Women in iGaming — Giant Steps: Diversity, Equality, Leadership, Motherhood

Welcome to the first of an occasional series focussing on the role of women leaders in the iGaming industry.

This week in an exclusive tête-a-tête our Special Correspondent Lauren Harrison meets Kirsty Caldwell, Founder and CEO of Betsmart Consulting (lead picture, right), and Helen Walton, Founder and CCO at G.Games, who are both very much at the head of their game.

Fascinating and far-ranging, the insights of Kirsty and Helen couldn’t come at a more apposite moment as the UK gambling industry prepares–some may even say, braces–for the biggest regulatory overhaul in 20-years.

Amid the immersive and ongoing pressures of political uncertainty, and, needless to say, the recent pandemic, the journey to modernise gambling regulation–and make it fit-for-purpose in the Digital Age–has been anything but smooth sailing, with fierce lobbying from stakeholders of all hues.

As members of the regulatory UK Gambling Commission’s new Industry Forum, and C-Level leaders in their own right, both Kirsty and Helen are at the leading-edge of change and renewal.

Lauren began by asking the iGaming pathfinders what are the most significant challenges and opportunities facing today’s dynamic UK gambling market?

You’ve both recently been appointed to the UKGC’s Industry Forum. Our last Gambling Act was in 2005, almost two decades ago. What are the priorities of reform?

Kirsty: “The official line around the reasons for Gambling Act reform has always been to bring the Act up to date and make it relevant for the digital age, and I think the proposed changes are in line with that.

“Of course, many of the reforms are driven by a desire to strengthen the overall player protection framework, from operator controls to responsible game design, regulator resourcing, responsible marketing and education and treatment options. I think taking a holistic approach to driving improvements is very important as, for too long, this burden has fallen on B2C operators alone.”

Helen: “I can only comment on the context I see around me. Since Covid, online play has become significantly more global, even as regulation is becoming more local. Types of play that perhaps deserve to be considered gambling have also increased: second-skin gaming, lootboxes and social game in-app purchasing. Patterns of play, audience makeup and consumer expectations are also changing.

“It is always extremely challenging for regulators to respond quickly enough to change – one reason why objective, or outcome-based regulation, is so important, rather than accidentally hard-coding specifications into law. For me, the challenge for regulators is how they make sure the regulations are specific enough to give helpful guidance but broad enough to take into account what may change. I get to work with different regulators worldwide. And I wish that more of them would work together to create regional or global standards. But perhaps I’m tilting at windmills…”

UK elections are imminent, and a radical change of government is expected. Do you think this will impact national gambling reform?

Kirsty: “I’d like to think that the reforms have come too far down the road now to be rolled back by a change of government.

“From an operator perspective, it’s become incredibly difficult to know whether policies and procedures will be considered compliant, and everyone is nervous about investing in further improvements until they understand exactly what changes are coming in.

“Really, we just need to get on with it and get some solid clarity around where the reforms are heading and more importantly, what the supporting regulatory changes are going to look like.”

Helen: “I really have no idea! I am sure that whichever party is in power, as well as caring deeply about potential public health issues, they will have a pragmatic view about the benefits of an industry that employs tens of thousands of people and raises significant revenue.”

What, in your view, are the most significant challenges, opportunities and pitfalls facing the UK gambling industry?

Kirsty: “I think one of the greatest pitfalls is continuing in this ongoing situation of uncertainty. The UK sector used to be looked at as a leading gambling market worldwide, but increasingly, the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the reforms are negatively impacting that reputation.

“One of the biggest opportunities has to be the establishment of the Industry Forum panel. To my knowledge, this is completely unprecedented, and I’m very hopeful that its work will help to bridge the gap between industry and regulator. I believe that the closer different stakeholders are able to work together, the stronger the industry will ultimately become.”

Helen: “In an ideal world, the needs and desires of consumers, the commercial interests of the industry and the protective aims of the regulator all align. We should see products that appeal to a wide range of people, offering affordable entertainment, an industry making money and able to invest in the long term, and a regulator providing a level playing field and introducing guidelines that encourage responsibility without inhibiting innovation and growth.

“In a nightmare world, these differing groups come into conflict – a regulator inhibits growth of the licensed industry, causing the industry to offer a worse deal to consumers, driving them into an unregulated black market which in turn causes increased harm, creating a more hostile environment and reactive regulation.

“Reality lies somewhere between the two. But it seems to me that the opportunities all lie in aligning interests better; while the pitfalls occur if we fail to do so. Thinking holistically about the system, staying agile enough to cope with change, whether in product, technology or behaviour, and basing our decisions on data–and not prejudice–are all part of that. The industry must stay open and honest, ready to engage and refuse to become defensive.”

Gambling is often portrayed as a negative industry. How do you respond to this assessment?

Kirsty: “I think it’s a real shame when this happens. For an overwhelming majority of people, gambling is a social activity used to wind down and relax, in a similar way as going to the cinema or going out for dinner. Of course, for some people, this isn’t the case, but you could levy the same criticisms at so many other industries that seem to avoid a lot of the bad press that the gambling sector regularly endures.

“When I’m personally confronted with a negative view of gambling, I try my best to express my perspective clearly and honestly, using the knowledge and experience I’ve gained from working in the sector for so long. Sometimes, however, it’s just not what people want to hear, in which case I keep quiet and leave them to their own opinions.”

Helen: “There’s a big dollop of snobbishness in some reactions to the industry. Many people I meet who talk about gambling turn out to enjoy playing the lottery, entering raffles and betting on the General Election. But they persuade themselves that these aren’t “real” gambling. Only the gambling activities they don’t personally enjoy are perceived negatively. These same people also enjoy a pint or a glass of wine and would be outraged if I tutted that they were ‘wasting’ money and time, or endangering their wellbeing.

“Of course, as an industry, we need to acknowledge the potential for harm and work with many different groups to mitigate or prevent it. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be apologetic about what we do.

“Millions of people enjoy buying lottery tickets, betting on the Grand National, giggling over a bingo night out, supporting their football team with a bet to win (no matter how crazy the odds!), playing a few rounds of blackjack or roulette, spinning the reels…there is nothing wrong with any of these activities which give pleasure and entertainment.

“In my view, it is the most important reason we should regulate well and effectively! We want a decent, fairplay industry that puts its players first and is committed to long-term sustainability.”

Lastly, you are both women at the top of a traditionally male-dominated industry. What have been the greatest difficulties on your professional journey? How did you overcome them? And what are the most significant issues facing women in iGaming and the wider gambling industry?

Kirsty: “Whilst the gambling sector may have been a traditionally male-dominated industry, I do think that’s changed to some degree since I began my career back in 2010. Organisations like the All-In Diversity Project have certainly helped, and having women running some of the biggest gambling companies in the world definitely gives everyone something to strive for.”

Helen: “It’s probably a sign you’ve been in the industry too long when you start all such answers by saying, ‘It’s so much better than it was!’

“When I first joined the industry, I was horrified by some of the goings-on, and said so publicly. I was uninvited from a conference for pointing out on LinkedIn that they had a pole dancer directly outside the room where they were hosting a “Lean-in promoting women in the gaming industry” panel.

“Yet, in spite of such war stories, the industry has changed. There are more women in senior positions than ever before, more female Personal Management Licence holders and increasing professionalism, which means the more obnoxious excesses are, if not gone entirely, less ubiquitous. There’s plenty still to do. I’ve always thought the gambling industry is good at social diversity, but it has a long way to go in terms of racial diversity.

“Finally, I think the gambling industry reflects the rest of our society. The motherhood penalty is very real. The toughest time in my career was when I had a baby and was trying to work and juggle what felt like impossible commitments. In many ways, it was what inspired me to start G.Games.

“My co-founders, Dan and Paul, also had young children, and we were determined to give our staff opportunities and flexibility that we hadn’t had.

“I still hear from women who are asked to give up roles or promotions because of motherhood; something unbelievably shocking (and illegal!).

“Bad behaviour should be called out, and as we rise in our careers, we should make personal commitments to ensure that the issues and pains we suffered are not repeated.”

Editor’s Note:

The last UK Gambling Act was in 2005, and it led to the biggest liberalisation of gambling in the UK to date. However, our experts say it’s now time to take a more “holistic” approach to improving player protections and providing more robust regulation that fits the Digital Age and promotes Sustainability.

One of the primary challenges in achieving this is the ability of regulators to make changes quickly. Instead of hard-coding new laws, Helen believes that gambling regulations should be flexible enough to provide helpful guidance, but broad enough to take into account future changes.

As for the Gambling Act Review, Kirsty says it is too late for a change of government to reverse the proposals. However, she also believes that the continuing uncertainty over the regulations is the biggest challenge facing the UK industry. At the same time, opportunity lies in aligning all stakeholder interests.

What do our experts think about the negative perception of the gambling industry? It’s unfair. They believe it is primarily due to a “big dollop of snobbishness,” with most people who oppose gambling playing the lottery but not recognising the similarities between this form of gambling and spinning a slot.

Finally, our experts highlighted issues of discrimination in the industry, from war stories to being uninvited to conferences and overcoming the “motherhood penalty”.

The sex split in the industry may be improving, but it’s still ongoing and there’s a long way to go, particularly in terms of racial diversity.

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