Comment: women are breaking barriers, slowly but surely

Alessandra Alonso, founder of Women in Travel CIC (community interest company), analyses why many women are not reaching their potential in hospitality, leisure and tourism

The report Women in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure 2020 WIH 2020 review – published on January 22 – explores “how the sector is preparing to meet the challenge set by the Hampton-Alexander Review to set 33% of its senior roles by women in 2020”.

On reading the report, a very short answer would simply be “it is not”.

But for those who, like me, have been actively advocating gender diversity for the best part of 15 years the answer is slightly more complex.

The mindset is slowly but certainly shifting. However, the practicalities of climbing the industry ladder remains challenging.

But why? The reports points to a “blokey” culture, lack of role models and poor flexibility among other things.

Those are certainly true and long-standing challenges in the industry.

To address culture, fix flexible working and provide female leadership development already means to go a long way towards addressing gender inequality.

Hard to scrutinise

In my opinion, there are other issues that have a strong impact on gender diversity and on diversity in general.

For one, the sector is heavily dominated by  family/privately owned, small and medium sized enterprises.

It is hard to scrutinise their working practices, and equally difficult to expect them to have the knowledge, tools,  resource and the interest necessary to implement “diversity best practice”.

The positive examples cited by the report are associated with large operators, fairly atypical in the sector and subject to far more stringent laws and regulations.

Secondly, and as a direct consequence, the sector is very fragmented and educating businesses on the business case for diversity is the job of not one but possibly 10 different associations.

There has not been a single call or champion for diversity in travel, leisure and hospitality businesses; many would probably want to claim the flag.

Even the diversity charter promoted by the Report Committee, however laudable, is not the first one to have been publicised within the sector.

As such, the message has been regularly diluted and possibly lost among a myriad of other agendas.

Career ladder

Thirdly, while the sector sets out to be undoubtedly attractive to women (cue that between 50% and 70% of the junior to middle workforce is indeed female) my decade-formed understanding is that as women progress up the career ladder they experience a kind of reverse of heart.

They have amazing skills but not a clear pathway to the top within most organisations; when a pathway exists, the promise of higher salary and a more  attractive work-life balance may lure them away to other, higher profile sectors, where their skills are highly coveted.

Profile and reputation also play a role in attracting the right external female candidates into companies, as the industry has for a long time been considered a sort of Cinderella by many (something I have myself experienced working in large advisory firms, where finance and technology would be the most sought-after sectors to get involved in).

Breaking barriers

So are we going to see (gender) diversity fully embedded in travel, leisure and hospitality? Younger generations of women and minorities are breaking down some barriers through greater confidence and technological advances, and Brexit is forcing businesses to rethink the way they recruit and retain talent.

Also, more affluent consumers from non-traditional countries are expecting to see their needs and requirements met by like-minded brands; and a spotlight is shining on highly successful and disruptive millennial female entrepreneurs.

Momentum is gathering and I want to be positive but I suspect that it will continue to be an evolution rather than a revolution. Don’t hold your breath for 2020!