As a top executive at one of the world's biggest video game publishers, Kathy Vrabeck often completes an entire workday without meeting with another woman. And her employer, Electronic Arts Inc., is less of a boys club than many of its peers.
The video game industry is flourishing, especially in California, as sales continue to climb despite a faltering economy. But the hiring has largely bypassed women. They comprise fewer than 1 in 5 workers in the business, according to a 2007 survey by Game Developer Magazine. Among game programmers, the number is a paltry 3%.
Those who do land game-related jobs make less money on average than their male counterparts. Women at all levels of the field earned an average of $64,643 last year, while men earned $74,459, according to the survey.
"Historically, the people who play video games have tended to be more male," said Vrabeck, president of EA's casual games division, which specializes in games that are easy and quick to play. "So it's not surprising that these boys grow up and aspire to work in the industry. That's why we've seen fewer women think about it as a career choice."
Those who do make that choice become part of the industry joke that being the minority gender has its perks: At conferences, they don't have to wait in line for the restroom.
But the business must become more diverse if it's to break out of the young male market and into the mainstream, where women represent a greater percentage of buyers and bigger sales await.
"It's important for women to be involved creatively because we need to broaden the reach of games," said Simon Carless, publisher of Game Developer Magazine. "They should be a universal art form."
Some believe the lopsided gender ratio was predestined in elementary school.
"It goes back to school, during those early years when you had that teacher who either encouraged you in math and science or didn't," said Gabrielle Toledano, executive vice president of human resources at EA. "It's the same reason why the statistics on women enrolling in [college] computer science programs have been way down. So, by the time we go out and hire, the pool of candidates is already skewed."
Then there is the perception that the industry is a giant party, which can also prevent women from taking it seriously as a career, said Brenda Brathwaite, a game developer who teaches game design at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.
"Some of the recruiting ads scream 'college fraternity,' " Brathwaite said. "And there are still companies that throw recruiting parties with strippers. Now, if you say you want women to work at your company, why would you hire strippers?"
While the raucous parties may be rare, they reinforce a stereotype of video games as the purview of males, acquired in years past when the industry's largest trade show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, was famed for its costumed "booth babes." To combat the stereotype the show banned appearances by scantily clad women in 2006.
A more tangible and more vexing problem lies in the nature of the work itself, which can involve long hours during "crunch time," the frenzied period of development right before a game gets shipped to stores. Some industry executives say the production schedule for games can make it challenging to take time off to have a baby or switch to part-time hours to raise young children.
"When you sign on to a game, that's a two- to three-year commitment, with a crunch mode of about 12 to 26 weeks at the end of that," said Bing Gordon, former chief creative officer at EA and now a venture capitalist. "It's hard to be one of the top 10 leads on a team and not put in the time. I know mothers in key line positions, and they have pretty difficult choices to make every single day."
It doesn't have to be that way, said Tracy Fullerton, a professor of interactive media at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and a contributing author to the upcoming book "Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming."
Fullerton and the book's coauthors say companies can try to build more realistic schedules that minimize long hours. EA, which shelled out more than $30 million in 2005 to settle two lawsuits that accused it of refusing to pay its programmers and graphic artists for overtime hours, has been experimenting with ways to flag potential problems earlier in a game's development. The goal is to lessen the accumulated work as the game's launch nears.
Though game play is the domain of young men, some game executives see women as a largely untapped audience, particularly for games played on consoles such as the Wii and the PlayStation 3.
Some executives believe that having more women developers increases the likelihood that more women will buy their products. A 2005 Michigan State University study found that girls rated games designed by all-female teams higher than those designed by all-male teams, although the respondents were unaware of the gender of the designers.