Time for change: Jan Jones Blackhurst on gaming’s fight for gender equality

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CasinoBeats talks exclusively to Jan Jones Blackhurst, former Las Vegas mayor and now EVP for public policy and corporate responsibility at Caesars Entertainment, about the gender equality issues facing the sector

AT ICE Totally Gaming in London in February, the customary practice of using near-naked young women to draw and drive visitors to exhibitor stands became headline news in the UK and beyond.

Mail Online, the busiest newspaper website in the world, roared: “Watchdog threatens to boycott event after delegates are caught ogling pole dancers, cheerleaders and Bavarian maids.”

It continued: “Gyrating around a pole in black bondage lingerie, a dancer performs for delegates as free booze flows at the gambling industry’s flagship conference.”

There was more of the same from the Independent, The Sun and Guardian, the latter observing “guests being entertained by pole dancers”. The UK press, as elsewhere, is prone to hyperbole and sensationalism and, while it is a fact that very few exhibitors were responsible for the behaviour in question, the reality is that the newspaper allegations in this case happened to be true.

The incidences of young women – and occasionally men – being asked to walk the floor in a state of near-nakedness have been falling at gaming events on the whole but not to the extent that it can be dismissed as an anomaly, or a rarity.

Sex sells and a number of exhibitors continue to use exposed flesh to draw traffic to their displays. Some even going so far as asking the women to perform dances or, in one instance, as reported, pole dancing.

The issue is made ever more complex by the fact the promo staff in question were seemingly not coerced, were evidently well paid and were not asked to do anything that would be considered illegal in an adult-only environment such as ICE.

But times are changing. In a post-Weinstein era, the depiction and perception of women in entertainment is under the spotlight like never before. Are these young women vulnerable? Are they being exploited? How does it make the women working in the sector feel, to have their male colleagues filling their smartphones with footage of pole-dancing girls in lingerie? What does it say about the attitude of men in gaming to the women around them?

It is a complex issue. There are some simple facts, of course, and some clear opportunities for improvement. To help unpick some of the issues and challenges that will help gaming’s redemption, CasinoBeats is talking to a number of high-profile individuals from the sector.

Jan Jones Blackhurst is a former two-term mayor of Las Vegas and the first woman to have held that office. Jones Blackhurst is now a senior figure at Caesars Entertainment, charged with a government liaison role and part of the gaming giant’s senior leadership team.

What did you make of the use of near-naked women in promotions at ICE?

“It is unfortunate that at an important international event such as ICE, where companies showcase the best and the latest technology available to entertain guests, certain companies felt it necessary to draw attention to their product in the manner that they did.

“I actually believe that featuring the scantily-clad women dancing and entertaining took away from the products they were offering and, in this day and age, showed their lack of understanding of their potential target audiences. 

“In the US more than 50 per cent of slot players are women, and I would think they would take offence…”

“In the US, for example, more than 50 per cent of our slot-machine players are women, and I would think they would take offence to certain displays at the event. There is a difference between hiring attractive people to stand at your booth or area in order to draw attendees over, and hiring women who are wearing minimal clothing in order to draw over a limited demographic of men.  

“In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were certain men who were offended by the pole dancing or the body art but would not dare to saying anything to their peers.”

And how helpful were comments on the matter from the Gambling Commission’s outgoing CEO Sarah Harrison in which she inferred the UK regulator could boycott ICE if standards don’t improve?

“I think it is important for the industry to understand the expectations of their regulators, and Sarah Harrison made her position very clear. As she stated, there are many talented women in the gaming industry in the UK and abroad, and presenting women in that manner did not reflect how far the industry has come.   

“I don’t believe there’s an issue with engaging attractive people to draw attendees but there’s no need to dress them or present them the way they did at ICE

“Again, I don’t believe there is an issue with engaging attractive people to draw attendees to your area, but there is no need to dress them or present them the way they did at ICE.

“I would like to think that the warning sent from the Gambling Commission at ICE will send a message to certain companies that they have crossed a line from tasteful marketing efforts to unnecessarily sexual marketing.”

So do you think companies using these marketing techniques are perhaps unable to rely on the quality of their products for market appeal?

“I really can’t speak for those companies but I think that they could be certainly be more creative in the way they market and avoid this objectification of women in the process.”

There is no suggestion these women were treated unfairly, coerced or underpaid. Some observers say this makes it acceptable for companies to use models in underwear to promote their products – and ICE is an over-18s event in any case. What harm is being done?

“I am happy to hear that they were generally not treated unfairly, however, I think that it is a known fact that when you present models who are scantily clad, and attendees are able to make physical contact with them, the models are put into an uncomfortable situation that should have been avoided in the first place.  

“…the industry should not be putting any women into this situation. our industry is better than this

“Again, the industry should not be putting any women into this situation. I just think our industry is better than this – that there have to be more creative ways to draw attendees to a particular display or product.”

Groups of men can be seen filming or being photographed with barely dressed PR girls while a number of games characters play on tired female stereotypes – how does this affect the attitude of, and opportunities for, the many women working in the gaming sector?

“Over the past few years, we have continued to see a growing number of successful women take leadership roles in the gaming industry. It is about time that they receive the respect they deserve and that they have a seat at the table, making important decisions about the future of gaming.  

“At Caesars Entertainment, we have launched a gender equality initiative, called 50/50 by 2025, in our effort to increase the number of women in management levels and above to 50/50 by the year 2025. We want women at our company to know they are valued and respected for their thoughts, ideas and innovations.  

 “I cannot imagine how the industry’s female leaders and attendees felt when they heard about these displays or when they walked past”

“In contrast to that, I cannot imagine how the industry’s female leaders and attendees felt when they heard about these displays or when they walked past them, particularly if they were in attendance with their male peers. It just continues to reinforce the objectification of women and sets us back.

“Certain games have and will continue to play on female stereotypes and they unfortunately won’t start to fade away until a time when the demographic of customers that wants to play those games decreases.”   

Some of these promo girls – many of whom are professional dancers and models – will say that they are more than happy to do this kind of work and that fewer such girls on stands at ICE means less income for them. What do you say to those women?

“As I said before, I think that hiring attractive people to draw attention to your products is a form of marketing and should be acceptable.

“However, it does not mean that they have to be subjected to wearing almost nothing but body paint or a skimpy outfit or that they would be expected to pose for pictures with attendees.  

“Our industry is better than that.”

So how can we move forward? It’s hard for organisers to police things done in bad taste when no laws are being broken – so where does the lead come from?  

“Kate Chambers, the managing director of Clarion Gaming, announced on February 12 that she wants to work with the industry to identify ways to raise the standards at future gaming shows, encouraging the respectful representation of women and the removal of stereotypes.  

“I am hopeful that the industry will hear the warning of the Gambling Commission and change its marketing methods going forward. It is time for this change.”

Jan Jones Blackhurst was talking to Stewart Darkin