When It Comes To Gender Inclusivity, AGA Is About Less Talk And More Action

Written By Jessica Welman on March 9, 2020

The problem with events like International Women’s Day is that some of the chatter around honoring women is just that. Chatter.

As much progress as women have made over the year, oftentimes the talk of progress feels more like lip service than action.

The gaming industry gets a bad rap as a male-dominated industry. However, data from the American Gaming Association shows that 51% of the workforce are women, which is higher than the national average of 47%. As we take time to reflect on the women of our industry, we should certainly applaud the strides we have made over the years. We don’t want to be all talk and no action, though.

So, rather than just laud casinos for improving diverse hiring practices and note the uptick in female participation, let’s focus on an organization with a majority-female workforce, a group with extensive female representation in senior leadership, and let’s ask how it achieved such a staff.

AGA is 60% female, including many leadership roles

That organization is the AGA, which has spent the past year both hiring and promoting a host of women in leadership roles, including:

  • Senior Vice President of Industry Relations Allie Barth
  • Senior Director of Strategic Communications Cait DeBaun
  • Senior Director of Government Relations Jessica Feil
  • Senior Director of Events Meredith Pallante
  • Senior Director of Finance Gabrielle Voorhees

Talking with these women, it becomes clear that this team was not some sort of fluke. By creating a workplace that emphasizes teamwork, growing leaders internally, and recognizing employees with multi-faceted skill sets, the AGA became a place of smart, talented women who were eager to join and grow. Not a place where the name or the opportunity made it worth putting up with anything less.

AGA CEO Bill Miller would prefer to avoid Women’s Day press releases or proclamations about diversity. Not because these issues are not important, but rather because they are far more important than a single shout out.

“I think it should be embedded in everything we do,” Miller explained. “What I look at is, we do have an opportunity to, as the AGA, put women in positions where the rest of the industry see them and see these talented women. ”

AGA continues to practice inclusivity post-Slane and Papadopoulos

At first glance, the optics of Miller taking over the AGA as CEO in December 2018 aren’t great. He succeeded interim CEO Stacy Papadopolous, who moved on to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Moreover, in June 2019, the senior vice president of public affairs for the AGA, Sara Slane, announced she was leaving the organization to pursue other opportunities.

As the public face for the AGA in the wake of the Supreme Court sports betting decision, Slane made an impression as a knowledgable leader capable of taking on critics from the major sports leagues.

After leaving the AGA, Slane started her own firm, Slane Advisory. She continues to consult with gaming organizations and on gaming issues, particularly sports betting.

The exit of Slane and Papadopoulos, as Miller took over, might suggest an exodus of female leadership at the organization. That is far from the truth, though.

Miller has a history of working on women’s rights issues

Sure, on paper, Miller may seem a prototypical CEO. However, his background led to him prioritizing inclusivity long before he got to the AGA.

“I’ve only been in this job for 13 months now, but I’ve had a couple of previous jobs where issues of, not just diversity, but women specifically have been core to what I did every day,” Miller told PlayUSA. “I was campaign manager and chief of staff to a Republican woman member of Congress. Not only were there not very many Republican women, but there weren’t very many women in Congress.”

That woman was Constance “Connie” Morella, who represented Maryland in the US House from 1987 to 2003.

The five years Miller worked as Morella’s chief of staff left an indelible mark on Miller’s leadership style, where inclusivity is more than just a buzzword. When asked about inclusivity and gaming, Miller realizes that more than satisfying quotas, it strengthens the group to bring other voices to the table:

“…It’s a recognition that a more diverse leadership creates a better leadership because at the end of the day, whether it’s diversity from a gender perspective or other types of diversity, those are your customers, those are the people that you work with, and having better understanding, whether in the C-suite or in an association or on a board, I think makes you better and more attentive to either your membership or your customers. I think that more progressive business leaders are getting there. They’re getting there too slowly. I would say that in the gaming industry, we have a lot of work to do in that space, too.”

As AGA grows, so do the opportunities for personal growth

These women don’t have the exposure of Slane, but their resumes and skillsets speak volumes. Moreover, their visibility within the organization means people within the industry are seeing these women in action, be it at events, trade shows, or meetings. In fact, recently, some of the exits from AGA were people who left to go elsewhere within the gaming space.

What is nice for AGA employees is that leaving is not the only option for career growth. Barth, for example, started with the AGA six years ago. In January, she rose to her current SVP position.

Barth said that part of what drew her to the AGA in the first place was that it seemed like a time where the organization was growing and “reinventing” itself. That transition and the opportunities it offered appealed to her.

Sports betting and US gaming expansion create opportunities as well

Other AGA employees cited the organization’s growth and change as an appealing part of working for the association.

“Between sports and technology and the growth and focus on responsible gaming, it really was a unique opportunity to come into the association, when it truly is shaping the future of the industry,” said DeBaun. She started at AGA in June 2019, a year after the sports betting landscape in the US completely changed.

The US sports betting shake-up impacted Feil both in her previous position at Ifrah Law and her current role in the AGA Government Affairs department.

“So AGA has always had a really robust to government relations space on the federal side,” she explained. “The idea with my role is to have someone who’s focused on monitoring the state, monitoring legislation and serving as a resource for everyone for membership to work together, discuss issues that we’re seeing and better understand what’s going on in the states.”

Multiple states are either contemplating sports betting legislation or finalizing regulations in advance of launching statewide wagering. That keeps Feil quite busy, but that is an advantage to the gig and not a drawback.

“It’s great. Everybody’s really engaged with the project. Our members are obviously really engaged with the state. So I’m learning a ton from them as well.”

Women of AGA benefit from a collaborative work environment

Most employers will tell you the importance of on-the-job training and programs that help workers continue their education. What is more difficult to execute in practice, though, is creating an environment that constantly fosters learning and growth.

In some organizations, internal competitions over resources and recognition or steep hierarchies potentially create a workplace in which information gets held hostage.

There is a hierarchy in play at the AGA, but when it comes to day-to-day operations, collaboration and teamwork are necessary to get the job done.

Take how Pallante and Barth work together. Barth hired Pallante to oversee events for the AGA. While Barth is Pallante’s boss, she readily concedes that Pallante brings expertise to the organization she was lacking.

“I learn from her every day,” Barth admits. I think we’re both very eager to learn, and to grow, and to better the industry through our work and the trade association through our work.”

Pallante echoed the sentiment.

“It’s not common to hire someone to complement your experience. But that was intentionally what AGA was looking for and what Allie specifically was looking for,” she explained. “And that made me excited too. To really showcase and be a leader in events here at AGA was 100% the reason why I joined.”

If that sounds too idyllic, Barth admits that the positive working relationship she shares with Pallante is something the two need to work at actively and foster.

“It doesn’t happen without both being very open to learning, and growing, and accepting, and receiving feedback. It takes effort on both of our parts to maintain a positive working relationship.”

Women help other women feel included

Barth and Pallante put the work into their work relationship. It is an effort both are happy to exert because it improves the quality of their work and it makes the workplace a better environment to be in each day.

For Feil, who is newer to the trade association side of gaming, the efforts of her colleagues, particularly Barth, made the transition so much easier.

“It is a super collaborative environment, which I really like. Everybody’s always willing to share information, share ideas, pitch in on projects whenever there’s interest or availability,” said Feil.

DeBaun’s positive experiences with her managers inform her approach to the job. She actively tries to mentor the women and men who report to her. The support she offers is not merely out of solidarity, either. DeBaun wants to pay forward the kind of support she receives. That support stems from people believing in her abilities, not just people trying to hold up women because that is what they think they should do.

Speaking about her current manager, SVP of Strategic Communications Casey Clark, she notes that he supports her because she is talented, not just because she is a woman. The distinction makes all the difference, and it is something she hopes others can see and adopt in their workplaces.

“I think the key to success is leaders, whether they’re male or female, being as thoughtful about how they manage and mentor who they report to, to provide those opportunities to grow and learn, and that’s going to be what flips the switch.”

Inclusivity is a process, not a buzzword

It would be nice to simply flip a switch and create a level playing field for everyone in the workplace. For now, though, it is something that gets chipped away at as gaming and other industries take steps toward change.

As Miller noted, unless equality is at the center of everything you do, the progress will remain incremental.

That fundamental change in thinking may sound daunting, but it isn’t as difficult as it seems, especially during this time of rapid growth and gaming expansion.

If companies want to keep up with the rapid pace of gambling growth, they need a workforce that is agile, adaptable, and collaborative. They need to challenge and disrupt the status quo.

If gaming companies are completely rewriting the rules, now is a better opportunity than ever to approach inclusivity with a fresh set of eyes. Rather than trying to fit women into a traditionally male workplace, why not rethink how a workplace looks?

That is the lesson to learn from the AGA. It is not just about hiring more women; it is about fundamentally changing how things are done so that even more people have opportunities to succeed and thrive. The result will be more than just gender parity, too.

The result will be a better product.

**Editor’s note: This story was amended to more clearly establish that, while no longer with the AGA, Slane continues to be a voice in the gaming industry**

Jessica Welman Avatar
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Jessica Welman

Jessica Welman has worked as a tournament reporter for the World Poker Tour, co-hosted a podcast for Poker Road, and served as the managing editor for WSOP.com. A graduate of Indiana University and USC, Welman is not only a writer but also a producer. She can be found on Twitter @jesswelman.

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