The faces behind the Best Places To Work Awards: Emma Smith, Creative Assembly

Liz Prince our consultant managing the role
Author: Liz Prince
Posting date: 17/10/2021

Amiqus’ pro bono EDI initiative G Into Gaming has been sponsoring the brilliant Gamesindustry.biz Best Places To Work Awards for the past four years. So, with the 2021 winners recently announced we thought it was time to look back and reflect with the winners of the G into Gaming accolades…

First up, we speak to Emma Smith, Head of Talent at Creative Assembly and winner of the 2021 award…

What does it mean to you to win the G Into Gaming Best Places to Work Award?
This award means a huge amount to me personally. It came as a big surprise, and I feel incredibly humbled to receive it. I do this work because I feel strongly that creating a level playing field, helping people see their potential and rise to meet their potential, is the right thing to do. It motivates me every day.

I come from a tiny mining village in South Wales, where the games industry wasn’t on my radar, nor did I believe I could aspire to the life I live today. I’ve had strong role models in my own life, and people who believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. I feel I am now able to do that for others.

What are you most proud of achieving in your role at Creative Assembly over the past year?
Hands down it has to be securing the funding for laptops to go to Next Gen students who had no access to technology to complete their studies. Hearing how this donation has changed young people's prospects is incredible. Those students have now graduated and a whole new cohort of students are getting access to that tech. I hope this has encouraged other studios to offer the same, be it just one or two items; it all makes a huge difference. We often place such a focus on individuals who are developing their skills, which is of course important, but there is a growing social divide within the UK which means so many young talented people can’t even access that first step on their journey.

What have been the biggest challenges for you during the pandemic/lockdown – both professionally and personally?
Personally, it has been a journey of self-discovery through hard times. At times I felt incredibly vulnerable when I felt powerless to support others in their struggles. During the first lockdown, I had to balance leading a team, homeschooling and parenting, whilst training for an Ironman triathlon that very likely wasn’t going to happen. Ironman is my dream and a huge bucket list item for me. There are nowhere near enough women in that level of sport, and I want to prove that I can take myself to those limits, but also be a role model to other women that it is achievable.

There have been tears throughout last year and a lot of country walks with my dog. I'm naturally a ‘glass half full’ person and an endless cheerleader, but last year really drained me. I had to switch into ‘preservation mode’, scale back, nourish my soul, be kind to myself and take time to cherish my immediate family. I recognise that I'm fortunate to work at Creative Assembly, where there is a strong focus on wellbeing, and we’ve been given that support and flexibility throughout the pandemic. Learning to find balance in chaos was the biggest lesson 2020 could have ever given me.

Seeing my colleagues and members of my team go through such huge life-changing events and not being able to see them in person, to offer a hug and help where I can, has been equally difficult. Empathizing from a distance is hard but I’m very grateful of how my team supported each other (and supported me!) through one of the toughest years. I got to know my team, my colleagues and friends in a much deeper way.

Are there any individuals at Creative Assembly or beyond who have given you support or inspiration who you would like to highlight?
There are so many, but of course, I want to give a special mention to my brilliant team. They are a shining example of a group of people who have focused and continued to deliver outstanding results through a difficult time, while also being supportive, empathetic and kind.

It’s important to remember that Creative Assembly’s Legacy Project is truly a team effort. Lucy Boxall, our Director of Corporate Communications, has always been a great advocate for the work we do; I’m often so focused on moving forward, I forget to look back and see how far the project has come.

My co-chair for the Women Group at CA, who is the ying to my yang, showing me that working together on the same agenda is joyful and empowering.

Gina Jackson, who is also a woman of action, and I always feel pumped by being in her company, her never ending power to move the needle in our industry is just amazing. It really has been such a huge network of people that inspire me all the time, but these are just a few!

You have a key focus at present on women’s health issues. What have you implemented at Creative Assembly to support women in this particular area?
Yes. We don’t talk about this enough as a society – it really is still a taboo and means that there is a lack of shared education and understanding. It’s a subject that isn't on anyone's radar and for some, they still feel awkward even mentioning menstrual health and hormones, even though it massively effects our mental health, how we perform, how we connect to our creativity and how we interact with our colleagues. We have a Women’s group at Creative Assembly where we are bringing these discussions to the table in a safe space; forging community, sharing stories and empowering each other so we can go forward confidently in our lives knowing we are supported.

Do you feel that women’s health is still seen as an ‘off limits’ topic for discussion at most companies?
Yes – and beyond that, in the media, in Government policy even. There is plenty of evidence that women don’t even reveal the reason why they are needing to take time off on sick leave due to women's health issues. I know from personal experience that many women still feel very nervous sharing they are pregnant and their need to take maternity leave, as they worry they will be an inconvenience. It isn't standard for women to join an organisation that has a hormone health policy nor do Leads expect a woman to talk about it in their one-to-ones. But it should be more commonplace in discourse. We need to embrace all that we are so we can bring ourselves to our roles.

And what can we, collectively as an industry, do to address/change this?
Build a sense of trust in your organisation and open conversations. As part of our Inclusive Behaviours programme at Creative Assembly - which was developed with an expert D&I organization – we talk about humility and vulnerability. That works both ways and when that trust is there, we can share more openly, have more honest and informed conversations and better support each other. Our industry is so fast-paced, sometimes we need to reflect on the softer skills – listening, being vulnerable, and being open. Often if the senior leaders of a business aren’t having these experiences, the topic can drop off the radar.  

If you had three tips for studios about to embark on an EDI journey, what would they be?
Don’t just say it, do it – EDI isn't a singular moment, it’s something you live by. Weave EDI into all you do, and you will see a bigger change.

Find someone who is passionate about this work; give them a voice, trust and autonomy to guide you to where you want to be in your EDI journey. Then empower them to put that into practice.

Bring the whole company on the journey with you; EDI is not just the responsibility of HR nor an EDI officer, it should be in the heart of everyone. You won't always get it right, but you should always want to get it right and always learn and improve, listening to those around you.

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