Striking the right balance: Why diversity and inclusion is still a work in progress

Amid diversity and inclusion questions arising from recent industry event panel line-ups, EGR Intel finds out how the online gambling sector can tackle equality issues head on

With diversity and inclusion (D&I) high on the agenda, particularly in June during Pride Month, it came as a shock to most in the industry to see three consecutive occasions where media companies had fallen foul of a lack of diverse representation. On LinkedIn, there was outcry and dismay as Gambling Insider published its Global Gaming Awards judging panel of 51 males and just one female. Such was the panel’s skewed gender imbalance, the faux pas was even picked up by The Guardian, a media outlet that never passes up an opportunity to knock the industry. This blunder was followed by iGaming NEXT which sent out an email showcasing a marketing panel comprising of 12 men but no women. The final straw was an email promoting a speaker panel from SIGMA – World’s Gaming Festival featuring nine men and, again, no women.

The not-for-profit organisation All-In Diversity Project summed it up best: “The women reading this will know what’s wrong with these pictures. And yes, it’s from 2021.” While our industry has indeed made progress in gender diversity, there is clearly a lot we still need to improve on.

Kelly Kehn, co-founder of All-In Diversity Project, says in the case of Gambling Insider’s policy of using CEOs in their judging panel, “if that system continues to give you a shocking image as what we saw, then you need to change the system”. From her own experience, Kehn hosts a call for female execs in the space and has 22 on her list, comprising of CEOs or non-executive directors.

“We all want to be a better industry, but I think just believing that we have some sort of meritocracy here is rubbish.” However, she is clear that it is not just a Gambling Insider problem and that all of us have a role to play going forward to make that change.

“We can look at longevity, experience and thought leadership. There are loads of experts that might not necessarily want to get to CEO level, that may be very focused on UX, product or SEO. In essence, you have to say, ‘If it happens once, fine, but if it happens continuously, it’s the system and where are we falling down in the system?’”

Kindred Group’s head of talent development, Suzi Read, applauds All-In Diversity for helping to educate and guide the debate and even calling out inequity when it occurs. “As an industry, we need to be receptive to criticism and open and transparent about our shortcomings. We also need to accept our own responsibility and not just accept the status quo,” she remarks.

Addressing the recent issue of a lack of diverse panellists, Hero Gaming’s chief people officer, Marie Theobald, believes the responsibility is two-fold. She argues that the onus falls not just on the event organisers but also on operators to avoid putting the same C-level executives forward for speaking opportunities.

“We should also be presenting people from other levels of the organisation who are also experts in their fields but not necessarily C-level. I really believe that once we start to see that change happening, it becomes more of the norm,” she comments.

On speaking opportunities, Hero Gaming has made a change internally to ensure all requests go through one central person at the company who can liaise with the event organiser and question the diversity mix of the other participants involved.

Kehn and Theobald both agree that one remedy would be to ensure operators are offering sufficient training to employees who are keen to develop their presentation skills in order to feel more comfortable to take part in speaking opportunities.

Hero Gaming has put a particular focus on offering internal initiatives, training and information sessions to encourage staff to feel more comfortable to speak in public, says Andrea Saliba, people and culture manager at the Swedish operator. “At Hero, we have HEROTalks, which is an excellent platform for people to speak to the rest of the company about what they do or their expertise.

“There’s that barrier about confidence, but if we offer those opportunities, firstly by creating the platform, then we’re giving a wider opportunity to have more of a diverse option for panels as well,” he explains.

Hero Gaming runs a number of programmes on presentation skills and public speaking and is also keen to bring in external experts to improve the level of training even further. As Theobald points out, confidence in public speaking is not just something that should be offered to females but offered equally to its diverse workforce.

Betsson Group launched a Women in Betsson initiative to support and motivate talented staff throughout their journey

Another aspect is challenging these stereotypes head on. As Kehn highlights, she knows many white males who refuse to take part in a panel unless there is a diverse mix of participants. Hero Gaming takes a similar stance and Theobald openly tells EGR Intel that the operator would consider not working with a company that doesn’t demonstrate diverse representation. “I hope that event organisers have learned from the events that have happened. But I think we need to take a stand as well. This is where the industry needs to come together. If we don’t start taking that stand, then history will repeat itself.”

Mix it up

Taking it one step further when it comes to sponsoring events, Theobald believes there should be contractual provisions in place dependent on the diversity policies of the companies involved. “That is where I think the industry can come together because if we’re aligned as gaming companies in saying we want diversity at these events, and if we see there isn’t diversity, there’s a penalty tied to that or we have the right to pull out of that event,” she explains.

To ensure a diverse workforce, addressing conscious and unconscious bias at the recruitment stage is another important area to consider. Hero Gaming offers training on both, which has always formed part of its talent acquisition programme as well as being incorporated into the way it interviews prospective candidates.

“There’s also one person from the HR team who is always present in all the interviews. The reality is that even though managers and hiring managers are trained, it always helps to have somebody from the HR team who is looking at things more objectively and the bigger picture,” adds Theobald.

To support the industry to progress in terms of diversity, inclusion and workplace equality, All-In Diversity Project was set up in 2017 to offer tools such as data collection, benchmarking and measurements to betting and gaming companies. “That means that, like any other business strategy that you might be putting in place, if you’re going to invest money in it, the main goal for us is to take the conversation out of the social ether and onto the commercial boardroom table,” says Kehn.

“If you’re going to invest in it, you should be putting the same best practices towards it that you do any other strategy, whether it be product or human resource. So, you have to be able to measure what you’re doing,” she adds.

The project works with some of the biggest names in the industry such as Kindred Group, Entain, Betsson Group, Scientific Games, IGT and Playtech.

While the project offers training to businesses on unconscious and conscious bias, Kehn says it doesn’t make sense to run these courses until a company has a strategy in place for why D&I is commercially important. “We do a lot of, ‘Why me, why now’? Why is it relevant to a marketeer or why is it relevant to a sports trader and commercially relevant? Why is it relevant to a middle-aged white guy? Why is it relevant to a young, entry-level woman? We need everyone. This is not an HR problem. This is not a woman’s problem. This is why we need everyone.”

Kindred Group’s head of talent development Suzi Read

D&I benchmarking

The All-In Diversity Project, which also collects data on demographics as well as practice and policy within gaming companies, runs a free annual survey called the All-Index which benchmarks the D&I progress of companies in the sector.

One of the areas of focus at the moment is sports trading, which has been identified as the least diverse part of the industry, according to the survey. “It has the most weapons in its arsenal. Sport is global, it’s year-round, it’s 24/7, it’s supporting flexible working in terms of hours. Every single successful sports betting company today is very much a tech company, investing in learning and development for all their people. You don’t need a college degree,” Kehn says.

“So, all those things that we say support diversity and inclusion from all walks of life, sport has. It’s just about recognising and saying, ‘We can be better, we can manage risk better, if we build that culture’,” she adds.

In February, the All-In Diversity Project welcomed the International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) as a strategic partner. On the objectives of the collaboration, Khalid Ali, CEO of IBIA, says: “The first is to promote diversity within the betting industry; the second is to understand how the wealth inequality in women’s sports could lead to integrity concerns. By working together, we hope to tackle these issues through a series of events and studies that we have planned for the next few years.”

All-In Diversity Project’s co-founder echoes her support for raising awareness of the importance of women’s sport: “We work with a lot of sports trading teams on not just how to make their teams more diverse and inclusive, but how to bring in women’s sport as a part of your product offering and recognise that women’s football is the fastest growing sport out there and how to recognise those commercial opportunities.”

While the online gambling industry has made strides in terms of women in senior leadership positions, as evidenced by eight igaming operators in EGR’s Power 50 2020 rankings now with a woman in the top job, Kehn highlights that the issue of gender equality begins at an educational level.

“It’s about learning and development. We have to rely on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. We have to rely on their education that they’re being told about careers and making the decision. Clearly image plays into it because why would a high achiever in university want to come work for our industry? We need to fix that.”

To promote diversity, Betsson Group launched a Women in Betsson initiative to support and motivate talented staff throughout their journey. Lena Nordin, chief HR officer (CHRO) at Betsson Group, tells EGR Intel that the operator also carries out internal benchmarking to make sure equal roles are paid the same, which is also something that its head of compensation and benefits keeps a close eye on.

In addition, the operator has sponsored numerous initiatives that support women in the workplace such as the Women in Tech conference in Stockholm and the Female Engineer Network in Sweden. Nordin also highlights some of the ways in which the industry can encourage D&I and integrate it into company culture.

“Everything plays a bearing on attracting diverse talent – even the way you word the job vacancy itself. The new work-from-home hybrid model will also allow more flexibility for our Betssonites and thus making it more attractive for people who, for one reason or another, need or prefer to work from home,” she explains.

Lena Nordin, chief HR officer at Betsson Group

Kindred Group’s Read says its recruitment programmes are built on co-created bias-free leadership capabilities that have been externally verified. “Lots of organisations are building equitable processes into their talent identification frameworks but many of their leadership capabilities are outdated and can be overly masculine in their language.

“It’s not just about injecting women into the organisation but also adopting the best characteristics in all leaders regardless of gender or background. Our programmes involve a rigorous selection process which ensures only the best leaders are selected so to avoid any inadvertent positive discrimination,” she says.

In addition, Kindred Group has created a women’s network which welcomes allies. It is also taking steps in its recruitment process in terms of wording and targeting unconscious bias in the organisation.

In March, Hero Gaming employees attended an external talk by KPMG’s Micky Swindale on the business case for diversity. The main takeaways from the presentation were gender quotas and the way to write job descriptions. The talk also brought up the discussion of role models and mentorships. “When you see someone who can make it at that level, I think mentorship is something which is very important for people to grow and develop in that area,” Hero Gaming’s Saliba explains.

At the Malta-headquartered operator, there are some elements of mentorship already in place with a buddying-up system at the onboarding stage as well as a 360-learning model, which includes mentorship, coaching across the organisation plus online learning and classroom-based training options.

Similarly, Kindred Group engages in coaching and mentorship relationships at all levels of the business. “We have just been recognised as a Best Workplace for Women by Great Place to Work, so we are clearly doing something right,” Read proudly reveals.

The Stockholm-listed operator is taking a programmatic approach to its diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. Read explains: “As we already have rich data on gender, we are able to pinpoint inequity in the system along the entire employee journey and make meaningful change, but we are not stopping there. We have also been driving huge inclusion initiatives for the last 12 months for other marginalised groups and starting to build trust in the organisation and a solid framework for self-identification.”

Tech talent

For Hero Gaming, as a Swedish company and with Sweden being a strong advocator of equality, the discussion around gender diversity has been very advanced. Theobald proudly shares that the firm now has a 50:50 gender split compared to a 65:35 split in favour of men in 2018, but she acknowledges it has been a journey to get there.

“There have been a number of initiatives, specifically within tech. We had run a women in tech campaign. We also were very open when recruiting and we’re very open in getting people with different levels of education, and some with no experience in coding, for example. But with the requisite for other elements, such as personality, culture, fit, potential, academic qualifications, and so on and so forth.”

Hero Gaming’s educational journey on gender diversity has seen a shift in its operations centre which is now 55% female and 45% male. One of the changes it has made in its recruitment strategy is to shortlist candidates based on how good a person is for a role, yet also to make sure the final three shortlisted candidates are from diverse backgrounds.

In its tech office, the split is 39% female and 61% male. However, Theobald thinks this is not just a gaming industry problem and that gender bias needs to be eliminated from the early stages of education.

Through Kindred Group’s graduate programme, 35% of recruits are female and its chief experience officer Britt Boeskov is leading a steering group made up of women’s network members to keep this at the forefront of the board’s mind.

As Abby Rachel Cosgrave, founder of SafeComply Group, highlighted in a recent opinion piece for EGR, the lack of financial backing for female founders and entrepreneurs is another area that needs to be looked at. “There are some standard responses to bridge the gender diversity and inclusion gaps in any industry, the narrative here largely falls around senior women helping other women, women mentoring other women, in creating funds by women for women and while this certainly has a place, it would ignore the specifics of this industry where the vast majority of – if not all – investment comes from organisations largely ran or owned predominately by males and the vast majority of leaders are males,” she explains.

To address this imbalance, Cosgrave encourages operators and providers to create the space for employees to pitch ideas for corporate investment as well as encouraging and supporting women, who it has been claimed are less likely to put themselves forward to pitch.

In addition to that, the SafeComply Group founder urges the industry to create private or online pitch schemes to open up access for women in the gambling sector to its leading investors and entrepreneurs.

Hero Gaming has put a particular focus on offering internal initiatives, training and information sessions to encourage staff to feel more comfortable to speak in public

Minority report

Another area that still needs to be addressed is ethnic diversity, which was highlighted in All-In Diversity Project’s first Covid impact study conducted in May 2021. While the results are due to be published imminently, Kehn shares with EGR Intel that 95% of survey respondents identified as white.

“That’s a problem, I don’t care how you spin it. We’ve been working for three years really focusing on gender and look how far we’ve come. I think it’s about holding the mirror up. For sure, race and ethnicity is something that we need to address very quickly,” she admits.

One US operator that is tackling ethnic diversity head on is Penn National Gaming (PNG), which last year launched the Penn Diversity Committee to celebrate Juneteenth, now recognised as a federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the country. Since the launch of the committee, PNG has committed to increase its recruitment efforts and support of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In 2021, 20% of its leadership excellence at PNG interns attended HBCUs and the company is also strengthening its relationships with and supporting neighbouring HBCUs within the PNG properties’ regional footprint.

In March 2021, the operator also unveiled the Penn National Diversity Scholarship Programme for children of its team members. The scheme focuses on equity in higher education by providing financial support to under-represented team members and their children. This year it has handed out 58 scholarships, totalling $1.05m. In support of minority-owned businesses, PNG launched a pilot this year for the Penn Minority Business Incubator to identify potential new minority suppliers and assist them in growing their businesses.

As well as other forms of diversity, Kehn doesn’t feel that disability has come to the strategic table yet. Theobald at Hero Gaming echoes the need for disability to be brought to the forefront: “I think we need to create more awareness around making sure we are as inclusive as we can be with people with disability as certain conditions can come with difficulties in social connections as well.”

Kehn acknowledges that the industry has started to address sexual orientation, but perhaps not yet in a meaningful way. “I think Pride is an easy month to say we do think about it, but I’m not sure we’re doing it in a meaningful way in terms of practice and policy that supports same-sex families and adoptions,” she points out.

Saliba at Hero Gaming agrees that more can be done to support the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace. “I think, as an industry, what we need to aim to do is to continue offering a fair onboarding and talent acquisition process. So, then, the way that we present our roles out there, the way we write job descriptions, the tools that we use maybe to shortlist and to remove that unconscious bias, can all help to offer more equal opportunities at the application stage,” he explains.

Another overlooked area is socio-economic factors. All-In Diversity Project’s co-founder explains that while we are privileged in Europe with high-tech, high-paid work and people coming out of university to join the sector, it may not be the case in the US. “In the US there is something different right there in the local communities. You have to have land-based casinos going along with your online brands. So, we have to address local community on who’s going to be working for our businesses of the future,” Kehn highlights.

All inclusive and open to all

In celebration of Pride Month, the gambling industry has shown its support far and wide through internal initiatives and external events

  • Rank Group is ensuring its staff feel free to be who they are in a safe, open and inclusive environment through its #BeYourself programme. As part of Pride Day, the operator also partnered with Champions UK Plc and equity and belonging consultant Laïla El-Métoui to host a talk about LGBTQ+ allyship, the power of having an inclusive workplace and the steps to take to be a more active and visible ally.
  • PokerStars signed up as lead sponsor of the Isle of Man’s first Pride festival on 12 June 2021. Rabi Atiti, equality, diversity and inclusion manager at PokerStars, said: “Diversity and inclusivity is hugely important to us and as an employer we stand with everyone seeking to make the world a safer and more inclusive place, where tolerance, humanity and equity is celebrated at every opportunity.”
  • Meanwhile, DraftKings has joined Out In Tech’s Qorporate Council, the world’s largest community of LGBTQ+ tech professionals, and also supported the Sofia Pride 2021 festival in Bulgaria.
  • And Optimove is launching an inaugural online course for young adults of the LGBTQ+ community hoping to make their first steps into Israel’s high-tech scene.

Age is just a number

On the subject of age, Kehn says when the figures are broken down by gender, it is pretty close to 50:50 through every age range from 18 up to senior management level. She attributes that to igaming being a young industry and being “open to experts coming in to do their job in a meaningful way at any age”.

Betsson Group’s Nordin says age is an important diversity measure that may sometimes be neglected. “While most people working in our industry are millennials, at Betsson we do have the right mix of people from other demographic cohorts too. I really believe in a multi-generational workforce as I think it facilitates effective synergies between experienced and less experienced staff, which in the end has a positive benefit both for the company but also for the employees themselves.”

Hero Gaming offers internships in areas such as analytics, marketing and finance, but emphasises that opportunity for growth is available to employees of all ages. “Our organisation has really been built on a culture of feedback, and feedback is given equally. No matter the age, no matter the experience, we all have gaps and we all can grow,” says Hero’s chief people officer.

Kindred Group’s head of talent development agrees with her peers that the industry needs to pull together to make a change. “Employers are definitely starting to step up, but a lot still remains focused purely on gender and making little progress representing other marginalised groups,” she says.

Although Read admits there is no “silver bullet”, she stresses the importance of listening to diverse employees and building for the future. “We have to cast the net wider to engage and nurture future talent pipelines. The gambling industry has historically been very ‘close knit’, but we are starting to see more and more diverse talent coming into the industry.”

While the All-In Diversity Project still has more work to achieve, Kehn underlines the need to have a workforce that reflects the industry’s customer base or potential customers. “Once you open Pandora’s box, you can’t go back. Now we have loads of other work to do and there might be blind spots that are coming to light in terms of how we support everyone, and how companies are being better because they are addressing those blind spots.”

Equal Opportunities


Respondents to All-In Diversity Project’s Covid-19 impact study who are white, based in the UK or Europe and linked to RMG


Year by which Kindred Group wants to achieve a 50:50 gender split in its senior management team


Place Entain reached for its commitment to diversity and inclusion in The All-Index 2019


Percentage of women at exec management level at Betsson Group


William Hill’s ranking out of 850 firms in The Financial Times’ Diversity Leaders survey 2020

Various sources

All-in Diversity Project | Betsson Group | Diversity | DraftKings | Hero Gaming | Kindred Group | KPMG | Optimove | Penn National Gaming | People | PokerStars | Rank Group | SafeComply