Women in leadership: A win for tribal gaming

April 29, 2019

Sheila Morago, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, presents a panel of tribal gaming execs about the example tribal operators have set for women in gaming
Those of us who make our careers in tribal gaming in the US are often asked about the differences between commercial gaming enterprises and those belonging to tribes. One of the most striking, and forward-thinking differences, historically and currently, is the role of women as leaders in tribal gaming, and the absence of gender-based biases, including salary or wage bias, in our industry. Throughout my 30+ year career, I’ve watched women’s careers rise alongside men’s. The person who can do the job is the person who is paid to do the job, based on skills and qualifications, without regard to gender. In Oklahoma, the third largest gaming market in the US, women are often seated at the head of the table.

In recognition of Women’s History Month, I recently asked four outstanding executives to weigh in on the topic of gender parity in tribal gaming: Janie Dillard, Senior Executive Officer, Commerce Division, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma; Christian Fenner, Director of Accounting, Choctaw Nation; Kelly Myers, Licensing & Compliance Manager at Cherokee Nation Gaming Commission and Gaming Commission Chairperson for the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma; and Pam Shaw, CEO, Kaw Gaming, Inc.

Their careers and experiences are varied, and together they are some of the brightest minds in tribal gaming. Here’s what they had to say:

Is there wage discrimination based on gender within your tribe or organization?

PS: That is a big no at our casino. I would never allow this to happen or continue if it was happening before I had the ability to encourage change.

JD: The Choctaw Nation appreciates the talents of all genders and is very fair in its practices. We are so different from other corporations in that way. Our Chief respects men and women, and Choctaw women have historically been very strong voices and leaders. Fifty percent of our senior executive officers are women, and half of our executive directors are women as well. We don’t treat people any different if they are men or women.

CF: There is no gender discrimination within the Choctaw Nation. We are very fortunate in that it’s about your contribution to the tribe - not about who’s a man and who’s a woman. It’s all based on expertise.

KM: Gender discrimination may happen in some places, but I personally have never experienced it. My career path has not been affected at all. This industry brought me to a career path that has been so exhilarating and I’ve had so many tremendous opportunities.

How do you think having women in leadership roles helps a tribal gaming organization?

CF: A woman brings a balanced perspective. She may be the calming influence. I’m not saying that men don’t have vision, but women have a better ability to see the future. Women are visionary, and can keep things moving, maintain the momentum. Women are collaborative and are not in it for the glory. They’re in it for doing the greatest good and making the biggest positive impact.

KM: We are nurturers. We’re enforcers and we are organized. We can focus on all of the small details and never forget the bigger picture, because we care. Women gather information and then we are not afraid to make decisions because we have done the research. Women offer emotional intelligence, and are interested in understanding how a decision will impact every person involved. Women are doers.

PS: Everyone knows our typical player is a female over 50 or so, right? We have great insight into how our typical players think and what they want. Women also have a built-in capacity to be caregivers, survivors, nurturers and have juggled lives as a working mother and served as CEO of their families. We were born with certain instincts that not all men have; and by the way, we can still be tough when needed, in heels with a baby on our hip. Is that an advantage or disadvantage? It depends on who you ask, I suppose, but I do feel women leaders have inherent characteristics that can make us great. I’m not minimizing the fact there are so many exceptional men in leadership roles, but I want women to understand there is a reason why we are equipped to lead.

JD: Women in leadership bring empathy, better organization, a team approach and style to their roles. Women naturally foster relationships, and frankly, women get things done. There’s no more certain way to see something get done than to tell a woman she can’t. Women can look at the big picture, and evaluate how each part of that picture will affect the other parts.

Do you mentor any junior staff?

PS: Any chance I get. I am often struck by how many younger females do not realize that what they have to say is important. It took me far too long as a young woman in business to find my voice. There are situations that have happened over the years, not just in gaming, that I would never put up with now. If you want to move up the proverbial ladder, male or female, let me tell you what I have learned over the years. I think it is important in Oklahoma Indian gaming that young women coming up see leaders that look like them. I am proud to see native women taking on more and more leadership roles.

KM: I am not formally mentoring specific women right now, but I am informally mentoring many. I love to see people succeed, and I love finding ways to support other people and help them grow. My direct boss of ten years, Jamie Hummingbird, has led by example and has done these things for me. He is male, but he has had the biggest impact and has been the best support to me. His ability to ask me what I want to do in my career and then support that 100% enables me to do the same for other people. I remember one review, where he’s asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to become more involved with associations and build my confidence in public speaking, which are now areas I can help people with.

JD: I mentor people every day. It’s very important to me to help young women grow and develop. I want to see them succeed. Women are trailblazers. For me, I’ve always known that I wanted to serve others and to serve the tribe. I make sure to try to set an example in everything I do. My mother taught me to work hard, and to always dress for success. These are things I try to ingrain in others. In my hometown, Boswell, Oklahoma, I have set up a scholarship for women through the Choctaw Nation. I want women to know that they can do anything: Be educated, follow a dream and succeed in a career. Sometimes in a small town, women might think there are limits to what they can become and I want to remove those limits.

CF: I do. I’ve been fortunate to have been surrounded in my career by strong women leaders like Janie, and I try to do what they did; make other women feel safe, strong and empowered. I want to encourage people to grow and I think the corporate world may be missing that. The Choctaw Nation is big on succession planning, so I want to give as much as I can to the women who will follow me. My style is to transfer my knowledge and as much of the back-story as I can. I want to make sure they understand the ‘why’ behind decisions we’ve made. It will help everyone if I do everything I can to make other people stronger.

Who are some of your role models?

PS: Most of my role models in gaming are male. There are a few folks I worked with early in my career that gave me a chance and saw something that maybe I didn’t even see. There are so many talented gaming executives in Oklahoma Indian gaming. Of course, for women in gaming operations, you have to mention Janie Dillard and others like her that paved the way. Every day, I learn something from someone, from front-line employees on up. Sometimes it is about how to act and sometimes it is about how not to act. You learn so many lessons from so many places.

JD: My parents. I get my strength and my work ethic from my mother. She is so strong. She is the one who got up every day, dressed for success and went to work. My father was a trader and loved people. I get my love of people from him. They have been my biggest role models. I also had many teachers who set such excellent examples and who really took me under their wings. One English teacher in particular was incredible to me. When I graduated, she gave me a Hereford cow to help me get a start. She told me that I could start a little herd and then I’d have a beginning. I’ve also always admired Jackie Kennedy for her style, her poise and the mark she made. I want to leave something when I go. I want to leave my tribe better as a result of me having been part of it.

CF: I have been fortunate in my career to have Janie Dillard as a role model. She taught me to stay true to myself and to never be afraid. Another would be Tammye Gwin. My first bosses really took me under their wings and taught me to be the person that I am today. The Choctaw Nation is also fortunate in that its leadership has been very stable for a very long time. We have a clear direction and we can keep our momentum moving because our leadership is so consistent.

KM: My role models are Jamie, my boss and the three women directors in my department - and my mom. I am so blessed to have a strong mom and dad. They are such huge supporters. I’m a single mom and my job requires travel. They help me so much, always. My parents founded a business. My mother was the first in her family to go to college, which she did when I was about seven years old. I use her guidance every single day.

These women have come from different backgrounds, at different points in the history of tribal gaming in Oklahoma. This near-absolute philosophy of gender parity may not be unique to tribal gaming, but it’s a standard that many industries are still striving to meet. Tribal women are big-picture thinkers. We call it ‘seven generation thinking.’ In making a decision, we opt for the choice that brings our grandchildren the greatest benefit, even if it may cost us more in this moment. We play a very long game, and that mindset is one of our greatest strengths.

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