This article was originally published in VRMA’s Arrival Magazine – October 2019
Women and the Hospitality Industry
Women are the dominant workers, sellers and consumers of the travel and hospitality industry. Fact. According to Travel Weekly USA, 60-65% of the workforce in hospitality are women, 72% of travel agents in the United States are women and it is estimated that 70% of all travel purchase decisions are made by women.
Unfortunately, we don’t have specific figures for the vacation rental industry – but I’d feel fairly confident in saying that the majority of the on-the-ground workers in marketing, sales, operations and customer services are women. Many property management businesses have been founded and are run by women too. The decisions to make a booking of a vacation rental is likely also to be heavily weighted toward females.
Travel and hospitality is perhaps an ideal match for a female workforce. Offering flexible working environments, lower barriers to entry and leaning on the customer-centric and caretaking skills that many women excel at, hospitality is a good fit. Perhaps more controversially the lower pay that is traditionally associated with the travel industry also may have something to do with it.
However, the proportional majority of women working in the travel industry decreases as you rise up through the ranks of business. Essentially, the higher and more senior you go, the less women are visible. Of course this is not a phenomena just indicative of travel and hospitality. It is an issue that crosses all industries. In fact, the World Economic Forum states that only 10% of CEOs are women, and that women make up about 15% of the senior management team within industry.
There are, of course, notable exceptions of women leaders; but we are not looking at exceptions, we are looking at the norm.
What’s the Business Case for Women Leaders?
So what’s actually the problem with women having low visibility in leadership roles in a business or industry? According to a 2017 McKinsey and Lean In study, “When only one person in 10 in senior leadership is a woman, nearly half of men and a third of women think that’s enough to be “gender diverse.” Really? When you really take a look at this statement and let it sink in, it seems crazy that we are in 2019 and it is deemed ‘reasonable’ for women to have only a 10% representation at senior level.
Not only is it a moral imperative for industry (including our own) to take very seriously gender diversity in leadership roles, it also makes very good business sense. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, having women in leadership positions is associated with better team dynamics, stronger financial performance and greater productivity.
And a further study, “Women Matter: The business and economic case for gender diversity” by McKinsey & Co., reveals that companies with strong female representation on executive committees perform better than those without women in the C-suite.
Bottom line. Businesses execute better financially (and in other aspects) when there is a more gender balanced board and senior executive team.
A Strong Case for Strategic (Soft) Skills
There is a rising movement that suggests that we should no longer refer to the skills that are traditionally associated as being female attributes as soft. These skills – the ones that deal with emotional intelligence, creativity and problem solving (juggling?) among others – are better described as being strategic skills. Words really are important, and referring to something as soft can be seen as dismissive. Referring to something as strategic; less so.
These skills are really not to be dismissed as relevant for business either. According to the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs Report 2018,” by 2020 the most needed skills in business will be emotional intelligence, people management, complex problem-solving and critical thinking – skills frequently attributed to women.
Other elements that female leaders bring to the board room and C-suite include a willingness to take risks, persistence after failure and an ability to go deep on big topics. (Kavitha Pravaker, Deloitte 2018). In a world that is moving more and more closer to automation, these also are the skills and attributes that makes sure humans are different from machines.
What’s the Root of the Problem?
So, if there is a clear business case for increasing gender diversity in leadership roles, and there is also a moral imperative for this, what then is the real issue? Why are more women not traveling up the ranks of the hospitality industry and taking on leadership roles? What are the core barriers to entry and progress?
There are two base entry points. First is in the hiring of women, and the second is in the promoting of women. As travel and hospitality is a female dominated industry, then it would look like the hiring part of the equation isn’t an issue. However, we do need to take into account the fact that travel is also very bottom-heavy. As a generality, a large part of the workforce is low paid and low skilled and this is often the entry point for women. This is also a place that is difficult from which to rise.
The other driver impacting women in business are opportunities for promotion. Are organizations looking at developing programs that actively promote women? For women to rise the ranks, then actual programs and plans need to be put in place to encourage and support the achievement of this.
According to Michelle Lee, founder of the organization Women in Travel (Winit), several factors appear to have been holding women back from the top spots in travel – ranging from culturally ingrained gender dynamics to the challenges of balancing work and family life. She also states that one of the issues around promotion is that women tend not to be as forward with self-promotion as their male counterparts and therefore don’t actively ask for promotions. (Travel Weekly, 2016).
The World Economic Forum also noted issues with work/life balance and women’s confidence and aspirations as barriers to promoting women. Other areas of friction included unconscious bias among managers, lack of female role models and a lack of qualified incoming talent.
How Do We Impact Change?
According to PhocusWright’s Gender Study that was completed in 2018, when respondents were asked the question “What are the biggest obstacles that people in the travel industry must overcome to rise to leadership positions?,” the number one issue (76%) that respondents noted as being an issue was the absence of a plan (leadership track) to cultivate talent. Second was management bias (52%) and third, lack of sufficient management training (50%).
In theory, two out of three of these obstacles could be easily solved by incorporating mentorship and leadership development programs in an organization, and understanding that gender equity (as well as all other diversity and inclusion strategies) need to be planned for and built into the very fabric of the mission, vision, values and roadmap of an organization in order for them to succeed.
VRMA and Gender Equity
So what is the VRMA doing for women and leadership? It’s always interesting to see if there is a disparity between what an organization says and what it actually does. On ‘putting its money where its mouth is,’ VRMA is doing far better than many other leading travel organizations. Women make up 40% of the Executive Committee including the president being a woman. It’s also worth noting that of the last five presidents, three of them (including the incumbent) have been women. Including the executive team, the VRMA Board is made up of 39 percent women. All are leaders in the vacation rental field.
I wish we knew if this figure reflected actual membership, but I suspect it’s not far off. However, sometimes the large conferences can make it appear as if men of a certain age and background run the vacation rental industry – especially if you were to look at the plenary speaker sessions – but this is something that VRMA is working on to improve. It does frustrate me, but there are likely a couple of reasons for this oversight. Unconscious bias toward picking male speakers and moderators will be one factor. However, it is also true that a much smaller number of women compared to men put themselves forward for moderating, speaking or being a panelist.
Let’s change this!