By Elizabeth Svoboda, published on January 1, 2004 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
The face of gambling has traditionally been a male one—think Matt Damon's law-student character in Rounders, whose penchant for high-stakes poker leads to his downfall. Gambling researcher Rachel Volberg, however, is dispelling this stereotype, suggesting that slot jockeys and lotto addicts are more likely than ever before to be women.
Volberg, of Gemini Research, a firm that manages gambling studies in Northampton, Massachusetts, coordinated two surveys showing that the percentage of women in the U.S. who reported having gambled rose from 61 percent in 1975 to 83 percent in recent years. While the proportion of men who gambled also rose during this time period, the increase from 75 to 88 percent was much smaller. In the journal eGambling, Volberg argues that this rise in female gambling can be traced to the increasing availability of gaming machines in places like convenience stores and hotels. "These venues are physically and emotionally comfortable, so women are likely to feel OK engaging in gambling behaviors," she says.
Aside from the comfort factor, why would convenience gambling, which is often a take-your-chances endeavor involving scratch-off cards or lever pulls, attract women in droves? Volberg thinks sex differences provide part of the answer. "Men are attracted to games where they can measure themselves against each other, while women tend to prefer noncompetitive situations," she says. Her four-state survey of gender and gambling patterns supports this conclusion. While men are overall more likely to gamble, women now play the luck-based lotteries found in supermarkets, gas stations and elsewhere almost as often as men do. Games of skill such as poker, though, are still heavily male-dominated. Because most neuroimaging studies consider the brains of male gamblers, whether sex-based gambling preferences are biological or social in origin is yet to be determined, says Marc Potenza of Yale University's Problem Gambling Clinic. In the meantime, Volberg says her findings would seem to predict that female gamblers will turn to online gambling next because it can be done in the comfort of the home. "Internet gambling could be a serious problem for women down the line."