Gambling addiction's disproportionate effects on British women

  • Updated
  • By Giorgia Rose
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New research shows the number of women gambling in the UK is at an all-time high, and along with it, so is the number of women facing a gambling addiction. 

The Gambling Commission’s annual report on gambling participation for 2019 suggests that women are gambling in similar numbers to men, reporting that for the period surveyed, 30% of women had gambled in the past four weeks, compared with 36% of men.

Statistically, women are less likely than men to suffer from problem gambling habits. The NHS Health Survey 2018 determined that 0.3% of all women in England are problem gamblers, compared with 0.8% of men.

These numbers are not paralleled by the numbers seeking help. 30% of callers to the National Gambling Helpline are women – of which 59% are seeking help for another and only 41% seeking help for themselves. Gambling blocking software firm Gamban also reports that 33% of visitors to its site are women.

Marina Smith, programme manager for the women’s programme at GamCare says “based on GamCare and Gambling Commission data, we estimated that only about 1% of women that were experiencing gambling-related harm were receiving help and support.”

If only 1% of the 0.3% of women with a gambling problem are seeking help, that leaves a significant number of women who have problems going unaddressed. 

It is possible that women seek treatment outside of these charities and campaign groups, depending more on friends and family support networks. Currently, there is currently no data on this, though it is proven that those who use services such as GamStop are more likely to control harmful habits long-term.

What motivates women to gamble?

Historically, there’s been a notion that gambling is a predominantly male activity, fuelled by the fact that high street bookies are to this day still an undeniably male-dominated environment.

The growing accessibility of online gambling has been the catalyst for more and more women to try gambling, as online anonymity provides a comfortable and safe space. Currently, 70% of female gamblers use apps and websites to place bets. 

Online casinos know this and many use old school highly-gendered marketing techniques to specifically target women. While Novibet relies on images of the male gaze to attract its audience, PinkCasino targets women by using bubblegum cute branding, and HunkyBingo plays on the ‘female gaze’ by using cheesy, cheeky male models in their design. 

Bingo itself has often been a gateway for women to gamble dangerously. A game that was originally played in community halls in a social and low-stake manner has attracted a whole new audience online. 

Over recent years, nearly all online bingo providers have made the move to introduce slots games alongside their usual bingo rooms, as the quick-fire nature of the game brings in more money at a faster rate. It’s no wonder that women who initially started out playing 10p cards on Bingo sites have transitioned to higher stake, higher risk games with dangerous potential. 

The Guardian reported this year on the fact that gambling online is easy to hide; another reason women fall into harmful habits. Journalist Amelia Hill quotes an anonymous source, saying “I would never have even begun betting if I hadn’t been able to do it secretly, on my phone. I had hundreds of different online gambling accounts. When I ran out of credit on one, I’d just go to another site and open a new one. I had five credit cards, multiple loans and loads of high-interest payday loans. I was entirely enslaved by gambling.”

There is also evidence for online gambling reaching a broader scope of women, expanding across class or social divides. Liz Kater, a therapist specialising in gambling addiction and author of three books about gambling addiction among women, claims that “the middle-class professional woman that maybe never would have gone into a bingo hall or amusement arcade is now playing slots and bingo online.”

She also says women often discover online gambling by chance and that rather than being attracted by the excitement and buzz, as men often are, it is the escapism and distraction from their “overburdened lives” that more often appeals.

“When they are sitting in front of a computer screen and engaging in repetitive forms of gambling like slots or bingo, something that doesn’t require much thought, that they just switch off. It is almost like a form of meditation or mindfulness – everything for that time just stops. But then of course part of the appeal of that losing touch with reality is also part of the problem and they can very easily then lose unaffordable amounts of money.” 

Reluctance to seek help

Perhaps it is the perception that gambling is a male pursuit that heightens the shame and stigma around women seeking support for their addiction. 

“The problem underneath the problem may be different for some women than for some men,” says Ian Semel, CEO at Breakeven, a charity that provides free counselling for problem gambling. “We need to make interventions tailormade to fit women, in the same way we’d make interventions to fit anyone in society according to their unique story.”

In some, but not all, cases tailormade can mean providing women-only spaces. In this vein, GamCare has trialled a women-only online chatroom, while Karter has been running a weekly women-only group for more than 10 years. “Often the reasons for women starting gambling can lie in really sensitive stuff that they maybe don’t want to talk about in front of guys,” she says.

But Semel warns that we shouldn't take the homogenising approach that all women need the same care. “Women might be homemakers, women might be high-powered executives, women might work in normal jobs or have different sexualities.

“We just need to normalise it, make it very comfortable and find out the reasons why women aren’t presenting for treatment in the same numbers that men are.”

To do this, Smith says “it requires a systemic approach to raise awareness. We need to be raising the voices of women with lived experience and I think we need to be working with academics, looking at the research that is out there around women and gambling and making contributions to further research around the topic.

“That in turn can feed into policy and support the shaping of policy to look at responding to the needs of women.”

For a start, Semel says they could increase the presence of women in responsible gambling advertising to counter the idea that only men develop problems.

Though campaigns and support groups Safer Gambling Week, Gamble Aware, and GamStop are all gender neutral in their outreach and messaging, you more often see testimonials featuring men than women. An increase in representation could do a lot of good. 

Is anything being done?

According to Gambling Insider, the world’s first gambling addiction treatment centre for women will open in the Midlands in 2021. The new centre will offer such support in a safe environment, where 24 women will be treated on an annual basis.

In 2019 GamCare secured funds from the Tampon Tax Fund for a two-year programme aimed at improving outreach, education and awareness of gambling problems among women.

These are both positive signs that this issue is starting to receive attention. Though treating 24 women a year seems like a small feat, the benefit to the women individually will be life changing.

Why does it matter?

Ultimately, it is the moral duty of policy makers, campaign groups and all of us who care about societal wellbeing to equitably address the health, economic, and social needs of those suffering from addictions of all kinds.

You might be wondering why we’re highlighting this issue when gambling addiction statistically affects more men than women. This whole article might seem like feminist overkill or that we’re unfairly prioritising women. 

But truthfully, all individuals have intersectional identities and are thus affected by issues in intersectional ways. Depending on your class, gender, age, race, and numerous other factors, your experience of gambling addiction will vary, and it is crucial that those suffering receive treatment specific to their needs. 

Additionally, it is the responsibility of gambling providers to take precise notice of the habits of their customers in order to intervene before debts pile up. 

As always, if you are looking for advice on how to gamble safely, check out our responsible gambling hub, or our guide on how to help someone with a gambling problem or go to begambleaware.org.uk