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Room at the Top

The advancement of women in gaming, especially in the upper ranks, is being achieved on multiple fronts: through social pressure, corporate fiat and generational change

Room at the Top

“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did—backwards and in heels.”

That old saw, attributed to former Texas Governor Ann Richards, onetime Pennsylvania Rep. Faith Whittlesey, and Ginger herself, was more likely coined by cartoonist Bob Thaves for the comic strip Frank and Ernest.

With a single line and a few brushstrokes, Thaves summed up the age-old dance between men and women in the workplace—and the distinct challenges faced by those in heels.

The strip appeared in the 1980s, as unprecedented numbers of women stormed jobs historically held by men. From 1972 to 1985, women in management nearly doubled (though the leading jobs for women fell into predictable, traditional categories: secretary, teacher, clerk, cashier).

But that was then. It’s no longer a man’s world, on the job or elsewhere. In 2021, you’d be hard-pressed to find a large corporation that doesn’t make much of its diversity and gender-equity initiatives, and the number of women in its ranks.

How’s the gaming industry doing? Let’s look at the dance card.

Minority Report

By overall population, women outnumber men, but in workplace leadership, they’re still a minority. In 2017, gaming industry veterans Christina Thakor-Rankin and Kelly Kehn founded the All-In Diversity Project to tilt the needle toward greater inclusion for women and other underrepresented groups.

Four years in, Thakor-Rankin has seen progress.

“What’s positive is that what used to be just some companies is starting to change into many companies,” she says. “This is a huge shift psychologically, for a whole range of reasons: from changing product and customer demographics to the realization that talent and skill are not the preserve of just men. But we may need to wait a little while longer for it to translate to physical numbers of women at the top.”

And how. According to, in general, the higher you go up the career ladder, the fewer the women you’ll see. As of 2019, women made up 30 percent of corporate vice presidents, 26 percent of senior VPs and only 21 percent of CEOs.

In gaming, people like Denise Coates, the billionaire CEO of Bet365, and Jette Nygaard-Andersen, recently tapped as CEO at Entain, are breakthrough examples of women wielding incredible power and influence in the industry. “They’ve shown that women at the helm don’t only perform, they outperform their male counterparts,” says Thakor-Rankin.

According to All-In Diversity’s All-Index, which looks at how gaming jobs break down by gender, there are far more women in human resources (75 percent), and far fewer in IT (17 percent) and financial jobs that can lead to the C-suite. That’s changing, too.

“Oddly enough, the change is more geographic than anything else,” says Thakor-Rankin. “In those parts of the world where technology is a driver for national economic success—such as Eastern Europe or India—there are far more women in traditionally male tech roles.” In the U.S., with a greater emphasis on STEM education for girls and young women, the change is likely to be more organic.

Having Their Say

“If you’re hiring someone most like yourself, who makes you feel comfortable, maybe you’re not picking the right person to make it a diverse thought team.” —Holly Gagnon, Global Gaming Women, HGC Hospitality Gaming Consulting

Global Gaming Women (GGW), established in 2016, creates forums for women in business to “learn from one another, create lasting connections, and nurture emerging women leaders.”

A foundational leadership course addresses what could be considered a touchy subject, even a stereotype—the reluctance of some women to assert themselves.

A 2012 study by Brigham Young University and Princeton found that in working groups, women spoke out just two-thirds as often as men; according to study co-author Tali Mendelberg, they were “less likely to be viewed and to view themselves as influential in the group and to feel that their ‘voice is heard’” (emphasis added). In the words of BYU Magazine, in these situations, “having a seat at the table does not mean having a voice.”

Sure, the study is a decade old, but longstanding cultural roles don’t change overnight.

Holly Gagnon, owner of HGC Hospitality Gaming Consulting, is past president and CEO of Seminole Gaming, a distinguished fellow of the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a founding board member of GGW and chairwoman of its mentoring committee. She says when women participate fully in peer mentorships and the group’s Lean-In Circles, they see greater progress in their careers.

“The biggest feedback we get is the feeling of inclusion and not being alone—there’s a whole concept of being the ‘only.’ How many times has a woman in a meeting been the only woman? Lean-In Circles provide a feeling of being seen and identified—‘Here’s somebody who gets me.’ Women can talk about what they’re experiencing and see how others have navigated the same situations.”

In January, a gaming awards event came under fire when the judging panel of 52 people contained a single woman. As All-In Diversity wryly posted: “The women reading this will know what’s wrong with these pictures. And yes, it’s from 2021.”

In an attempt at damage control, the show’s organizer said, “The sad fact is there are not many women CEOs in the gaming industry’s leading companies.” He added that some women who were asked to participate declined.

Gagnon, for one, isn’t buying it. “When people say, ‘I couldn’t find a qualified woman for that panel,’ I fundamentally believe they haven’t looked hard enough—or else they have the wrong network.”

‘Tip of the Iceberg’

“Generation Z is the first fully multicultural, multi-dimensional generation. As they start to become the majority, they’ll continue to push change based on their expectations as employers, employees and consumers.” —Christina Thakor-Rankin, Co-founder, All In Diversity

Which brings us to the uncomfortable issue of tokenism. If there’s only one woman on a panel, is she a token, a standard-bearer—or a bit of both?

“The word ‘token’ is a Catch-22,” says Gagnon. “You think, it’s 2021; do we really need quotas to have the most talented people in a position? The other side of that coin is, over and over again I’ve heard from women, ‘Until I saw you in that role, I didn’t believe it was possible.’”

So, can companies address inequities in the workplace while avoiding tokenism, quotas or the perception of same? Maybe not, at least to start.

“The problem with quotas and tokens is that they focus on just one thing—the tip of the iceberg,” says Thakor-Rankin. “As one of the only women who regularly chairs events as well as taking part in panels on traditionally male subjects, I can relate entirely.

“It’s important, though, because those starting their careers need to see role models as something to aim for—in the absence of role models, the implied message is, ‘You can get so far and that’s it, so better shift sector now.’”

She agrees that the support of others in the same boat could very well be indispensable. “Sometimes this support is emotional and human—the peer group network you can sound off to, who can relate to your feelings and frustrations. Men have this, as they’re in the majority. Not so easy if you’re the only woman. Who do you go to? This can be incredibly isolating—even more so where the appointment of the female came at the expense of one of the male group’s preferred candidates.”

Joann Pierce, head of business development for iGaming platform provider GAN, spent years in the business, in roles with increasing scope and responsibility. After taking a break to raise children, she found it was an uphill battle getting back to work.

“Now I was a stay-at-home mom, the CEO of a household, competing with people who had maintained their careers and those just coming out of college,” she says. “That’s when the importance of having a strong network became very clear. As part of GGW, I could pick up the phone and have discussions about those challenges and be real about it.”

It may be that women face tougher decisions about the work-life split, particularly when it comes to motherhood. “You can’t sustain a pace that allows you to be successful if you’re falling

short on the intangibles of life,” says Pierce, who set aside inviolate “time blocks”—say, 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.—when her children were young. “I could be busy writing a report or busy chopping up bananas.

“I talk less about work-life balance and more about integration… But if you choose to be nursing a baby while you’re going for that CFO position, it can happen. Let’s start a plan to do it.”

GAN became a GGW sponsor in February, but Pierce says the company had already bought into its mission. “I haven’t seen a situation at GAN where women didn’t have the same opportunity. There are women in tech roles and in executive roles.

“There are women in project management, product development, technical, marketing and finance. I cannot honestly think of a department that’s not equally balanced, in my view.” So an alliance with GGW was a good fit, “very appealing to us in terms of the programs they offer.”

Strength in Numbers

“I don’t want to get the position because I’m a woman. It’s not about what I am but who I am. How hard I work. My integrity and loyalty.”—Joann Pierce, Director of Business Development, GAN

Sometimes change follows upheaval—as at Wynn Resorts. In 2018, in the aftermath of the sexual-harassment scandal that sent Steve Wynn packing, the company added three women directors. Now they comprise 36 percent of the board, making Wynn one of the Top 40 S&P 500 companies in terms of female board representation. And by the way, Fortune magazine just named Wynn Resorts one of the year’s “World’s Most Admired Companies.”

Other global operators, such as MGM Resorts and Caesars, have publicly declared they’re on the path to gender equality in management and the directorial ranks in the next few years.

Even without those policies, says Thakor-Rankin, things are changing, because the world itself is changing. “Companies, organizations are a reflection of society—investor, employees and customers. Generation Z is the first fully multicultural, multi-dimensional generation. Their expectations of what’s acceptable are very different to previous generations.

“They don’t believe in racial or cultural stereotypes, and they have no fear of calling out what they consider to be inappropriate. As they start to become the majority, they’ll continue to push change based on their expectations as employers, employees and consumers.”

It bears repeating that diversity is good business. “The research says a diverse organization with a diverse board performs at a more profitable, sustainable level,” says Gagnon. “I think organizations and boards are recognizing that diversity of thought leads to better outcomes.”

Awareness is pivotal at every rung of the ladder, perhaps most fundamentally in the hiring process, where unconscious bias may exclude qualified applicants.

“Sometimes a candidate may feel very comfortable to you,” says Gagnon. “That’s when you have to ask yourself. ‘Why am I comfortable? Is it because they mirror me?’ If you’re picking someone most like yourself, who makes you feel comfortable, maybe you’re not picking the right person to make it a diverse thought team. Comfort can be complacency. As Ann Simmons Nicholson on the GGW board often says, ‘If you’re uncomfortable, you’re learning.’”

Echoing Thakor-Rankin, she says, “I have the fortunate opportunity to work with men, younger men, and they don’t see gender. They see capability and effectiveness. Things are changing.”

While companies are on board with the philosophy of inclusion, advancement for women in business isn’t something to be bestowed, like a favor or a gift. It’s something to be achieved, says Pierce.“I don’t want the position because I’m a woman. I want it because I’m the right person for the job, because I earned it. It’s not about what I am, but who I am. How hard I work. My integrity and loyalty. Regardless of gender.

“I am a South Side Chicago girl. I have seen all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, go out and go after their goals. I carry that ‘just go get it’ mindset with me every day.”

Q&A: Women at Work

Wendy Montgomery, Senior Vice President of Global Brand, Marketing and Communications, IGT

When it comes to support for women, IGT took a bold step forward with its new policy to ship breast milk home for working mothers on the road. Wendy Montgomery, co-executive sponsor of WIN with IGT (the Women’s Inclusion Network), speaks about that generous program, and other ways IGT works to advance women at work.

GGB: In 2019, women made up 47 percent of the workforce but held just 21 percent of CEO positions. In other words, the higher up, the fewer women. When you look around the executive ranks at IGT, are you happy with women’s representation there?

Wendy Montgomery: Although there’s still room for progress in IGT’s upper management roles, I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made to date. We’ve increased the number of women on the executive leadership team over the last four years, and implemented processes to ensure the advancement of women throughout all verticals of the company. We’ve also invested in training that bring awareness to gender biases.

As a result, we were recognized as one of 325 companies across 50 industries around the globe for our commitment to advancing women’s equality, as part of the 2020 Bloomberg Gender Equality Index.

Studies show women fill more administrative and supporting jobs, while there are more men in operations, P&L and R&D—all of which can lead to CEO and board-level positions. Will it take another generation for those ratios to be more balanced?

IGT has women in highly visible positions throughout the company and on our board of directors. Our chief technology officer of global gaming and lottery (Rachel Barber) is a woman, who rose through the ranks from her early days of being a software engineer.

Despite these important examples, there’s a lot of room for growth, and I believe it will benefit all our stakeholders to have more women holding P&L responsibility and leading more technical functions. IGT empowers women in all roles, and encourages them to bring their best selves to work, no matter where their scope or “level” falls within the organization. I think any gaps that exist today will continue to narrow over the next few years, but I don’t believe it will require a generation.

What are women in the ranks telling you about the programs IGT now offers for women?

As co-executive sponsor of WIN with IGT, I’m able to see firsthand the impact these programs have. Last year, we piloted a global six-month mentorship opportunity. About 30 mentees were paired up with senior-level mentors, including myself. I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my career to have a several female mentors, so I jumped at the opportunity.

And as a mother to a 15-year-old son, I know how challenging it can be to juggle work and parenting. Earlier this year, IGT issued its first Parent Guide for employees in the U.S.—a project that had deep meaning to me and so many others. This guide was a direct result of employees wanting to share challenges they’ve faced as working parents and on their diverse paths to parenthood—for example, infertility, the need for miscarriage bereavement and the need to ship breast milk home while traveling.

I was so proud to see it come to fruition. Employees from all parts of the organization contributed to its success, and an equally diverse set of employees will benefit from its contents.

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