside of my day job and stuff like that. I really was ambitious and I really wanted to engage with the community and get to know it. I had written a big article talking about all my experiences of using different tools and what I think they could be really useful for. And the next day I got into work and I got pulled into a meeting and I got told off for it, like, “You can’t be doing this. You can’t write this.”
And I was like, “I’ve written this on my own time on my own time. This is something that not once does it speak poorly of any company”. But I was punished in that moment for that ambition. I was punished for wanting to share that knowledge and engage with the community. And that happened enough times with enough different little things – It really changed my ambition.
The longer I stayed there, I made myself smaller to survive. And when I left, it took me a while to rebuild it.
But I think toward the end of my time there, when I knew I was going to leave I went, Well, this bridge is burnt. There is nothing that I can do to get this person to understand my point of view. It’s not going to help me to spend all my time empathizing with him. So I’m going to work really hard, write, read things. I went back to doing a whole bunch of talks. I definitely don’t regret that, but it’s taken me a long time and a lot of mentors around me to validate what I’m worth.
I don’t have the inherent belief in my ambition that I did before.
That relationship has changed and now I’m challenging myself to not seek the validation, but instead, ask for what I need and allow the negotiation to come on the part of the other party. Which is really hard, but has meant that I have given my ambition room to breathe again.
And I mean that in a positive way. Like it used to be that I had to fight to prove my worth, and now I’m like, “No, I know what I’m worth and I’m just going to allow you to decide whether you want to meet me there. And if you can’t, that’s okay, or if you don’t want it, that okay, there’s a whole bunch of circumstances that might mean you can’t right now.”.
It’s been a huge adjustment, especially this year, making the transition out of what is a really stable full-time role into full-time freelance. And the level of instability that comes with that.
I think the hardest thing for me now is sitting with my achievements and not allowing ambition to completely run my life. I am a very enthusiastic person. If I see an opportunity that excites me, I want to say yes to it. I want to go. I want to run full speed. I definitely have a bad habit of reaching a goal and immediately looking to the next mountain and forgetting the value of the goal I just hit.
So trying to retrain myself so that I can enjoy the moment. And that that doesn’t make me less ambitious to do so – to trust that my ambition will walk with me, not in front of me.
Note from the editor: The ambition diaries are a collection of interviews with women who’ve experienced the ambition penalty. The ambition penalty speaks to the paradox at the heart of women’s empowerment. To close gender gaps in pay, wealth and leadership, women have been directed to “speak up, negotiate more, and take what they deserve” — overlooking how women are often penalized for doing those very things.
The ambition penalty helps explain why decades of educational gains and a lifetime of “empowerment” haven’t translated into corresponding gains for women in the workforce, in wealth or in leadership. Because it’s not that women aren’t negotiating or speaking up or working to get what they deserve, it’s that they’re doing so within a network of institutions that undermine and penalize them when they do. And it’s these conditions, not the behavior of women, that need more of our attention if we want to make meaningful progress on measures of equity.
Do you have a story to tell about how ambition has played out in your life — for better or for worse? Let us know in the comments.
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