By Rizwan Syed Al Jazeera, Doha, Qatar.
Some studios in Pakistan's nascent but growing gaming industry have led the way on gender diversity in a country where only about 13 percent of the non-agricultural workforce is female.
At We R Play Studios, the open-plan office and "play room" are a direct cultural import from Silicon Valley. But the studio has by far out-ranked some more progressive countries on gender parity, with a 42 percent female workforce. Women reportedly make up only 11 percent of video game designers and 3 percent of programmers in the US.
Music plays overhead as staff work by walls plastered with posters of comic-book characters in this busy office in the capital Islamabad.
Studios such as this one led by entrepreneur Mohsin Afzal are producing games with global appeal that fuel Pakistan's $2.8bn software industry.
Afzal founded We R Play Studios in 2010 with his friend Waqar Azim after graduating with an MBA from the University of California. The studio has since coded the global hit "Dream Chaser", which was one of the top 10 free games in 11 countries in the Apple App Store.
Pakistan's software export industry employs some 24,000 people, according to Pakistan government figures. A survey conducted in 2012 by Pakistan's software industry trade body [email protected] showed that only 14 percent of the country's IT sector workforce was female.
These figures are dwarfed by the proportion of female gamers globally -- 46 percent, according to a study published in 2013 by Spil Games, a network of online game portals.
We R Play achieved this near-gender parity by being committed to diversity from the very beginning of its existence. After launching in 2010, the first five people it hired were men. Afzal then recognised the need to recruit women early in the company's life to develop a female-friendly work culture as the company grew. The company also assesses the diversity of its teams regularly.
If there are two candidates that are pretty much equal in all aspects, we always default to more diversity
"If there are two candidates that are pretty much equal in all aspects, we always default to more diversity," Afzal said.
A diverse workforce generates more profit. Companies worth more than $10bn with women on their boards of directors outperformed those with no women on their boards by 26 percent on share price performance in the six years up to 2011, according to Credit Suisse Research Institute.
And companies with workforces who are near-gender parity earn 14 percent more in sales revenue than those which are not, according to research published in American Sociological Review in 2009.
We R Play offers three-months paid maternity leave and allows female staff to work from home for as long as they wish after their leave. Afzal thinks that diversity and a progressive maternity policy helps We R Play to retain female staff. Afzal said that he sees clear reasons to strive for gender parity -- the first being that women "are close to 50 percent of the population".
We R Play is not the only studio in Pakistan bucking the traditionally male-dominated tech environment. Tintash Studios, whose hits include the multimillion-download "Stick Cricket" game, is another Pakistani mobile games studio that recognises the benefits of hiring women. Women comprise 25 percent of its staff. And at CaramelTech Studios in Lahore, 23 percent of staff are women, still significantly higher than the national employment rate.
The relatively high female employment rates at Tinash Studios and We R Play are anomalous and do not reflect a trend towards increased female employment across the mobile gaming industry, according to Fatima Rizwan, the founder of the Pakistani blog TechJuice, which covers the country's technology sector.
"Generally in software houses the ratio of male to female is very high. Males are in high numbers. But I think Tintash and We R Play provide excellent office space. They're providing the right kind of environment where females are feeling quite comfortable," Rizwan said.
Sadia Zia has been with We R Play since shortly after it launched. A senior manager for internal projects, Zia was the sixth person hired and has led the company's diversity strategy from the front to build a female-friendly environment. She pushed for separate women's bathrooms at the company and off-campus retreats for the female employees to bond.
Zia manages both men and women, which she said can be challenging. A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in July 2015 found that male subordinates often feel threatened by female managers. Zia said her male employees sometimes react in similar ways.
"Some of the guys do have ego issues, I would say. Like taking orders from women is not good for them, maybe. So you know, especially when it comes to conveying some work-related issues [and I say] 'You did not do this correctly', that would be really hard for me. Because instead of accepting their mistakes they would become defensive," Zia said.
Women at We R Play said that they appreciate the presence of female managers. Sadia Bashir, a 3D designer, feels confident that any potential problems will be resolved.
"When you have any sort of problem you can just go and tell them [female managers] and they just get it done very easily. And even if you have any problem with any of your male colleagues in anything you can discuss that as well -- although I never get that," Bashir said.
Bashir's interest in games developed in childhood when she used to play on the computer with her brother's friends. It became her passion as she played games with her male friends at university, and eventually she began developing her own at the COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, where she studied computer science.
Her parents always encouraged her to pursue her education and career, but she felt an outcast at university gaming tournaments as the only woman.
"They said, 'Why are you here? There are all guys here and playing games,' so I just said 'So what? I play games too.'" And "by the end of that tournament we all sat together, all friends and the winning teams, and we all played the game and literally I won that match," Bashir said.
Madina Zulfiqar, We R Play's senior quality assurance lead, opted to attend a mixed-gender university in spite of her family's concern that she might compromise the family's honour by fraternising with a male student. Her high grades eventually thawed their objections, but she said she later felt discriminated against in workplaces.
She began considering teaching so she would not have to work in an office environment, and was reluctant to apply to We R Play. But, despite her worries, she decided to "take the plunge" and pursue her passion for games. She does not regret it.
"I was a bit concerned what people would say about my niqab or [that] people would isolate me because of my appearance. But it never happened like that. I'm treated like a normal person," Zulfiqar said.
Still, jobs are hard to find for Pakistan's female college graduates. In 2008 -- the latest year for which female graduate unemployment data is available -- Pakistan's female unemployment rate stood at almost 9 percent according to World Bank data, while the male unemployment rate stood at just 4 percent that year. Of that 9 percent, 22 percent had completed post-secondary education, including university.
This leaves these gaming studios as a small but growing source of skilled female employment, with most companies in Pakistan's IT sector growing at more than 30 percent a year, according to [email protected] data.
Jazib Tahir, Tintash Studios' chief operating officer, is aware that female mobile gamers are not a minority. "Having their insights into what makes a good product is definitely helpful," said Tahir.