Women in hospitality management: The gender gap is wide

Photo Credit: Huza/Shutterstock

In London, the luxury Dukes hotel has a "Duchess" floor for women only, one on which the decorations and amenities are more feminine and the only attendants are female.

It's a concept that's been tried occasionally over the years with varied outcomes. But at the Dukes, in the heart of London's financial district, the rare offering has been a hit with female business travelers looking for a respite from days spent in male-dominated industries.

The success of the Duchess floor might well be attributed to the fact that the hotel executive behind it, Dukes Collection managing director Debrah Dhugga, is herself a bit of a rarity: a female in the top echelons of another largely male-dominated world, hospitality, where the decor and amenities in traditional rooms often attest to the lack of gender diversity in top management and decision-making roles.

Lalia Rach
Lalia Rach

"It's a very white, male industry," said Lalia Rach, an industry consultant and former dean at New York University's Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. "Is it changing? Yes. But it is changing glacially. The sea of change is far too slow."

Globally, the lack of women in top hospitality management roles has lagged not only that of the rest of the travel industry but much of the business world, save for maybe Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

It's an issue that many hospitality companies still don't like to talk about, but it's clearly on their minds.

"Is it changing? Yes. But it is changing glacially. The sea of change is far too slow." — Lalia Rach

At December's International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) in Cannes, France, for example, on at least two occasions, luxury hotel executives preparing to give briefings in the press center turned to introduce their attending lineup of all-male general managers only to hesitate, then make an uncomfortable joke about the obvious need for diversity.

Indeed, a new report from the nonprofit Castell Project and the American Hospitality & Lodging Association's Women in Lodging forum revealed that despite the industry's dependence on women for many lower-level jobs, women in 2016 held just 5% of CEO positions at U.S. hotel companies, the same as in 2012. At the same time, the study revealed that women comprised 9% of U.S. hotel company presidents in 2016, up from just 8% in 2012.

The report lists cultural bias among the factors generating the wide gender gap, which experts and insiders attribute to hospitality being a very old industry with long-standing traditions and generational issues that in many instances are just now being addressed to promote more diversity.

Rach said that those numbers don't mean the hospitality industry is hostile. "It means you have a very old concept that is so embedded that it takes effort, it takes activity, it takes time to change things."

Debrah Dhugga
Debrah Dhugga

Dhugga, who said she is the only woman at the general manager or higher level at a London luxury hotel, agreed.

"It's very traditional," she said. "I think it goes back to the old days where it was always male-dominated. When you think of old pubs and hotels and the main master keeper of the keys, I think, it just goes back. Equality in the industry is still an issue, without a doubt. It's getting better, but there's a lot of development that still needs to happen."

Tradition slows change

Bjorn Hanson, Rach's successor at NYU, said that two areas where the gender gap remains especially apparent in the hospitality sector are luxury and finance. The lack of gender diversity is particularly acute among luxury general managers, he said, for several reasons that "may be good or not."

"The traditional luxury hotel manager started in operations and worked his way up the ranks," Hanson said. "All of those different positions probably involved moving from hotel to hotel. So there is more relocation for luxury, and that may be more of an issue for women than for men. Then, to get the GM job is typically a promotion that involves another relocation.

"Luxury hotels also have more food and beverage events, more VIP issues to deal with and, therefore, the GMs have worked much longer hours than [in other sectors]. Again, that's an issue that may be less favorable for women than for men."

Jane Lyons
Jane Lyons

It was for those very reasons that Jane Lyons, now a mother of twins and general manager of the new Hilton Curio in Sydney, said she initially shied away from attempts years ago by her former employer, Starwood, to put her on the "high potential" general manager path.

"The GM I had at the time was a father of four," she said. "He said, 'Jane, are you ready to have a family tomorrow? Why would you not take opportunities on your career path? Don't worry about what might happen.' So he was super encouraging. I look back and think that was a turning point."

Now that she has kids, Lyons said, she is fortunate to have a stay-at-home husband to help her juggle her job and twin toddlers.

But in her new role at Hilton, she said, there is also a strong focus on creating an environment of balance and family-friendly flexibility.

"I have been encouraged to work from home," she said. "I have been asked to do that from time to time to set the path for my team, to let them know it's OK to work from home so they can do what they've got to do."

Hilton and Marriott excel

Several luxury hotel companies, including those with the all-male lineups at ILTM, declined to be interviewed for this report. However, others were eager to discuss the progress they have made and continue to make. Among the latter group were Marriott and Hilton, which were among five hotel companies on Fortune magazine's 2017 list of "100 Best Workplaces for Women." (Kimpton, Hyatt and Concord Hospitality Enterprises also made the list).

At Marriott, for example, a company spokesman said 50% of the direct reports to CEO Arne Sorenson are female, and 50% of the brand leaders under the company's global head of luxury and lifestyle brands, Tina Edmundson, are women.

"Yes, it’s certainly doing the right thing to talk about diversity and inclusion, but it’s about having a pool of people who are the smartest and most adept …. You don’t do that without talking about women." — Erika Alexander

Erika Alexander, a 28-year veteran of Marriott, said, "While we talk a lot about diversity and inclusion, I have probably never been so proud as I am today around Arne and the makeup of his leadership team."

Alexander is Marriott's chief lodging services officer, overseeing a team that supports more than 4,500 hotels in the Americas.

Erika Alexander
Erika Alexander

"The core responsibility for any leader is their ability to attract and retain the best talent," she said. "There is no winning in business if women aren't a part of that conversation. Yes, it's certainly doing the right thing to talk about diversity and inclusion, but it's about having a pool of people who are the smartest and most adept at being able to tackle problems.

"You don't do that without talking about women."

Hilton in 2017 was ranked No. 30 on DiversityInc's Top 50 companies for diversity, having climbed 12 spots from its 2016 ranking. Like Marriott, it has an extensive list of development, networking and mentoring programs ­­-- both formal and informal, initiated by female leaders themselves -- to maintain the momentum.

Laura Fuentes
Laura Fuentes

Laura Fuentes, Hilton's senior vice president for talent, rewards and people analytics, said part of the emphasis on diversity starts with a program to recruit future general managers from hospitality schools, then rotate them through various jobs in hotels as well as at corporate headquarters.

"We have so many success stories," Fuentes said. "We just promoted a couple of women into our senior ranks [including Julie Garrison, who is now vice president of full-service brand management in the Americas]. We're hiring lots of women. We're very proud of our development of both junior women in the pipeline and the results at the senior level."

Fuentes said the company also recently launched, in partnership with Ariana Huffington's Thrive Global, a framework called Thrive@Hilton, which focuses on creating a healthy, sustainable and diverse workplace.

"My boss pulled me aside and said, 'Look, I want to hear you in these meetings. I want you to remember that the perspective that you have is very important.’’’ — Amanda Joiner

At Hilton's recent meeting for general managers of its all-suites brands, Fuentes said, 43% were female.

And Hilton offers 10 weeks of fully paid parental leave for everyone from general managers to housekeepers, she said.

Yet despite the advances at some companies, the Castell report revealed that most of the female leaders in hospitality work in sales, marketing or human resources, while men still have a 2-to-1 advantage over women for promotions even to a vice president or district director job.

An industry as lifestyle

In February, the hotel industry joined many other sectors roiled by sexual harassment allegations when Las Vegas resort mogul Steve Wynn was accused of inappropriate behavior with several of his company's employees.

Stakeholders in the hospitality sector say that like any industry, it is not exempt from discrimination, harassment or bias of any kind, be it gender, race, sexual orientation or anything else.

But Rach and a number of female luxury general managers interviewed for this report said they never found hostility or harassment to be an underlying issue driving the gender-diversity gap. In fact, like Lyons, many attribute their success to male mentors who encouraged them to push the envelope.

Amanda Joiner
Amanda Joiner

Amanda Joiner is now general manager of the Ritz-Carlton St. Louis, but she also spent time at Marriott corporate after 26 years in a variety of positions at the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta. She said that on her first day at corporate, her boss "pulled me aside and said, 'Look, I want to hear you in these meetings. I want you to remember that the perspective that you have is very important.'"

Jackie Volkart, former general manager of the Ritz-Carlton San Juan and now general manager of the St. Regis in San Francisco, said that when she graduated from hospitality school in Switzerland in the 1980s, her class was just 10% women.

Jackie Volkart
Jackie Volkart

But she was undeterred. At each new workplace, she said, "I always told my GMs, 'I want your job.' They were encouraging. I had incredible mentors along the way."

Joanna Sanchez, general manager of the W New York Downtown, said that in her career, she has "honestly never experienced any type of gender discrimination. I never really thought about it until I became a GM. ... You walk into rooms and it's like, 'Wow! There's only a handful of women.' That's when I first noticed it. Not that it was unwelcoming, but you do have to be comfortable and confident and push yourself to network and be part of that group."

Still, that doesn't mean it's been easy, said Dhugga, who still often finds she is the only woman in a room.

"I've been in the industry for almost 30 years," she said. "But I've had many challenges. I brought up two children while working in an executive level, and I found it a great challenge doing that. But I think, in general, you've got to know that it is a challenge, and you've got to learn not to take things to heart."

Like the other women interviewed for this report, Dhugga is active in mentoring efforts and female networking groups. But in the end, she said, "It's very much a two-way street. We can't blame the employer or the men or the employee. You've got to get hands-on, to get used to working a lot of late hours. And it's a lifestyle."

She added, "I mentor a lot of women in the business. I say it's not anything like a job. It's a lifestyle. You come into this industry because it's a lifestyle."

Progress despite speed bumps

Although progress has been slow, everyone seems to agree that the gender gap is closing.

Joanna Sanchez
Joanna Sanchez

The Castell study, for example, reported that 84% of everyone in the industry and 70% of the women agreed with the statement, "Women entering hospitality companies today will have more opportunities for upward movement into top executive positions than have past generations."

Some of that obviously has to do with recognition of, and aggressive efforts to overcome, the lack of diversity. But Hanson said it's also very much generational.

The new breed of female luxury general managers, for example, are women who have been in the workplace for 20 or 30 years. So, many of them really are among the first generation or two of women who are uninhibited and undiscouraged by gender traditions that might have defined their mothers' career paths or led them to presume that their husbands' careers should come first.

"I honestly never experienced any type of gender discrimination. I never really thought about it until I became a GM. … You walk into rooms and it’s like, 'Wow! There’s only a handful of women.’’’ — Joanna Sanchez

Sanchez said, "I definitely think there has been as shift. I think it is generational. My mom worked. So, among my generation, more and more women are putting their career first."

And while the industry currently lags in gender diversity, Hanson and others said they have observed a "strong pipeline" of women on their way up.

Like Volkart, Hanson recalled that there were few women preparing to enter the field decades ago. He said that when he went to hospitality school at Cornell in the '70s, there were only six or seven women in his class. Today, the Castell study found, nearly 70% of hospitality students are women.

Thus, Hanson said, "The pipeline is almost reversed."

Still, it's a slow change. And for the efforts to work, Rach said, there must be a continued, concerted diversity effort driven from the top.

"The problem is, it's 2018, not 1978," she said. "If we have to bring up, regardless of the brand, very specific vignettes, then it is not embedded yet. It is not as normal as the white, male profile. If we are still at that place where you are having brands or companies or organizations of all sizes still bringing up the poster child, then there is an issue."


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