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[Neon Eden]

Are less-than-progressive portrayals of women preventing young professional women from moving here?

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What women want? The Lingerie Bowl is cool, but do professional women take Las Vegas seriously?
Don Montague, AP

Las Vegas hosted the Lingerie Bowl during Super Bowl weekend, naturally. Following last year’s Rock ’n’ Roll Las Vegas Stiletto Dash, we have cemented our place as the premier city for athletic contests involving women who are scantily clad and/or in heels.

This fits nicely with our adult playground image. But I wonder if these less-than-progressive portrayals of women could prevent us from luring young professional women to move here, in the same way that the “What happens here” ad campaign is perfect for selling the Strip but not for marketing the rest of the city as a place for serious business or education.

This could be a big deal, because our ability to recruit educated women is crucial to our ability to diversify our economy. Women now dominate the educational ranks, comprising three out of five college students nationwide and holding a similarly dominant position in graduate programs. The Grateful Dead were right: The women are smarter.

And jokey sporting events that treat women like circus acts aren’t the only issue: There are also the billboards with nearly undressed women advertising nightclubs and strip clubs, and the explicit advertising for prostitution.

This is not to condemn what our city does best or the way people decide to make a living. It’s only to question whether we can persuade a young female medical school graduate to move here.

I talked to a number of professional women about whether this is a welcoming place. “Driving down to the Strip with young relatives and having them see ‘hot babes to your room.’ That’s not an experience I grew up with. And I’m not sure what message it sends,” said a woman with a foot in politics and business. (Several asked not to be named, which to me indicated a fear of being labeled “difficult.”)

Lynn Comella, a women’s studies professor at UNLV and Weekly contributor, downplayed this risk in an email: “There are many successful professional women in Vegas; it’s just that we don’t happen to see female professors, doctors and business owners on billboards. That’s not unique to Vegas. That’s the case everywhere.”

As you might imagine, Cara Roberts of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce wasn’t thrilled with my premise. She said young women professionals are attracted to Las Vegas for the tremendous opportunities, while acknowledging we need to tailor our message so they know they can achieve big things here.

“We need to be reaching out to college campuses, to graduate schools, and then we need to tell a good story that is comprehensive about the opportunities here.”

Our image, though, is just one of many issues—and maybe the least significant—when it comes to being a good city for young women, said the women I talked to.

National polls indicate women voters care about issues such as quality education and health care—not our strengths.

And a female partner with a major law firm said that especially before the creation of UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law, her firm had trouble recruiting young women lawyers, in part because the marriage market here is so poor, especially for women in search of a partner with a college degree. While that employment dynamic has changed during the recession, as job candidates are knocking down the doors, it may revert when the economy picks up. The partner also said she is still occasionally asked which attorney she works for, because the person assumes she’s a legal secretary.

Another potential problem, especially in our most important industry: Male-dominated executive suites among gaming companies. Women have made great strides and begun to break into the executive ranks at big casino companies, but there are only five women total on the boards of MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts. (Obviously this is true across many industries.)

A female executive at a major company told me she believes her talents are valued, but added, “It’s still very male-dominated.”

We have a female mayor, as well as a female chair of the Clark County Commission, but Erin Bilbray-Kohn, a political consultant, still detects an old-boys club here, and I agree. “The fat boys,” a woman lobbyist once called the coterie of powerful lobbyists who run the Legislature.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at patrick.coolican@lasvegassun.com. His Neon Eden radio show airs Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on 91.5 FM.
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