The start of roleplaying games is a hotly debated topic. Some people equate it back to the military miniatures games of the late nineteenth century. Others say it wasn't until the fifties when modern mini games were developed. Regardless, the age of the modern roleplaying game is generally agreed as beginning in the 70's with Gary Gygax's publication of the original Blue Box D&D set. In the early years the game was excessively gender biased. Female characters had several stats limited to lower levels than male characters did; Strength obviously but also (strangely?) Intelligence. Such blatant sexism was removed fairly quickly and the result has been the gaming industry's trend towards equality in game mechanics.
Other issues of sexuality beyond gender, including but not limited to homosexuality, has been much slower to be reflected in games at all, though there are notable exceptions including, but not limited to, White Wolf's World of Darkness and Abberant and Green Ronin's Mutants and Masterminds.
This brings up the first of many questions about the treatment of gender: should gender be reflected in the game. On average, men are stronger than women while women are more charismatic than men, but player characters are not intended to be average. Given how often players play the pinnacle of a concept, should a player have to have a male character to play the strongest Fighter or a female character to play the most powerful Sorcerer?
Moreover, is gender something that should be reflected in the mechanics or the story? Most games - and there are exceptions - use genders interchangeably. There are some excellent D&D adventure modules out there, but I can think of very few where the NPC's gender makes a difference to the plot of the adventure. That's not treating gender respectfully; it's burying the issue.
A great deal of fuss is made over the art of RPGs and, everyone must acknowledge, that a lot of it is blatantly sexist. Has anyone ever in the history of the universe gone into battle wearing a chainmaile bikini? Do women really have spacesuits custom fit to hug their hips? Now there are exceptions - White Wolf tends to have great art that doesn't objectify women and even depicts a variety of body types (exception: Exalted) - but they are few and far between. And despite the outrage it provokes from female gamers, companies continue to print such artwork.
And yet, it's undeniable that this art sells books. Before WotC launched D&D: 3.0 they did a very extensive market survey that was available on EN World for a long time. This survey revealed a fact no marketing director at a game publisher could fail to miss: 80% of the books are purchased by 20% of the players. Now if you think of a typical gaming group as four players and a GM, that GM is 20% of the players, and he's going to need new monsters, magic items, special rules, and so on, so the players all get core books, then the GM buys an assload of supplements.
And most GMs are men.
I went to school with the largest college gaming club in the country at a school that was 60% female. I don't know if we had more men or women in the club (I recall it being pretty even but I never counted) but even then most games were run by men. This isn't to say the women didn't run games - they ran a lot of games, most of them pretty spectacular - or meant to imply that they were rare, but if even under those ideal circumstances you get more male than female GMs, it means you've got mostly men buying the books in what's already a male-dominated hobby.
And that means the books are going to be marketed towards men.
Now this becomes a Catch-22. The books are marketed to men who buy the books and remain the dominant sales audience so the books are marketed to them, etc. etc. ad nauseum.
The idea was put together that this will repeat because small companies can't afford to take the risk on using less than guaranteed artwork, but doesn't it make sense that it's the big companies who have to pay rent and meet payroll every month who can't take that risk? It's the small companies, the ones who write as a part time job and do $5 pdf files from their house that can take a risk. Furthermore, there's already an effective business model out there: White Wolf.
White Wolf tends to appeal to women more not simply because of the art but because they have involved stories and characters. Early studies on video games showed that women were interested in video games but didn't see the point in the kinds of games available. Video game companies countered by creating games where you shot hearts instead of bullets. Women weren't interested and were given up as a lost cause. Fast forward twenty years and you have video game companies pulling the same shit by trying to "target" women as consumers through the inclusion of things like in-game shopping (something that appeals as much to men, as anyone who's say around a session of Def Jam Vendetta will tell you). Most women, studies have shown, want games that afford them the chance to explore stories and character, and they tend to get bored with hack-and-slash style games.
When considering starting gaming, one of the biggest barriers is learning to play. Making a D&D character doesn't take complicated math, but it takes a lot of it; a Champions character requires first year calculus. One could ask if men's traditional dominance in math plays a factor in this.
Yet that answer obviously won't fly. Most women geeky enough to be good D&D candidates can do the math, but they don't bother because they don't see the point. If you've ever had someone tell you about their character by reading off stats, you'll understand how most women feel that first day when they come to play a game and all they hear about are numbers.
If you want to get women into gaming, make better games.