Opening the door for everyone: Reducing gender inequality in hospitality leadership

By: Katelyn Godoy
Photo of a woman business executive

Who do you see when you imagine a leader? If you’re like most people, you likely picture a man almost instinctively.

“Even in my Women in Leadership class, I’ll ask people to imagine a leader in their head and 90 percent of them think of a man,” says Susan Fleming, senior lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration. That’s because, according to Fleming, there is both unconscious and conscious bias favoring male leaders in many industries. And although a growing number of companies are committing to gender equality, progress has been slow.

Despite earning more college degrees than men for 30 years and counting, women remain underrepresented at every level of corporate America. As a result, only one in five C-suite leaders is a woman, and fewer than one in 30 is a woman of color, according to a study by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey.

Upon first glance, it appears that women in the hospitality industry fare slightly better. The Women in Hospitality, Travel, and Leisure 2020 report found that women make up 25.5 percent of senior managers across the sector and occupy 28 percent of seats on the boards of organizations included in the study. However, once HR roles are excluded, the number of women in wider business leadership roles falls to just 20 percent.

What can be done to reduce gender inequality in the hospitality industry? Fleming, who has more than 25 years of experience in corporate finance and a PhD focused on explaining the dearth of women in leadership, discusses why the hospitality industry can’t afford not to increase the number of women leaders, and what women can do to take matters into their own hands.

The business case for gender diversity has never been stronger

Mounting research indicates that when women occupy senior leadership roles, their organizations benefit in important ways. Greater gender diversity at the top has been linked with both profitability and value creation. McKinsey’s 2017 study on gender diversity revealed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the 4th quartile, and they also had a 27 percent likelihood of outperforming fourth-quartile peers on longer-term value creation.

In the hospitality industry, women constitute more than half of the students in many programs and occupy more than half of professional entry-level positions, yet their representation dwindles to around 20 percent at the executive level. “If you have more women, it drives a culture that values diversity, which actually allows for better recruiting,” says Fleming. The presence of female leaders attracts a larger proportion of women applicants, and thus, creates a trickle down effect at lower levels. Younger professionals then have women leaders to mentor and inspire them.

In an industry like hospitality, where women also make up a significant portion of the customer base, the benefits of employing more women in senior-level positions extend to the customer as well. “Women want to see more women serving them and designing products for them,” says Fleming. It’s not that men can’t perform this function, she says, but rather, “there’s a whole perspective that’s missing when you don’t have women represented at the top.”

Women looking to advance in hospitality face unique barriers

Gender stereotypes, bias, and a lack of female role models are a few of the barriers facing women in all industries looking to reach the next level in their careers. “Women are often the only one in the room, and when a woman is a token or significantly in the minority, that brings out a lot of gender stereotypes,” says Fleming. “It also increases the scrutiny and the pressure on that woman in terms of her performance.”

In the hospitality industry specifically, the nature of the work and its requirements place a strain on women trying to balance a career and a family. It’s not uncommon for hospitality professionals to be required to be physically onsite at a hotel property late at night or early in the morning, says Fleming, which can be difficult for women who have families. Irregular work hours and frequent requirements for travel or relocation add to the stress of women who are often expected to be the primary caregivers in their families.

There are certain skills and strategies that can help women navigate their way to the top

It’s up to men, women, and organizations to work together to create a more inclusive working environment. Fleming teaches a new course called Women in Hospitality Leadership: Navigating the Labyrinth to the Top for women looking to advance in their careers as part of the Hotel School’s executive education Professional Development Program (PDP). She says we must “educate people about bias and stereotypes, so that they go in empowered and armed with how to manage perceptions of themselves, and organizational leaders—men and women—about how to change those gender roles and stereotypes.”

Fleming’s course draws heavily from research and offers women practical strategies they can use to overcome bias and realize their full career potential. The goal is to educate women in the industry about the barriers they face, reinterpret their experiences, and then give them the tools they need to navigate around them. One way women can do this is by developing and maintaining mentoring and sponsorship networks to increase influence and opportunities.

“A sponsor is an organizational leader, both in or outside the organization, who will proactively go out on a limb and use their political capital to help you get opportunities and promotions,” says Fleming. “Women need that more because they lack credibility due to existing biases; unfortunately, women typically have fewer sponsors than men.”

Other topics of discussion include effective negotiation strategies and how women can lead authentically and with executive presence. ”Women don’t negotiate on their own behalf as much as men because they receive backlash if they’re too aggressive or too self-promoting,” says Fleming. To combat this, she teaches women core negotiation strategies, as well as how to carefully maneuver around gender biases in a way that gets them where they want to go.

While the case for gender equality has been proven time and again, it’s clear that many companies still struggle to advance women at the same rate as men. By educating women about when and why gender matters in organizational advancement, Fleming seeks to empower women in hospitality to reach their fullest potential despite the barriers they face.

“If companies are serious about advancing women, they should send women to this course,” says Fleming.

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