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Eye on Change

Gaming industry is uniquely positioned to lead the way in women’s equality

Eye on Change

Scanning the news today, chances are you saw another story about one of the most pressing issues of our time: women’s equality, particularly in the workplace.

From the record-breaking number of women in Congress to celebrity-driven movements in Hollywood, it’s clear that women are vying for change in all industries, including gaming.

In 2011, a small group of female leaders from the U.S. gaming industry gathered for an exploratory dinner that ultimately became the birthplace of Global Gaming Women (GGW), an organization committed to supporting, inspiring and influencing the development of women in the gaming industry.

At the time, little hard data existed to support what these women knew firsthand—the widespread barriers to advancement for women in gaming. Few people at any level of the industry were talking or thinking about these challenges, much less actively working to address them. Global Gaming Women is now a thriving education and mentorship network, and gaming organizations have launched very public diversity and inclusion campaigns. Simultaneously, women across the world have been buoyed by the revolutionary women’s empowerment movements #MeToo and Time’s Up. What does all of this foretell for women in gaming?


The Corporate Data

“Women are doing their part. Now companies need to do their part, too.” That was the headline chose for its 2018 Women in the Workplace survey, conducted with McKinsey & Company.

Established in 2015, Women in the Workplace is the largest, most comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America. The research indicates that while companies have reported strong commitment to gender diversity, that commitment has not translated into meaningful progress.

Since the first year of the study, corporate America has made almost no progress in improving women’s representation. Fewer women than men continue to be hired at the entry level, and at every subsequent step, the representation of women declines further.

For decades, the survey notes, women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men. They ask for promotions and negotiate salaries at the same rates as men. And contrary to conventional wisdom, they stay in the workforce at the same rate as men.

Despite all this, women are less likely to be hired for entry-level jobs. The disparity broadens at the next level, where women are even less likely to be hired and promoted into management positions. The data indicates that if companies continue to hire and promote women to management positions at current rates, the number of women in management will increase by just one percentage point over the next 10 years.

Alternatively, if companies hired and promoted women and men to management positions at equal rates, more equitable numbers (48 percent women versus 52 percent men) could be achieved over the same 10 years.

A study on gender disparity in gaming published in the UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal last year evaluated more than 10,000 professional management positions across nearly 1,000 commercial and Native American casinos in the United States. Its 2016 data, roughly compared to this national data, offers good and bad news for the industry.

On one hand, the gaming industry appears to be doing a better job at growing its pipeline than U.S. businesses overall, with 47 percent of management positions held by women. Unfortunately, despite this seemingly increased opportunity, the gender gap widens back to national averages at more senior levels, and is in fact slightly worse at the vice president level.

Authors Toni Repetti and Shekinah Hoffman looked not only at the “glass ceiling” in gaming, or vertical occupational segregation, but also horizontal occupational segregation: the percentage of women represented in each department. Here, they learned that women lead in departments such as human resources, public relations, and sales and events, but lag in casino operations management.

The casino category, which includes all gaming departments such as table games, slots, bingo, keno, and race and sports book, had the sixth lowest percentage of females (22.8 percent) out of 20 departments analyzed, despite having the most employees in the dataset. Even within female-dominated departments, Repetti and Hoffman found a lack of women in higher leadership positions.

Hoffman’s dissertation builds on this research by attempting to understand the reason behind these numbers. Thus far, the graduate student has interviewed more than 40 women in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe. Existing literature about the broader hospitality and tourism industries indicates that the 24/7 business model, demanding employees to work long, unsocial hours and requiring frequent geographical moves, creates a particular challenge for mothers trying to satisfy both work and family needs.

Further, women in gaming may face unique challenges of their own due to the industry’s idiosyncratic demands, like its labor-intensive structure and high turnover rate.

Hoffman’s research also revealed challenges like tokenism, microaggressions and the need to downplay femininity or “toughen up” to fit in and excel. Says Hoffman, “My goal is to understand the stories and experiences of women in gaming. From work-life balance and sexual harassment to their perceived barriers to advancement, what is driving the gender leadership gap in gaming, and how can the industry better address it?”


The Movement in Gaming

Hoffman’s work strives to answer many questions that the small number of female leaders in gaming have been considering for decades. While we can pinpoint its foundation to that dinner eight years ago, the creation of GGW was really a culmination of years of work and dialogue steadfastly advanced by women across the industry, and a few key leaders who were particularly outspoken on the issue: Virginia McDowell, former president and CEO of Isle of Capri Casinos; Jan Jones Blackhurst, executive vice president of public policy and corporate responsibility at Caesars Entertainment and the first female mayor of Las Vegas; then CEO of International Game Technology Patti Hart; and veteran industry executive and regulator Patricia Becker.

In fact, it was the success of Becker’s first “Kick Up Your Heels” fundraiser (for the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she was executive director at the time) that led to the 2011 dinner and the development of GGW.

Initially organized by the American Gaming Association, GGW launched in 2012 with intentionally broad objectives: to create a development program that would enable women in the industry to learn from each other and share ideas. More specifically, members of its first steering committee—including Becker, Hart and McDowell, among others—hoped GGW would foster stronger relationships between top female executives and promising young leaders, given the pivotal role many of them had seen mentorship play in their own success and advancement. One could say that the initial focus was on connection, which the AGA cultivated by building a network of women through education and industry events, including its own Global Gaming Expo portfolio. Supported by the technology-driven supplier segment, these leaders wanted to develop a sort of for the women of gaming that could help build mentorships across an industry inherently segregated by jurisdiction.

Over the next few years, GGW continued to develop and diversify its offerings, always refining them in response to stakeholder feedback. Keynote luncheons evolved into full-day workshops. Webinars were offered for those unable to travel to larger industry gatherings. Scholarships were created to support continuing education.

In 2015, GGW undertook a strategic review of its programs that led to a change in its organizational structure, as well as a shift to more high-impact programming. That year, it hosted the inaugural W Development Conference in Las Vegas and the first Leadership Development event in Saint Charles, Missouri. The success of these events demonstrated an unfulfilled need for intensive, targeted programs to help advance women in gaming. The following year, GGW built on this idea with its “Education Pyramid,” designed to support women at all levels of their careers through four distinct programs—Leadership Foundations, Front Line Leaders, Leadership Development and W Development—in four different regions to answer the need for accessibility.

Simultaneously, GGW expanded its thinking around the cultivation of mentorships to something more broadly defined as peer support. It looked for a place where mentorship, sponsorship and shared experiences could meet, and found it in “Lean In Circles.” Conceived and supported by, these small groups of women meet regularly to learn and grow together. GGW likens a circle to a personal board of directors, “empowering participants to improve their personal and professional lives.” The organization established 11 gaming industry circles in 2017, arranged regionally as well as virtually to maintain their commitment to access.

During this process of program refinement and targeted growth, it became clear that GGW had outgrown the capabilities of AGA. It was an entity unto itself, driven by a passionate, diverse group of industry women. In 2016, GGW relaunched as an independent nonprofit organization with financial support from leading gaming operators and suppliers to the tune of $1.5 million.


The Elephant in the Room

On the heels of GGW’s independence came #MeToo, followed by the Time’s Up movement. Their relevance was not lost on the women of gaming.

Stories had long been shared, confirming at least a lack of understanding in the male-dominated casino industry, and at worst a culture of misogyny. Debi Nutton, a longtime operations executive who got her start as a craps dealer, has told how she would be listed on shift boards then as “The F**kin’ Broad.” That was 1979, just three years after women were permitted to deal on the Strip. Forty years and so many strides for gender equality later, it turned out some things had not changed.

This year, Wynn Resorts was fined $55 million by the Massachusetts and Nevada Gaming Commissions after yearlong investigations found that senior executives knew of sexual misconduct allegations against company founder Steve Wynn but failed to act.

As #MeToo accusations continue to surface across the world more than 18 months after the movement launched, it’s hard to imagine that Wynn—the man or the organization—is the only culprit in an industry where the distribution of men and women, especially at the highest levels, is egregiously unbalanced.

The Wall Street Journal investigation into the allegations against Wynn came just days after Becky Harris was appointed as only the second woman ever (after Becker) to serve on the Nevada Gaming Control Board and the first to serve as its chair. A former state senator, Harris took the opportunity to drive changes to Nevada regulations governing gaming licensee conduct to include language around sexual harassment awareness and prevention. Response to the efforts was initially mixed. At workshops held to discuss the revisions, some members of the industry argued that they were unnecessary given the compliance with existing regulations of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Nevada Equal Rights Commission.

Ultimately, Harris garnered significant support—from industry representatives, former regulators, unions and even then-Governor Brian Sandoval, whose written testimony noted the state’s opportunity “to lead in the vitally important realm of sexual harassment prevention and reporting.”

Becker, who also testified on behalf of the effort, shared a similar sentiment. Likening this issue to the industry’s response to problem gambling, she suggested that the changes would allow the industry to “act, lead the way and set a positive statement.”

Harris’ amendments to Regulation 5 place more responsibility on employers to prevent and respond to claims of sexual misconduct and require casino license-holders to complete a 16-point checklist to verify that they have plans, policies, procedures and training in place to meet minimum standards set by the NGCB.

Whether Nevada will lead the way by implementing these updates, which are still pending approval by the state’s Gaming Commission, or by creating a ripple effect across U.S. gaming jurisdictions, is yet to be seen.


The Industry Today

Women of the industry are finally beginning to feel the trickle-down effects of these efforts. Conversations are happening that would have been impossible before.

Says Eileen Moore, a regional president at Caesars Entertainment, “I’m not the one who notices when I’m the only woman in a meeting anymore!” And better still, she continues, “The conversation needed to bring diversity in all of its forms to the table is no longer uncomfortable to have. As an industry, certainly at Caesars, leadership now recognizes the imbalance and understands that it has to be part of the solution.”

Moore’s longtime colleague and friend, Holly Gagnon, a former Caesars executive and now CEO of Seneca Gaming, echoes that sentiment: “There was a time when we didn’t see enough women leading operations. Maybe there were a respectable number of VPs in HR or finance, but we’re now seeing women fill very substantial roles in operations—property presidents and GMs. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

Both women agree that companies are more aware than ever that they were looking “a little homogeneous” at the top. As gaming matures and becomes increasingly competitive, making profitability the highest objective, there is “absolutely an awareness now that having diversity makes you more profitable,” says Gagnon.

For some companies, this isn’t news. Nearly 20 years ago, MGM Resorts was the first gaming company to voluntarily declare a formal diversity initiative as a matter of integrity and as a business imperative. MGM has backed up that declaration with action. It has the largest percentage of female board members in the industry (four of 12 seats). Initiatives like the MGM Foundation’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference attract sellout crowds of more than 1,000 attendees.

More recently, Caesars Entertainment launched its “50/50 by 2025” campaign to achieve gender equality in its leadership ranks in the next five years. Working with the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, the company has launched a number of programs in support of this effort. Caesars’ new Equity Council, a task force including employees and external experts, is tasked with implementing unconscious bias training across management teams and conducting company-wide surveys to measure diversity and inclusion.

As Blackhurst has said, “Companies must specifically target where they want to be, measure how they’re succeeding against those targets, and build in processes to make sure their recruitment practices are giving them the most diverse pool. Then sponsorship and mentorship practices must move those (recruits) through the system, and performance evaluations must include diversity and inclusiveness criteria. What isn’t measured doesn’t count.”

Caesars’ 50/50 by 2025 campaign “measures against all levels of the organization, both horizontally and vertically,” she stresses. “It’s not just 50 percent of women in the company. We want 50 percent women at the highest levels.”

The needle is moving. “There is definitely a lot more awareness in the industry today,” says Hoffman, “but the focus is very much on representation, and pushing women into leadership.” While these efforts are meaningful, she expresses concern that they’re just “Band-Aids” and do not address root problems. “The 24/7 nature of the industry remains a challenge to advancement for many women—the way we schedule work, the expectation and pressure to be available constantly at the management level, lacking maternity and paternity policies…” The list goes on.

“These issues aren’t unique to gaming, but they are things industry leadership could work to address,” she adds. Many, including Hoffman, agree that because of its scale, its regulated nature and its historically positive relationships with host communities and legislators, the gaming industry has a unique opportunity to lead in the area of gender equality.

The impacts of GGW are felt most personally. “Finding women who are going through the same stuff…that’s why I’m passionate about this for Native American gaming, which is often geographically isolated,” says Gagnon. “I’m so appreciative of my time at Harrah’s and the people I connected with there. By virtue of GGW, we can bring a bit of that to others.”

Becker feels the change too. “It wasn’t competitive when I came up; it was just lonely,” she says. “But women have a support system now. It’s different. That’s GGW.”

As organizations like GGW gain momentum and industry giants continue to put workplace equality at the forefront of their agendas, a change is coming—slowly—for the women of gaming. And the gaming industry, with its breadth and reach, is well positioned to lead that change worldwide should it choose to “lean in.”

Keli Elkins, president of Bolster Events + Strategies, works with The Innovation Group to advance the firm’s communications and marketing efforts as well as support activities like business development and the Emerging Leaders of Gaming program. Vice President, Business Development Allison McCoy brings more than 15 years of experience in the gaming industry to The Innovation Group. Her diverse background features significant international and cross-cultural work experience that is instrumental in continuing to expand the firm’s established brand and suite of services. Marie Casias joined The Innovation Group in January 2013 with a diverse marketing background and an extensive skill set that continues to prove beneficial to the team. Facilitating the company’s marketing and administrative objectives, she aids The Innovation Group in gaining recognition and in broadening an already extensive worldwide client base.