As women embrace gaming industry consulting roles, some biases still exist

April 2, 2022 6:10 PM
Photo: Susan Hensel with mic
  • Rege Behe, CDC Gaming Reports
April 2, 2022 6:10 PM
  • Rege Behe, CDC Gaming Reports

Susan Hensel’s credentials are impeccable.

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After Pennsylvania legalized gambling in 2004, Hensel was the first person hired to work for the Keystone state’s gaming commission. As a partner in Hensel Grad Gaming Counsel, Hensel regularly consults on issues ranging from regulatory approval to anti-money laundering practices to federal gaming law.

But there are times when Hensel feels isolated, especially at gaming industry conferences.

“I’ve often been the only woman on a panel,” Hensel says. “There is even a common term known as `manel’ for a panel that has no women.”

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Susan Hensel, Hensel Grad Gaming Counsel

Hensel is one of a relatively small group of women who work as consultants to the gaming industry. While she and her peers are often approached for insights and advice, the occasional sentiment – mostly unconscious – is that they are less competent than their male counterparts.

“I don’t think people intend to exhibit bias,” says Sara Slane, founder of Slane Advisory. “But I think it’s absolutely true that it exists.”

Women comprise approximately 51 percent of the U.S. casino workforce, according to the American Gaming Association, but few have broken the so-called glass ceiling to upper-tier management positions. Melonie Johnson at the Borgata and Jacqueline Grace at the Tropicana run casinos in Atlantic City. Allie Evangelista was recently appointed president of the new Hard Rock Casino Resort Bristol in Virginia. Amy Howe is CEO of FanDuel, and Jette Nygard-Andersen is Entain’s CEO.

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Sara Slane, Slane Advisory

Other women are emerging as leaders, but men still dominate gaming industry C-suites. And because of that imbalance, upward mobility for women can be slower.

“I think it’s important for the industry leaders to do more than just talk the talk,” Hensel says. “You can’t give a speech or recognize women on International Women’s Day and then go back to the office and continue with entrenched practices. In terms of the industry, if you’re in the C-suite and planning an event, participating on a panel, or in some other setting and there aren’t any women involved, I think you have to acknowledge that there’s a problem. And you have to be committed to doing something about it.”

After a decade of working on problem gambling initiatives for both corporate and jurisdictional organizations, Brianne Doura-Schawohl decided to start a boutique government relations and gaming consultancy in January 2022. So far, Doura-Schawohl Consulting has been a success, with clients including the states of Colorado, Michigan, and Missouri and appearances on podcasts and webcasts.

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Brianne Doura-Schawohl. Doura-Schawohl Consulting

Despite being sought by different organizations, there are times when Doura-Schawohl’s expertise is questioned.

“I do find myself hearing sexist remarks, getting dismissed education-wise,” Doura-Schawohl says, admitting she’s turned down clients who didn’t seem to recognize her abilities. “When I am confronted with these situations, these comments, I will advocate for myself and just say `I know you might think that because I’m a young woman, I may not have the expertise or the skill set.’ And then I back it up with my credentials, my experience.”

Slane’s background includes stints with MGM Resorts International and the American Gaming Association, where she played a key role in overturning the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, paving the way for legalized sports betting in the U.S. outside of Nevada. She’s also appeared on all the major broadcast networks and conducted interviews with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

Her expertise is unquestioned. But Slane admits she’s witnessed an undercurrent of bias in some segments of the gaming industry, much to its detriment.

I think any industry that wants to thrive is going benefit from a diverse set of opinions and inclusion,” Slane says. “I think, of course, if the (gaming) industry wants to continue to advance, it would be well served to promote and drive more diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

Hensel thinks that biases – unconscious or not – are the residue of behavior that has been entrenched and embedded across industries for decades. But even as studies indicate that diversity improves financial prospects, other studies reveal that in organizational cultures, “people want to be with people just like themselves,” she says.

“The problem with that is it can sometimes lead to men getting promoted and men getting mentored because men are in leadership positions,” Hensel adds. “I have to think that there are just some old habits out there.”

As the president of the advocacy group Global Gaming Women, Cassie Stratford bears witness to the advancement of – and sometimes the biases against – women in the gaming industry. Currently the senior vice president, legal operations and compliance for Boyd Gaming, Stratford thinks that the industry has done a better job of “not dismissing somebody for reasons that have nothing to do with production or work ethic.”

But she feels there’s still work to be done.

“Sometimes people have a perspective, and you can’t erase it; it doesn’t go away overnight,” Stratford says. “You can’t put up a poster as a reminder saying, make sure you don’t have a gender bias. It happens over time, and I really do think more people are paying attention to it.”

Stratford says she increasingly hears from men who want to be allies and encourage more opportunities for women but are unsure how to foster more inclusiveness. Her solution does not necessarily involve a “big, grand gesture.”

“It’s just being willing to have the conversation,” Stratford says. “And maybe it’s as simple as sitting in a meeting and realizing ‘Oh gosh, this is a room full of men, there are only one or two women in here’ and make sure women are included. It’s simple things like that, that I think can be really helpful and part of the solution.”

Slane thinks the gaming industry is ripe with opportunities for young women. If she were asked for advice, Slane would insist, “at the end of the day hard work is always rewarded.

“I’m not saying that that being a woman doesn’t come with more hurdles and more challenges,” Slane says, “but I think simply, if you understand and accept, unfortunately, that that’s the way that it is; don’t let that stand in the way of advancing your own career and your goals and your dreams. Like anything in life, there will be setbacks and challenges around being a woman. You just have to keep pushing forward, and eventually, I think this all ends up working itself out.”