With gambling, as in all areas, we cannot just apply what we know about men and assume it to be universal. This universalisation of the male experience as the norm for everyone has led to a historic dearth of information around women and gambling addiction, reinforcing the misconception that gambling addiction is a “man’s problem.” As such, it is vital that industry, policymakers and healthcare professionals understand the nuances of women’s experience of gambling: what leads them to gamble, what impact their addiction has on them and those around them, and what accessible and effective treatment would look like. Women are not just the “affected other” when it comes to gambling addiction: they are increasingly the addict in question, and as such, we need to put women at the centre of gambling research and policymaking.
Today’s launch of our “Safer by Design” report on tackling gambling harms is timely not only as the government are weeks away from unveiling major new gambling legislation, but in light of the wider trend of greater gambling digitalisation. The pandemic left many of us isolated, bored, anxious and more dependent on technology, which meant the industry saw an especially increased use of online gambling sites. Gambling using a mobile can present a particular risk as it is easier to hide from others and harder to escape, with phones in our backpockets serving as a constant temptation. Yet not only have traditional forms of online gambling seeped further into our private physical spaces, but with the rise of “in-game” gambling and cryptocurrency trading, gambling has entered into more of the digital world. The landscape of gambling is more blurred than ever and legislation has struggled to keep up.
While industry, policymakers and regulators face a challenge dealing with the nebulous world of online gambling, it is crucial that we recognise the additional barriers women face when seeking help for problem gambling. Women’s recovery has been impeded not just by societal stigma, but also by treatment that is inadvertently tailored towards men. Indeed, the stereotype that only men gamble is so pervasive that GamCare lists women believing treatment is only for men as one of the major obstacles to getting help.
In reality, the actual gap between the number of men and women who gamble is not that wide, with recent data finding that 41% of women and 51% of men had participated in some form of gambling in the past 4 weeks. More women are gambling, and as the charity GambleAware points out, “the number of women gambling online has risen by over 50% over the past four years” – double the growth rate of men. Their data also finds that up to one million women in the UK could be at risk of some harm as a result of problem gambling.
Some studies have noted that women’s gambling has been more social, with women preferring arcades, bingo or arcade games with friends over a solitary, strategy-focused experience. Conversely, women’s gambling addiction can also be a response to economic abuse, and this might express itself as a more private and hidden addiction, exacerbated by feelings of shame that are common in these situations. The rapid increase in online gambling over lockdown is partly linked to the fact that many women were trapped in situations of domestic abuse, while those who enjoyed gambling socially turned to online gambling sites with no friends present to moderate one another.
Research has not always recognised the full financial and emotional extent of women’s gambling addictions. As Australian research notes, studies comparing men’s and women’s experiences of gambling may have “unintentionally downplay the harms experienced by women because of males’ propensity for greater risk taking and subsequent experiences of gambling harm”. Equating financial losses with the severity of problem gambling negates the reality that women generally have less money and greater financial commitments, especially if they are a primary caregiver.
There is some evidence to suggest that women suffer a heightened emotional fallout from addiction, with women more likely to say that gambling has brought them anxiety. What is for sure is the severity of gambling addictions: the Women-only Gordon Moody centre in Wolverhampton says that over half of women who approach the centre for treatment have experienced suicidal tendencies that they have tried to act on.
Many women have cited the importance of being in recovery groups with other women, and have found it hard to find support groups dominated by men, where feeling they are the only woman to struggle worsens their isolation and shame. While GambleAware reports that the number of women seeking treatment has doubled in the past five years, two in five are unwilling to ask for help due to embarrassment. Beyond stigma, many women also cited the belief the fear of losing children or family, and the belief that their financial situation was unimportant, as barriers to getting help. What sets gambling apart from most other mental health conditions is that women face greater barriers to getting treatment.
If we are to tackle problem gambling, we need to understand the gendered barriers to treatment. Overcoming this requires a recognition both that gambling addiction is a mental health condition anyone can suffer from, and that different people need different kinds of support. As industry, charities and health professionals collaborate to minimise gambling harms, it is crucial they recognise that women form just as much a part of the gambling picture as men. Only then will everyone who needs intervention be able to start on the path of recovery.