In one 2016 meeting, Riot leadership held a diversity roundtable in which the lack of women in leadership was brought up, according to two sources present. Several women made their case that they didn’t see leaders at Riot who were like them. A few days later, Riot brought in the Spiral Cats, sexy cosplayers who toured the office in skimpy clothes. “I love cosplay and I’m all about female empowerment, but it felt inappropriate they were there after the diversity town hall,” said one former employee. When asked about this, a Riot representative said the company often brings what it calls “community creators” on campus. The Spiral Cats’ visit, the representative added, was organized in part by a Rioter at the request of both male and female Rioters.

Oksana Kubushyna, the head of platform and most senior woman at the company, explained that Rioters with less access to senior leadership might make assumptions about whether Riot’s promotion practices are fair. Kubushyna has been leading an effort to evaluate her team’s compensation structure, examining employees’ performances in relation to each other. “If two Rioters are doing the same job, they’re evaluated on a similar criteria,” she said. When I asked whether she’s looking at why women might not perform at the same level as men—whether there might be structural issues preventing women from making as much progress at work—she said, “I’m not sure there’s a deliberate effort to look into that.”

To one male employee, Riot’s obsession with being a meritocracy stems from how the company has traditionally misunderstood why some employees might thrive at a huge MOBA-making gaming company while others do not. “It’s easy to think, ‘Oh, all these white men are in power because of merit,’” he said. “That happens a lot at Riot because they’ve convinced themselves it’s a meritocracy. But a meritocracy can’t exist outside of the social setting within merit is constructed. I think that leads to a lot of problems. It’s like an incomplete thought. ‘Surely these people are being promoted because they’re doing well.’ Then they don’t follow up [on] why aren’t these other people getting promoted.”

At tech companies like Riot, the gold rush of ideas and impact draws thousands of hopefuls who want to be a part of something great and make something of themselves in the process. But like gold panners, some Rioters came out with connections, with the best technology, with secret maps, and with the encouragement of others who recognize in them some of themselves. Others—women, primarily—were handed sieves with wide holes. Success escaped. They were no less hardworking, no less talented. But the superstructure benefiting their peers was more difficult for them to become a part of because of the way it was built.

One current Rioter described that superstructure in terms her colleagues know well: tech debt. “If you’re building your technology on not great foundations, you spend a lot of time catching up or trying to fix things,” she told me. Riot is just one company, but two dozen current and former employees have personally experienced or witnessed how its culture and structure—ones shared across the ranks of gaming, infosec, hardware, software, and digital marketplace companies and tech giants—disadvantaged women. The Rioter continued, “I think Riot has grown very fast and not having a planned out organizational structure that encourages diversity has hurt us. We are trying to fix that now. It’s just hard to fix things when they’ve already started. It’s easier to start things the right way and build on that.”

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