Top women execs talk about the paths to leadership

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Women on the ILTM panel, from left: Jacqueline Gifford of Travel + Leisure, Tina Edmundson of Marriott International, Nancy Novogrod, formerly of T+L, Audrey Hendley of American Express Travel, Amina Belouizdad of the Private Suite and Valerie Wilson of Valerie Wilson Travel.
Women on the ILTM panel, from left: Jacqueline Gifford of Travel + Leisure, Tina Edmundson of Marriott International, Nancy Novogrod, formerly of T+L, Audrey Hendley of American Express Travel, Amina Belouizdad of the Private Suite and Valerie Wilson of Valerie Wilson Travel. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

While women have long been a strong force in the travel agency world, much of the rest of the travel industry is still struggling to get more females in its executive ranks.

How to achieve greater gender parity was the topic of a breakfast this week at International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) in Cannes, France, where women leaders said one way they learned to move up was by acting more like men.

"Men are really good about asking for what they want. Women are not," said Amina Belouizdad, chief commercial officer for the Private Suite, the membership-only lounge and private security-screening concept at LAX. "It's a switch that needs to be flipped."

Tina Edmundson, global brand leader and head of the luxury portfolio for Marriott International, agreed, adding that "I ask for things all the time. You have to force yourself to be uncomfortable. Because only when you are uncomfortable do you grow."

The panel, widely attended by men and women alike,  was sponsored by Travel & Leisure and American Express Travel. The panel moderator, Travel & Leisure editor in chief Jaqueline Gifford, said she asked to host the event after attending her first ILTM last year and noticing the "CEOs, the CFOs, were mostly men."

To affect parity, she said, "we need to talk about it. I just wanted to have an open, honest conversation about it with women who have made it to the top of their field."

Edmundson said one of the best ways to fix the gender gap is to hire women, "because women hire women."

At Marriott, she said, 50% of CEO Arne Sorenson's direct reports are women. Likewise, 50% of those reporting to her boss are women, and 50% of her direct reports are women.

To help nurture those women, she said, "we have to give them confidence. Give them the push, forcing them to take the risk."

Audrey Hendley, president of American Express Travel, relayed a story of being asked to head the new-business-development divisions, one of the most important jobs in the company. After being offered the promotion, she said, she began doubting if she was capable.

"I was talking myself out of it," she said, until her boss called her in and said, "We believe you can do it. Why don't you?"

"That was the kick in the pants that I needed."

Another key piece of advice from the panelists: learn to say no.

"I made a New Year's resolution one year to say no when I mean no," said Hendley.

Likewise, Edmundson said that after struggling for years with the work-family balance she made the decision to put her family first. Deciding between going to a kid's recital or business meeting "was no longer a struggle."

Another common theme among the  panelists was having strong role models.

Valerie Wilson, founder of Valerie Wilson Travel, said that she grew up on a farm in Iowa, "where I never thought about gender. I like to think I was born liberated.  My mother said you can do anything you want -- as long as you keep your grades up."

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