Female Composers in Games Industry See Gender-Based Pay Penalty, New Study Finds

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"Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands" composer Penka Kouneva attends The Women Who Score: Soundtracks Live in Concert at Grand Performances on Aug. 19, 2016 in Los Angeles. 

In the rarified world of game music composition, there’s one thing that’s even more rare -- equal pay for female composers.

As GameSoundCon, the annual conference for game music composers, is set to begin on Tuesday, Sept. 27, in Los Angeles, the profession finds itself in the dichotomous position of being in a Renaissance Age for sound technology, but in the Dark Ages when it comes to income equality, a recent industry survey shows.

The penalty for being a woman in game audio is roughly equal to two years’ of experience, according to an independent analysis of the survey. In other words, a woman with eight years of experience composing music for video games was compensated on the same level as a man with six years of experience.

The analysis was based on data gathered online via the Game Audio Industry Survey, which tracks compensation, working conditions, contact terms and production information for the video game music and sound industry. The survey included responses from 526 men and 51 women. The 10:1 ratio of respondents mirrors the gender composition of the industry as a whole, said Brian Schmidt, a veteran interactive music composer and sound designer and executive director of GameSoundCon, which commissions the annual industry survey.

This is the first year survey organizers have commissioned an independent analysis of the gender data -- largely because there were so few women in prior surveys for there to be a valid sample, Schmidt said.

Now that the profession has quantified the bias, it needs to address the harder questions of why it happens and what can be done about it, said Karen Collins, the Canada Research Chair in Interactive Audio at the University of Waterloo. 

"I don't think there's outright discrimination," Collins said. "I do think it's a systemic problem across all fields."

Though there may not be overt discrimination, many studies suggest that subconscious bias plays a powerful role by shaping expectations of what the ideal job candidate looks like, for both men and women. The influence may seem subtle, but the effect is substantial. An analysis of 100,000 job offers on Hired.com found that 69 percent of the time, men are offered more money than women for the same job title at the same company. In addition, men are offered an average of 3 percent more pay than women. While that's initially a small difference, it can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a career. A separate study by the National Women's Law Center calculated that difference to be $430,480 over a 40-year career.

"Because all their role models are male, women may not ask for as much pay or offered as much money because there's a perception that they don't look like what you would think of as a music composer, and, therefore, they're not as good," Collins said. "There's an expectation that women are not as capable as men. But it's not a conscious one, which makes it a lot harder to overcome because they don't recognize the bias."

In interactive music composition, women encounter a "double whammy," said Collins. That's because the profession stands at the confluence of two heavily male dominated fields -- technology and music composition. "In music school, women generally have male role models. Add that to the technological aspect, which is also male dominated, and you have a double whammy."

As for what can be done to balance the scales, Schmidt says he's doing two things off the bat. The first is acknowledging the bias in a roundtable discussion at this week's GameSoundCon conference. The second is to schedule a disproportionate number of women speakers at the conference, both to broaden the perception of what a game music composer should look like and to encourage more women to seek leadership roles.

"There tends to be two main salary peaks," Schmidt explained. "One is around $60,000 a year, and another is around $140,000 a year. That jump occurs when you shift into a manager, director or other leadership role." In other words, having more women in leadership roles would significantly tip the salary average higher for females. "I think it's important for people to see women as leaders and experts in the field of game music composition and sound design," Schmidt said.