avatarCheryl Platz


IWD 2024: On Goalposts, Interviews, and the Illusion of Allyship

On International Women’s Day, it’s time to acknowledge the continued difference between appearances and reality in the workplace — and what we can continue to do to pursue inclusive spaces.

Every year, we hit March — Women’s History Month — and we see a ton of corporate “celebrations” of women. But as a woman who’s walked the long, rocky road to senior leadership in the tech and gaming industries, I am time and time again reminded that today’s allyship is far more concerned about intent, appearances, and intake than it is with impact and sustainability.

I do believe there are many folks who truly want to be allies and build a more equitable world for folks of all identities. And I also believe that there are a lot of folks who have become far more concerned with looking like an ally than actually doing the work, especially when it means uncomfortable personal conversations or actions are required.

In multiple workplaces, purported allies told me I was in a safe space — and each time I welcomed this with the hope for a better future. When things went wrong in those environments and I needed to ask some of those same folks to reflect on their own behavior, defensiveness became the rule of the day. Or, more insidiously, folks who spoke of allyship sometimes proved unwilling to stand up against bad behavior from their peers, preferring to reframe it based on intent or personality.

And that’s why it doesn’t really work to call yourself an ally. For example. it makes no difference if I call myself an ally for people of color. I have to prove that I am sincere in my desire to grow, learn, and work towards equity via my actions, and let others determine whether my actions are trustworthy. And allyship is not defined by a one time action: it is a lifestyle, not a checkbox. The same is true for gender allyship. Calling yourself an ally is a hollow act, and repeating it over and over without action is a red flag — because it is impact, not intent, that determines the value of our actions to the marginalized communities around us.

The illusion of progress can lull us into complacency. Let’s shine some light on how things are really going in the interest of enabling those who are really passionate about having the right impact to do the most good out there. Inspired by my recent lived experience as one of the many affected by the game industry layoffs, I’ll be drawing from my experience on the job market to share some firsthand stories, and connecting them back to actionable advice. In today’s post, we’ll explore:

  • The sobering reality in 2024: Data and stories from continued challenges
  • Moving the goalposts: Firsthand stories from interviews gone wrong
  • Pursuing equitable standards: Systems for balanced evaluation and inclusion
  • Living your allyship values: Thoughts on how to show up as an ally when you can’t control your impact
A healthy, balanced, inclusive team will create space for a wide variety of ideas and foster more innovation than a team hired for primarily “culture fit” — even when skills are comparable. It is our difference in lived experiences that allows us to approach and solve problems from different perspectives, and to identify potential issues others might not have seen. (Image credit: JesseB/peopleimages.com via Adobe Stock.)

A sobering reality

Early in my career, I was one of the many that thought we’d made more progress than we had — of course, this was long before GamerGate, long before Riot + Kotaku, long before a wide variety of things I’ve seen in multiple industries. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that equity was not the norm — and in many ways, those challenges continue despite ostensible progress. Of course, most of these issues apply in some way to any marginalized identity, but as this is International Women’s Day I am focusing on that specific identity today. The reality in tech remains stark:

  • Women-led startups are underfunded by a noticeable margin, and face much stronger headwinds. (In a 2022 Forbes article, a statistic was cited for 2018 venture capital funding: $109 billion for male founders, $2.86 for women — even though the RATIO of male to female founders was 10:7.)
  • Women in senior leadership are frequently held to different standards: often expected to be more proficient at people management/ ”nurturing” but rarely if ever recognized for that work, and in many cases their peers in leadership are getting more time to focus on the strategic work that garners better recognition, alignment, and job security. (This widely-researched phenomenon is called the “Double-Bind Dilemma for women in leadership”.)
  • Women that interview for roles at companies without standardized behavioral interviewing processes often experience a last minute “moving of the goalposts”, where the job description or requirements are changed at the last minute to keep that candidate out. (Yale University researchers published a study about this phenomenon in Psychological Science.)
  • Women at all levels are often instructed to go above and beyond and take on more work than their peers in order to get the same promotions and recognition. (Despite an increase in women actively asking for promotions post-pandemic, this persists — Sheryl Sandberg calls out this common inequity in a 2023 Bloomberg piece.)

Well-respected business reviews like Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review have been studying these phenomenon for ages, and even their most recent conclusions still show significant issues.

The Toxic Culture Gap Shows Companies Are Failing Women: Research shows that women are 41% more likely to experience toxic workplace culture than men”a March 14, 2023 headline from MIT Sloan Management review. I’m going to include this excerpt from the article verbatim, as I think it drives home an important point about the extent of the continuing impact of these issues:

“The largest gap between the genders, however, is for toxic culture, which we define as a workplace culture that is disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat, or abusive.7

Toxic culture is not only an outlier in terms of the sentiment gap between women and men; it also imposes high costs on organizations and individuals. In an earlier study, we found that a toxic culture was 10 times more powerful than compensation in predicting attrition during the first six months of the so-called Great Resignation.8 Even if they don’t quit, employees in toxic environments are more likely to disengage from their work, exert less effort, and bad-mouth their employer to others.9

More importantly, toxic cultures exact a dreadful toll on their victims. Sustained exposure to a toxic culture increases the odds that employees will suffer from anxiety, depression, burnout, and serious physical health issues.10"

A graph from the MIT Sloan Management Review report in March 2023 on the gender gap and toxic culture in the workplace, based on post-pandemic data. The vertical axis plots the percentage of women who mentioned a topic in their Glassdoor reviews. The horizontal axis shows how much more positively or negatively women described a topic compared with men.

Let’s shift gears and look specifically at one of the ways people of all marginalized identities are still being impacted today by discrimination, bias, and lack of inclusion in the industry: inconsistencies in the interview process. In a world full of layoffs and extremely competitive job postings, these problems are magnified.

Moving the goalposts

One of the most common challenges I’ve run into is what some tend to refer to as “moving the goalposts” — ironically, using a metaphor from the male-dominated sports of rugby and hockey. In ice hockey, the goal is positioned on the ice and can slip from its mooring with enough force. Accidental movement of the goal is considered unfair and will stop play for repositioning; intentional movement of the goal can result in a penalty shot.

As someone recently laid off who re-entered the interviewing pool, I once again get to experience firsthand the “moving of the goalposts” with regard to interviewing techniques applied inconsistently to women. Let’s explore three of my own firsthand stories of goalposts moving in the late stages of the interview process.

The Mischievous Manager

What happens when a hiring manager gives you direct, harmful guidance that leads to the early termination of an interview loop at a company that openly admitted that they struggle with attracting women leaders?

A recruiter from a logistics company contacted me about a Director of UX position and said they were having trouble finding “strong female candidates”. I had an initial consultation with the hiring manager, during which we reviewed my extensive portfolio and identified which case studies would be best to bring to a portfolio review with the full team of over 12 people. The hiring manager specifically chose one of my case studies that was heavy on user research and design as a full-stack practitioner. When I got to the review, I immediately noticed the homogeneity of the panel — there was only one woman on the panel, and she did not speak during the review. But that happens, and perhaps she was just introverted. I gave the same presentation that had wowed another company the week prior.

After the review, I got an email from HR letting me know that my interview loop was being terminated early because there was too much research in my portfolio review and “it seems we’re not the right fit for your skills at this time.” This after explicitly following the request of the hiring manager. To be clear, research is a secondary skill of mine; most of my case studies are predominantly design. To this day, this is the only instance where I’ve had an interview loop terminated early, and the combination of HR’s comments about having trouble finding strong female leaders + the harmful request from the hiring manager are a classic sign of moving the goalposts (or obscuring them) to keep a candidate out.

The Shapeshifting Job Description

How can a company justify rejecting a candidate with “glowing” interview feedback? By changing the job requirements weeks after the interviews are over.

I went through a FULL gauntlet of interviews with a financial technology startup that was looking for a replacement Head of UX. This consisted of meetings with the entire C suite, the hiring manager, the existing visual design vendor, and representatives from other disciplines. Only one was a woman and they were a vendor, so it was not what I would call “gender balanced”. Despite that, all of the conversations and my portfolio review seemed really aligned and positive, and I thought it could be a great opportunity.

The interview process took about 3 weeks. During all of the calls, I was very explicit about my strengths and growth opportunities, and we discussed the job description in detail. The role was clearly looking for an interaction design leader capable of working hands-on both managing/growing teams and executing on enterprise level consumer facing designs in complex environments. However, brand vision was not part of the requirements, as they already had a designer onboard for that purpose, working on iconography, color story, and beyond. (It was also a banking app that would be reskinned by clients, so the need for high-impact brand design was low.)

But after the final loop interview, the company went completely silent. My excitement faded to disappointment. I assumed they’d moved on, and I advanced deep into final interviews with the New York Times and Riot Games. Out of the blue over three weeks later, I got a call from my external recruiter. She said that “everyone” loved me and my interview and portfolio, especially the founders — but the hiring manager had “reservations” because he had, during the extended silence, decided they needed someone with more of a visual/brand design focus than originally identified and wasn’t sure I could live up to those expectations. She asked if I was willing to meet with him to “assuage his concerns”.

Even though I wasn’t yet on offer with anyone, I immediately declined. It was clear that the goalposts had been moved here — the role description, which they had been hiring on for over 2 months, changed mysteriously in the 3 weeks since I’d aced an interview loop and convinced the founders I was the right hire for the role. (From a member of the team, afterwards, in email, expressing regret: “I wish I could show you some of your feedback. It glows.”) I had plenty of examples of delivering visual designs for enterprise experiences, but what they wanted was some sort of sudden brand overhaul — and they already had a designer with that capability so it was unclear why my hiring was called into question.

I have learned the hard way how critical it is to have manager support at any company I work with, living with multiple marginalized identities. If a company had “glowing” feedback on me and still spent 3 weeks coming up with reasons why I wasn’t the right fit, then the hiring manager was unlikely to support my work from the beginning. It was not likely to be an environment where I would be welcomed or set up for success. To their credit, the head of the internal recruiting team did graciously apologize for missteps in the process, but it still caused harm to both me and the team, as neither side really got what they wanted.

Relationship to Gaming

Can’t rule someone out due to their interview performance? There’s always judging them on the depth of their obsession with a particular game, even if that’s not in the job description.

Now that I’m back in gaming, I can tell you that one of the most common levers used to “move the goalposts” on women interviewing in the games industry is their relationship to gaming and games, even when it’s not necessarily relevant or listed in the job requirements.

I had an experience recently where I’d spent literal months interviewing with a largely female panel of senior leaders for a senior leadership role on a major game and things were going great. I’d played the predecessors to the game I was going to work on, and had thoughts, but it was not my core game genre (I play a wide variety of games, was actively playing ranked Riot games at the time, and stream every Sunday). The hiring manager told me that it really wasn’t required that I be a die-hard for this game. But after going through an all-male final interview loop — one in which I was congratulated for the quality of my portfolio presentation and even asked by Talent to hold a day to meet with my potential teammates after the loop — I was rejected at the last minute. I was told I was a great “academic” candidate… but that I just wasn’t a enough of die hard fan and they “didn’t have time to onboard me.”

I’ve worked on a vast variety of games, software, cloud platforms like Azure, and beyond, all at global scale and in many cases as a leader; each time learning a new domain in just a few weeks. I’d proven to be open-minded and spent money and time playing the games in question. But in the last moments of that interview debrief a panel decided they didn’t have time to “onboard” me on… how to play their game? Surely it’s not “how to work on their game”, as they JUST moved into production so everyone is defining processes — and I have AAA experience shipping multiple console games from start through all three major publishers in addition to years as a senior leader at one of the largest live service game companies on the planet.

If specific gameplay experience with this one particular game was such a critical concern, why not raise it earlier? This is rarely about an individual (many specific conversations were great) it is often the collective decision-making body that becomes an issue. We could have saved EVERYONE a ton of time, as these were senior leadership interviews that required complex time zone coordination on 2 continents, if they’d just been super up front that a specific relationship to this game was critical for this non-game design senior leadership role. But that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t the case… until it was. The hiring manager had even stated that some distance from the game was likely a boon for a potential UX Director, as they sought to expand their reach to new players. Unfortunately, their process was not engineered to catch and reflect on the drift in requirements. I just hope all candidates from here on out are held to the same standard and that’s communicated up front from the very beginning.

Tip of the iceberg

Keep in mind that for every one of these stories, there are potentially countless others where the feedback is not public, where candidates are ghosted or passed at various stages without understanding that goalposts were moved at all. This is not all that uncommon. The preceding goalpost stories recount 3 of my 7 most recent full interview loops, non-consecutively. (The 4th loop ended in ghosting after strong and repeated positive feedback, a 5th was a constructive rejection, and the 6th and 7th loops resulted in job offers.) If these experiences can happen so frequently in the open, just imagine what we might be missing behind the scenes!

Pursuing equitable standards

And the point here is equity of evaluation and experience. Yes, it’s a free country. Everyone gets to choose how their job descriptions are written and positioned. But in each of these cases, the role was positioned as one thing and only changed after I successfully completed an interview loop. This CAN happen to anyone… but I mostly hear about it happening to folks with one or more marginalized identities.

Everyone, regardless of identity, deserves to be evaluated fairly; and companies lose out on great talent when they let decisions happen based on inconsistent criteria or criteria unrelated to job requirements.

Standardized behavioral interviewing: it works!

That was one of the things Riot Games got right after the earthshattering Kotaku expose that shone light on a culture of sexism at the company. Riot adopted a standardized behavioral interviewing system (called BARS internally) that helped ensure each candidate was being evaluated on the same criteria in several categories. Interviewers were usually specialized in one or more topics, drew from a fixed set of interview questions, and were expected to be able to cite which of those questions they used, what responses they got, and how they rated the applicant responses in the roundup. I can say from experience that system really worked, both as a candidate and as a hiring manager and interviewer who worked with over 100 candidate interviews during my time there. It allowed for a broader spectrum of talent to come in without subjective judgements like “culture fit,” ensuring we were focusing on Riot’s shared criteria (ensuring candidates could succeed on multiple teams if necessary) and evaluating consistently on craft criteria. With regard to the gaming example above — that used to be an issue at Riot too. Post-Kotaku, they differentiated which roles required a “specific” relationship to the game versus “general” relationship to gaming. Typically, only game design and specific product and engineering roles required “specific” relationship to the game, and it was very specific who was allowed to evaluate on that criteria.

(Now, did Riot know what to DO with a diverse pool of talent once they came into the company? No comment at the moment.)

Without standardized behavioral interviewing, you’ll usually get a lot of employees working from your candidate’s resume, and acting like a detective trying to prove they’re not the right candidate for the job. The number of times I’ve had someone say, “Well, you’ve only managed X people and we need Y people” or the converse “You managed X people and we only have Z people, won’t you be bored?” Both in the same interviewing period! This gives individual employees the power to eliminate candidates based on arbitrary judgements instead of evaluating on the actual skills and potential required to complete the job.

But that’s a classic pattern — hiring mainstream candidates on skill and potential, and hiring marginalized candidates only when they have the exact past experience you’re looking for (and then calling mismatches a “pipeline problem.”)

In many cases inconsistent interviewing comes largely down to poor preparation on behalf of the employer — the first step is to give your teams a framework, any framework, for approaching and working with candidates. Standards make a huge difference. But even at companies where I wasn’t provided with these frameworks, I work as a hiring manager to adopt standard criteria for my open roles to aid myself and my interviewers in having constructive conversations.

Lead with curiosity, not assumptions

Neither of those imaginary “issues”— too few or too many people — matters if the skills are there. How many times are you going to hire someone who has managed the EXACT team size you’re looking for? And will your team remain static forever?

Many successful companies understand that skill based evaluations are better for everyone, regardless of identity. Are you looking for someone who is good at directly managing people? Indirectly managing people? Are you looking for someone who can grow people’s careers? Manage low performers? How would this candidate handle those situations, and how have they done so in the past? THOSE are the questions that will get you to the right candidates.

It’s fine to end up with some questions about a candidate and their interest level in a specific role based on their experience. The best hiring managers lead with curiosity if the candidate is qualified, rather than using arbitrary assessments like “overqualified” to kick people out of the pool.

Asking questions and having a discussion rather than making assumptions leads to more inclusive results. I’ve seen great examples of this lately, and it’s led to exciting places. (If you want to hear about the outcome of my latest adventures in interviewing, you can follow me on LinkedIn for potential updates.)

Even rejection can be constructive when it’s equitable

None of this is to imply that all current interview experiences are dreadful.I’ve actually had some tremendously positive interview experiences that ended in rejection, like my interviews for Executive Creative Director of Product Design for Games for the New York Times back in 2021. That was a male hiring panel too, but they approached it with an inclusive interviewing panel and an incredibly respectful and transparent process, with lots of feedback. For example, partway through:

“We were impressed by the breadth of your experience, particularly when it comes to complex and multi-modal design problems. It’s clear you have experience and perspective operating at the level we’d need for this role. The way you spoke about process and getting things done really resonated with us, particularly in driving adoption of more modern designs and systems. We like that you have experience moving work forward through other people, in complex/highly matrixed environments to boot. One place we’ll look to get stronger signal in the portfolio review with designers is around the outcomes you’ve delivered — being able to see the things you and your teams have shipped and go deeper on the quality of the solutions you’ve delivered.”

The eventual rejection itself (it was down to me and one other candidate in the end) was measured and tied back to the job description, with positive and constructive feedback that helped me understand how they saw my work — while I know I could have fulfilled their vision, I understand completely that it was too much of a stretch to see that during that phase of my career. And it wast at least consistent in that it tied to the place where they said they wanted to drill down.

One truth about all the feedback is it was very evidence/past experience based; I have no way of knowing if other candidates were evaluated that way. But even so, just being given transparency and engagement consistent with the job description makes even rejection that focuses only on exact past experience match more reasonable to bear.

I came out grateful for the chance to engage with the team at the NYT, the chance to learn about how my work was perceived by a respected organization, and the chance to grow stronger by engaging in that process.

Living your allyship values

Suffice to say that bringing a balanced set of identities into the workplace is just one part of the puzzle.

If you’re not truly looking at equitable evaluation and support of employees at every level and career stage, your efforts to build inclusive spaces are not sustainable: you’re going to end up rewarding the wrong behaviors and pushing out top performers.

When people lead, evaluate, and promote based on friendships, affinities, gut feel, and culture fit, innovation slowly dies. I’ve seen it firsthand too many times to count. Over time, you gradually squeeze out the unique perspectives, leaving a pool of like-minded people in charge with too many gaps in their understanding to keep their companies pointed towards a brighter future. In the process, lots of bright and passionate people who genuinely wanted to contribute to that future are often discarded, discriminated against, and hurt along the way.

If you’re one of those people who TRULY values innovation; values equity and a diversity of ideas; or just wants to be seen as an ally — it’s not enough to just say you’re an ally. What are you doing on a daily basis to live those values? So many times, the people you’re trying to support do not have the freedom to make asks of you, or do not know if they can trust you to approach you. You can earn that trust at any time by living the values important to you.

  • How are you ensuring all voices are heard on your team?
  • How are your career growth and review processes calibrated to ensure peers of any identity are being held to the same standards? (This is NOT the same as “ignoring” identities — this requires ACTIVE reflection to identify potential trends.)
  • Are you making sure all team members are treated with respect, and heading off any exclusionary behavior (like team members trying to avoid meeting with women 1:1, which was a rampant problem on several past teams)
  • Are you prepared to interrupt disrespectful behavior from your peers, even when it’s not necessarily aggressive? Many of the toxic environments I’ve been in started when specific individuals directed aggression, micro-aggressions, derision, or dismissal towards marginalized groups. This often starts small, sometimes even with humor and often in public, and is then allowed to snowball.
  • If someone approaches you with feedback about your actions, are you prepared for self-reflection? If not, how might you engage in some personal work to gain the integrity and strength to know a challenge to a specific action is often an indication of trust that you have the growth mindset to change and improve?

And remember — any single event can be isolated and waved away, but toxic environments are about patterns. To see patterns, you must be willing to look across individuals, and to slice data based on factors like marginalized identities. If your system only deals with isolated incidents, you are at risk of normalizing systemic discrimination.

Inexplicably indomitable hope

Even in the face of layoffs that have almost completely eliminated many prominent DEI orgs within large companies; even in the face of misguided conspiracy theories that seem to blame inclusion for all of today’s woes, the fact is that we are more connected and more aware than we were 20 years ago. When things happen, we connect, we learn, and we as a collective figure out a way to move forward. More and more, I see new teams and companies willing to adopt more equitable models of engagement and seeing real innovation as a result. I was so proud of my team of UX designers at Riot — a balanced and diverse team of incredibly talented designers who will continue to go on to do great things after my departure. We were absolutely stronger for the wide variety of perspectives.

I am fortunate enough to know my own value, and know that the companies who choose to move the goalposts are missing out on innovations they can’t even conceive of right now in the interest of what’s comfortable and safe. It’s harder for those earlier in their career, but I remember what it was like being told “no” when I wanted to run teams ages ago. Please remember this:

Despite the rejections, the setbacks, the disappointments, please remember — the perceptions of others do not determine your potential. You are capable of more than what the world has offered you.

Yes, these roadblocks slow us down, and it is not typically fair or equitable. But you are still capable of moving mountains. The visions in your head for amazing futures are real. I hope you’ll be able to connect with genuine allies on your path towards balanced, diverse, inclusive working environments where people of all identities are able to contribute and thrive.

The adoption of simple best practices like standardized behavioral interviewing or regular performance review audits benefit people of all identities, not just women.

But on this International Women’s Day, it’s OK to take a moment and grieve the fact that as America Ferrera’s (Oscar-nominated!) monologue so aptly stated in the Barbie movie, it often feels “impossible” to be a woman. Despite that, we wake up every morning and we find a way to make the impossible possible, and I know you will too. I see you, women, allies — stay strong. We are better together than we are apart, if we can truly continue to focus on the impact of our actions, and not just the intent.

Cheryl Platz is a world renowned user experience designer, product strategist, game developer, author, teacher, public speaker, and actor. Her bestselling book Design Beyond Devices is available at Rosenfeld Media, Amazon, or your favorite online bookseller .She was Director of User Experience for the Player Platform and head of the UX craft for Riot Games from 2021–2024. She is currently an Adjunct Instructor of the video game craft for Carnegie Mellon University’s Masters of Entertainment Industry Management program and owner of design education firm Ideaplatz, LLC.

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