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Diversity & Inclusion: A Little Less Talk, A Little More Action

Systemic discrimination is still a challenge in the gaming industry

Diversity & Inclusion: A Little Less Talk, A Little More Action

A casino manager looking to advance her career was happy to find a workplace mentor, until the mentor made advances of his own. When she spurned his overtures, he was no longer interested in a professional relationship.

That woman, speaking to GGB on condition of anonymity, listed numerous episodes of what she calls “systemic discrimination” in an industry that ostensibly makes a guiding principle of equality.

“I’ve watched less qualified men get professional opportunities over women, seen women castigated in meetings for raising a contrary point when men are rewarded for doing the same, and even had male colleagues make personally insulting remarks about me under the guise of humor,” she says. “I’ve heard them make disparaging remarks about female coworkers’ age, dress, demeanor and competency.”

A second woman, also speaking anonymously, expressed her impatience with “manels,” or conference panels made up mostly of men. “It can be a panel of really fantastic speakers, but the visual alone demonstrates the lack of diversity. More than once, I’ve been asked to sit on a panel because I’m a woman. That’s great, but it’s not what qualifies me. It’s my expertise in the area.”

When women do hold visible roles, says a third woman, many times they’re relegated to “pink-collar” roles in human resources or marketing or added to high-profile boards, then held up as proof of an egalitarian culture.

“Executives can check off the equality box, while perpetuating the myth that there are only a handful of qualified women and there’s no need to look beyond them.

“It’s as if the male executives say, ‘We need a woman in this role. Who does so-and-so have as ‘their woman?’ Get her.”

Inequality in the workplace is an old story, in and out of gaming. According to these women, it’s not history. Yet.

Why D&I?

Most corporations today have diversity and inclusion initiatives, which even have earned their own pithy acronym: D&I. But the women above say many organizations remain stubbornly resistant to women in leadership.

“Look at the websites of gaming company management teams,” says one. “The pictures tell a thousand words”—in other words, they are clearly tipped in favor of men.

Jan Jones Blackhurst, longtime executive vice president for government relations and corporate responsibility for Caesars Entertainment and a former mayor of Las Vegas, says diversity isn’t about kindness, fairness or even, in fact, diversity itself. It’s about building strong, resilient, responsive, successful corporations.

“If you want the highest and best performing companies, you need diverse viewpoints; you simply do,” she says. “When everybody is looking for solutions to problems through the same lens, you’ll get the same answers over and over.”

According to a study cited in 2019 by the Harvard Business Review, women “add to the diversity of life experiences among a top management team’s members,” and therefore may offer “additional insight into important strategic questions, especially those that relate to female consumers, employees and trading partners.” The study added that gender diversity leads to increased productiveness only in cultures where such diversity is “normatively” accepted, or considered important.

Other studies come out unequivocally on the side of D&I. Recent research from the Boston Consulting Group found that “increasing the diversity of leadership teams leads to more and better innovation and improved financial performance.” Looking at 1,700 companies in eight countries, the group found that companies with more diverse management teams had 19 percent higher revenue, due to innovation.

According to Forbes, the researchers said “the CEO’s vision coupled with policies such as equal pay (and) a culture of openness and inclusion help companies create a diverse and well-rounded environment.”

‘Admiring the Problem’

It’s the rare systemic flaw that is solved quickly, especially in a bureaucracy. Invariably, a lot of time is spent defining the problem, agreeing it’s a problem, and then lamenting the problem: “Yes, it’s regrettable that we don’t have more (fill-in-the-blanks: minorities, women, LGBTQ people)—in the executive ranks.”

That initial recognition is often followed by exploratory committees and initiatives that are touted far and wide in news releases. Maybe a feel-good slogan is attached, and the principles are added to a list of corporate commitments.

But if nothing happens beyond that, the company has simply “admired the problem,” equating talk to action, and analysis to implementation. Blackhurst says true and lasting change takes follow-through, “a strategy that puts measurable targets against a proclaimed goal. Because what isn’t measured won’t matter.”

In 2017, Caesars Entertainment announced its “50/50 by 2025” program, pledging that, by that year, half of leadership roles would be held by women. At the time, Blackhurst said, “We’re the best operator, the most in touch. If anyone can do it, it’s us.” With Caesars now merged with Eldorado Resorts, creating the world’s largest gaming company, that outcome could be industry-changing.

Blackhurst said the company chose management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. to run its program, “because they speak corporate,” and could make the case that hiring and promoting more women is just good business.

According to McKinsey and, from 2015 to 2019 more women rose to the top levels of companies—particularly in the C-suite, where their numbers increased from 17 percent to 21 percent. “Although this is a step in the right direction, parity remains out of reach,” the report stated. “Women—and particularly women of color—are underrepresented at every level.”

The study said women can rise to a certain level, but then are impeded by a “broken rung,” typically at the managerial level. “For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level, and fewer women becoming managers. Not surprisingly, men end up holding 62 percent of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38 percent.”

“That’s the game they play,” says Blackhurst. “As women start moving up, those (promotions) fall off precipitously.”

Hidden Talents

In a 2017 study, four Harvard researchers determined there have been few great strides in hiring equity in the years since 1990. Looking at 54,000 job applications submitted over a 25-year-plus period, they observed “significantly greater callbacks” for white applicants over black and Latino applicants with identical resumes.

“Without callbacks for interviews, these black and Latino candidates don’t get a chance to introduce themselves, share their education and experience or describe their potential contributions,” the study said. “The door of opportunity never opened for them.”

The study further stated that most white Americans “remain convinced that race is no longer central to one’s opportunities in life,” and believe instances of discrimination “represent the actions of a few bad apples and aren’t in sync with the larger trend toward systemic racial equality.”

Such unconscious bias is not necessarily malevolent, but, as researchers indicated, “When hiring, you tend to hire yourself.”

One of the most famous examples of unconscious bias was seen in the orchestral field, where for many years women musicians were almost non-existent. Then some orchestras started “blind” auditions, in which auditioning musicians were separated from the selection committee by screens. As a result, the percentage of female musicians in the five highest-ranked U.S. orchestras rose from just 6 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993.

Rose McKinney-James, a board member at MGM Resorts International, is chairwoman of the firm’s Corporate Social Responsibility Committee. She finds it “maddening” when gaming executives say they can’t find qualified applicants for upper-tier jobs among women and minority groups.

“My answer to that is, ‘You’re not looking hard enough.’

“You have to take steps to make sure you reflect your customer base and the communities where you conduct business, and be actively engaged and invested in both the people and the economic empowerment that goes along with a diversity platform,” says McKinney-James, who also originated the diversity program at Mandalay Bay, and was a pioneer in expanding gaming in Mississippi, which went the extra mile to identify qualified job candidates in that area.

“The first thing we did was establish relationships with leadership on the ground, connecting with state legislators and historically active civil rights and civic organizations. We were committed to including people from the community, not just importing talent, but bringing in jobs and growing together.”

McKinney-James says she may been viewed as a “twofer,” a black woman in a high-profile leadership role who, in effect, checks two diversity boxes at once.

“It’s not the way you want to be perceived,” she says. “It immediately questions your qualifications and your ability to contribute at the same level as your contemporaries. I recognize I’m part of a very small cohort of black corporate directors across the country. Those numbers aren’t what they should be.”

The Discomfort Zone

MGM has pledged to hire and promote across the spectrum—women, minorities, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, veterans. McKinney-James says it’s more important than ever that multiple populations be represented, or talented professionals may look elsewhere for opportunity.

“Employees have an expectation that people who look like them are holding critical positions” in a company, McKinney-James says. “It’s crucial to creating a sense of belonging and opportunity. When they don’t see that, a lot of organizations are seeing their black talent saying, ‘Gotta go, see ya.’ It used to be folks would suffer through, swallow hard and stay on. I’m now seeing a trend where they shrug their shoulders and say, ‘I’ll find it someplace else.’

“Let us not forget that the level of external pressure has increased exponentially,” she adds. “The wise and prudent leader is not going to ignore this issue. It’s not going away.”

Reggie Burton, former director of communications for MGM and now head of Las Vegas-based RB Group Public Relations, is concerned the Covid-19 outbreak could cause diversity in the workplace to fall out of balance, or even off the radar. Because the lower ranks of employees tend to be the most diverse, they may be more affected by the recent wave of furloughs and layoffs.

“We cannot afford to lose any of the progress and the gains we’ve made over the years,” says Burton. He emphasizes that it’s just as important to hire and retain a diverse group of vendors. “A lot of times, it comes down to who you know. If you need a lawyer right now, you’re not going to the Yellow Pages in search of women and minorities.”

How do companies expand that vendor pool beyond their usual go-to’s? Burton says, “Intentionality. You have to say, ‘You know what? I need to meet more women and minority attorneys. Where do I go to meet them?’ You need to add to your list of women and minority PR firms, contractors and architects. You need to be intentional.”

Ondra Berry, former senior vice president of talent and performance for MGM and now major general in charge of the Nevada Army and Air National Guard, agrees. “If I’m responsible for bringing in vendors or contractors and I’m not looking at diversity, that’s a huge miss. I have to look at my partnerships, my philanthropy and my volunteerism.”

Creating parity at all levels in the workplace will require some “courageous conversations,” says Berry. How, for instance, would he respond to resistance among groups of people who are perceived to have an edge in the job market, but who also want to advance, and who also may have the right stuff?

“If you and I are running a race, I’ve got to run faster or I’ll never catch you,” Berry says. “That’s what affirmative action is all about. It’s not your fault that you’re ahead. That’s history. But we’ll never catch up if we keep running at the same pace. Leaders have to be comfortable talking about those hard issues. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history on this one.”

Blackhurst adds, “It took me a long time to convince some of the up-and-coming white men at Caesars that we were not taking their jobs. We were filling a job. Nobody is trying to change the meritocracy, but the talent pool is much greater than that.”

Making the Grade

One of the women who spoke to GGB on condition of anonymity said history will be made when companies “read their own mission statement, commit to the mission statement and live the mission statement. Diversity needs to be more than a public relations topic. It needs to be a real topic with real goals and real accountability for failure.”

Another said, “It’s especially annoying when you look at company websites and see their pledges to diversity. Women have to, it seems, walk a tightrope between asserting themselves and risking being considered bitchy and handling unfair treatment with good humor.”

McKinney-James sees opportunity in the making. “I don’t think any of us has seen anything so extraordinarily devastating to our employees and to the companies who depend on them” as the current economic and social upheaval. “Companies are being forced to deal with liquidity and survival, which has put so many people out of work.

“Ironically, this crisis also presents an opportunity for organizations to rethink their structures. Given the recent events, with the Black Lives Matter conversation, companies are doing more strategic outreach. I don’t think they realized how exposed they’ve been.

“It’s far from a silver lining,” she says. “Just call it an interesting opportunity.”

Asked how she would grade the gaming industry overall in terms of diversity and inclusion, Blackhurst says, “C-minus.”

“We’ve been having this conversation for the last four decades. I’m not saying it’s not hard, but you have to be committed. You have to want this to happen and take steps to make it happen. This problem is fixable, so let’s fix it.”

‘Paying It Forward’
Melonie Johnson, President, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Atlantic City

In June, Melonie Johnson was appointed president of the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, following more than two years as president and chief operating officer at MGM National Harbor.

With her arrival in Atlantic City, Johnson made history in more ways than one—not only as the first black woman to run a casino in the shore resort, but as the first Borgata president to grapple with the extraordinary challenges of a four-month shutdown and partial reopening.

Johnson broke into gaming in 1993, when she was hired as an accounting manager at Harrah’s in her home state of Louisiana. She rose to become director of finance. She has also worked for Penn National Gaming, and her career has taken her all around the U.S., including Illinois, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maryland.

Johnson has said she had no “playbook” to guide her ascent in gaming. But she’s certainly helping to write the playbook for future generations.

She spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros in August. Here are some excerpts from that interview:

GGB: Your success speaks to the success of efforts to bring diversity to the executive ranks. Is there still a lot of disparity to be addressed?

Melonie Johnson: There are opportunities on both sides, but it’s still a work in progress. It’s everyone’s responsibility in management. It’s mine. It’s my job to develop young talent. It’s my job to recruit individuals who are female and African American. Has the company done a good job? Yes. But there’s always room for improvement.

Why is it so important to have diversity in upper management and the C-suite?

Upper management teams should reflect the workforce. You want to look at leadership and see people who look like you, who understand your culture, your thoughts and your vision. By looking at them, you know you have an opportunity to be promoted to that level.

Do you see yourself as a role model, not just for women and minorities, but for anyone in the rank and file who aspires to a leadership role?

I’m going to say mentor-slash-role model. I mentor quite a lot of people—not just women, not just black people. When I think about my legacy, I don’t want to be remembered for personal accomplishments. I want to be remembered for getting up-and-coming talent to the next level.

But I do have an ask for them. I ask them to do it for someone else. That’s the gift that keeps on giving. Pay it forward.