Riot Dames

Last week I stood in front of an auditorium full of women, holding a microphone. The “Riot Dames” is a self-organized group at Riot Games that initially started as a social forum and has expanded rapidly. Recently, they’ve gotten more interested in the development of their members and have started a speaker series. I was the invited speaker this month.

For the first ten minutes of my hour with them, I tried to convince them that while I obviously wasn’t a woman myself, I was an ally. I was raised by a single mother, I said. As a first generation college student, I attended Occidental College, considered in the early 1990s to be the most successful multicultural college in the country by the Wall Street Journal. While I was there, the Rodney King riots broke out, and the incredible paradox of being immersed in multicultural curriculum during this time wasn’t lost on me. It’s probably why, in a Sociology class at Oxy, I was so inspired by the book “Men and Women of the Corporation” by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. It was that book that convinced me to go off to grad school in organizational psychology.

My dissertation at University of Michigan was on organizational change around issues of diversity. It was while earning my Ph.D. that I also met my wife Sarah, then getting a joint Ph.D. in Psychology and Women’s Studies. Thanks to her, I’ve spent twenty years immersed in postmodern feminist critiques of… well, pretty much everything.

Throughout a meandering and long corporate career, I’ve consistently been involved in “affinity groups” like the Riot Dames. I’ve worked in the male-dominated world of investment banking and looked closely at the lack of female leadership there. I’ve also worked in the female-dominated world of apparel retail and tried to find solutions to problems such as, for example, 20% of the corporate workforce concurrently on maternity leave. I led global diversity & inclusion efforts at Gap Inc. and Starbucks. I’ve done joint research projects with Catalyst, an organization focused on women in corporations. I’ve also served on the Board of Directors of the Mosaic Project, which provides inclusion training for fourth and fifth graders.

So, yeah. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about inclusion generally and gender issues specifically. My hope was that walking through the above with the Dames provided me some street cred amidst the sea of female faces.

For the next fifty minutes after my intro, I ran all around the large room with the microphone. Women asked me questions. They asked each other questions. They made speeches. They responded to each other’s comments. I talked a lot (maybe too much), but so did they.

The topics over that hour varied widely. We discussed being a woman in the games industry, and about the presence of “bro culture.” We talked about how to attract more women to Riot Games, and how to keep them once they get here. We talked about images of women in our game and how to best describe League of Legends’ target audience. We talked about how better to support working mothers, and how we can use our scale to influence more women in engineering and the gaming industry. The group discussed how to grow more women leaders at Riot, and in fact the last ten minutes or so consisted of people giving each other coaching and advice in this regard (this was my favorite part of the session).

The tone across the hour varied as much as the topics–some of the comments expressed pain and vulnerability, while others expressed optimism and strength. My sense as we wrapped up was that if you entered the room with an axe to grind, you probably left frustrated by how few answers we supplied. Meanwhile, if you entered the room looking for hope and inspiration, you left hopeful and inspired that we were having the discussion openly.

In the days that have followed, a consistent sentiment I’ve heard is that the Riot Dames are hungry for more conversation. Awesome. That’s great, and the best outcome I could have hoped for. Whether I’m involved or not, I hope that the group will continue what I think are hugely important discussions.

The truth is that the topic of women in games is a real thing, and something anyone in this industry needs to contemplate. Riot Games aspires to be a true meritocracy, devoid of issues of hierarchy and the bureaucratic nonsense present at most companies. One way to check how well we’re living up to our values is to talk to groups like the Dames, to ask openly how equipped they feel to make awesome happen every day.

My verdict at the end of last week’s conversation is that we have some work to do. To be honest, it would be utterly shocking if we didn’t. Creating a true meritocracy is tricky business, and we’re facing a combination of societal, industry, cultural, and demographic hurdles when it comes to gender.

But–and I fully admit to being on the “hopeful and inspired” part of this equation–I feel more excited about this discussion at Riot than anywhere else I’ve worked. The fact that a meritocracy is our goal is something special. Will we ever get there, really and truly? I don’t know.

It’s a worthy goal, though.


One thought on “Riot Dames

  1. I’m a 24 year old woman currently working towards a game design degree at Full Sail University. My ultimate goal is to work for Riot and I was thrilled to stumble upon your blog. As you can imagine, this post was particularly interesting to me! Do you know if the Riot Dames have any kind of Facebook group Twitter handle I can follow? I follow every game industry lady (and many of the gentlemen as well) I can find so I would love to add this group or members of it. The game industry is currently experiencing so much controversy over women both working on games and as characters. This is an issue and a conversation I have been closely following and writing about (for school) at any opportunity. If the Riot Dames don’t have a group or website or anything you should suggest that they get on that! I’m positive they would be an inspiration to fellow women like me, working towards careers in the gaming industry.
    Your blog is both honest and insightful in regards to working at Riot. I eagerly await your next post!

    Sarah (hopeful Riot Zelilah)


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