In a year when we are likely to see the first woman nominated for the U.S. presidency by a major political party, the strides that have been made in closing the gender gap -- as well as the looming challenges that remain in realizing gender equality -- have been thrust into the national spotlight. 

The same holds true within the travel industry, an arena in which the past few years have seen several notable developments for women but where, according to advocacy groups for women in travel, a lot of work remains to be done.

Two years ago, Michelle "Mick" Lee founded the organization Women in Travel (Winit) to provide greater resources for females in the industry and the tools to help them achieve success. The 3,000-member organization includes both male and female members.

"I've been in the travel industry for almost 30 years," Lee said. "As I progressed in my career and the more senior I became, I noticed how many less women there were in the room."

While there is no precise comparative data available to determine how travel stacks up to other industries when it comes to equal pay and status for female workers, it's clear that it's a sector of the economy that presents distinct challenges as well as opportunities for women.

Michelle “Mick” Lee, the founder of Women in Travel, with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the Global Business Travel Association conference in 2013.
Michelle “Mick” Lee, the founder of Women in Travel, with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the Global Business Travel Association conference in 2013.

"This issue is not unique to our industry," Lee said. "The part that is very different about [the travel industry] when you're looking at metrics, over 60% to 65% of the workforce in hospitality are already women. And yet the more senior you go, the less women there are. What that provides us with is a unique opportunity. Where there are other sectors, such as manufacturing and engineering, where you first have to get women in and then get them up, we already have a very strong, over 50% [of the] workforce, so our goal is to get women up."

Despite the large number of women who make up the travel and tourism workforce, when you look at the boardrooms and C-suites at some of the largest global travel companies, the numbers range from as low as one woman on an executive team of 25 at Las Vegas Sands (4% representation), to as high as 33% at American Airlines, where there are three women on the nine-person management team.

Some other examples include three women on the management team of 11 at Priceline Group (27%); two women on Disney's 14-member management group (14%); one woman on Delta's nine-member management team (11%); one woman out of 13 (8%) on Hilton Worldwide's executive committee; and two women on the 10-member executive committee at Amadeus (20%). At Carnival Corp., five women are among the company's 21 senior executives, and two of its nine board members are women; the company has said in Securities and Exchange Commission filings that it hopes its next board appointment will also be female.

On the boards at these companies, women typically hold between 10% and 25% of the directors' spots.

As for industry associations, the ASTA executive committee and board of directors is 33% female; CLIA's global leadership team is 24% female and is headed by president and CEO Cindy D'Aoust; and at the U.S. Travel Association, while there are no women on the four-person executive team, there are 26 women out of the 38 people (68%) who comprise the organization's larger leadership team.

Yet consumer research shows that women make 70% of all travel-buying decisions, according to Female Factor, a consulting firm focused on the behavior of female consumers. Moreover, 72% of travel agents were women as of 2012, a number that has likely gone up since then, according to research conducted by Phocuswright.

Women are clearly the dominant consumers and sellers of travel, and yet their numbers aren't reflected in the highest decision-making positions in the industry.

"I know it sounds cliche, but the old boys' club is alive and well," said Laura Mandala, the founder of Women in Travel and Tourism International (Witti), a women-only organization that was created four years ago in an effort to nurture success among women in the travel and tourism sector.

Mandala heads her own travel and tourism research firm, Mandala Research, evaluating emerging developments that help destinations and travel companies attract their target markets.

A shifting dynamic

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.

For instance, Winit's Lee noted that, historically, there have not been as many female general managers in the hotel industry as there are now due to the fact that GMs were often required to move around frequently, which could be seen as limiting when it comes to managing a family life.

But she has observed that there are many more female GMs now due to a greater awareness and desire for diversity within the industry, and hotels consequently are adjusting their requirements for general managers.

Members of Women in Travel gathered in Orlando last July for the organization’s annual summit.
Members of Women in Travel gathered in Orlando last July for the organization’s annual summit.

But Lee and other advocates also note that women themselves need to become better self-promoters within the industry in order to ultimately break through any glass ceilings, perceived or real, that they encounter. That is something her organization is trying to help them do.

"I am not saying women are to blame for where they are statistically, so I want to be very clear about that," Lee said. "But what I'm saying is that when I speak to women about the fact that they haven't gotten promoted, the first thing I'll say is, 'OK, how long ago did you ask about being promoted?' ... And nine out of 10 times, the answer is, 'Well, I didn't.'"

She said men tend to be better self-promoters, which doesn't guarantee success but is often a crucial component in moving up the ladder.

"A big part of what we do is to ensure that women and men understand the power they already have and utilize that and be aware of it," Lee said. "It's having that voice and being a bit fearless in making sure that you're putting yourself out there."

Advocates for getting more women into influential positions in travel also argue that companies and organizations would be prudent to narrow their gender gap, not least because diversity doesn't just make for good business practices; it has been shown to make for more business.

"It behooves current leaders and their organizations to include women at their highest levels of decision-making," Mandala said. "The research has already been done to demonstrate that on the corporate side, companies do better with more gender-balanced boards and executive-leadership teams."

In fact, companies with the largest representation of women on executive committees perform significantly better than companies with no women at the top, according to the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., which publishes an ongoing research series titled "Women Matter: The business and economic case for gender diversity."

And investment research and analytics company MSCI ESG Research in November published a report titled "Women On Boards," which found that companies with strong female leadership generated a return on equity of 10.1% per year versus 7.4% for those that lacked female leadership.

When Kate McCue was named captain of the Celebrity Summit last August, she became the line’s first female captain and the first American woman to helm a major cruise ship.
When Kate McCue was named captain of the Celebrity Summit last August, she became the line’s first female captain and the first American woman to helm a major cruise ship.

Female-focused milestones

Whether travel companies and organizations are recognizing the business benefits of improved gender equality or women are simply beginning to break through preexisting barriers on their own, there have been numerous recent examples of women achieving a stronger voice and larger role in the travel industry.

In August, Celebrity Cruises named Kate McCue, then 37, master of the Celebrity Summit, a 91,000-ton ship with a 2,158-guest capacity and a crew of 952; she was the first American female captain to take the helm of a cruise ship.

At the time, Celebrity stated that McCue's appointment illustrated the company's "dedication to advancing the role of women in leadership."

The move followed the promotion of Lisa Lutoff-Perlo to Celebrity president and CEO in December 2014. Lutoff-Perlo said she hoped that McCue would "continue to pave the way for women in the maritime industry."

In fact, the cruise industry has been quicker than most other sectors to embrace female leadership. In addition to Lutoff-Perlo, Christine Duffy serves as the CEO of Carnival Cruise Line, Jan Swartz is president of Princess Cruises and Edie Rodriguez is CEO of the rapidly expanding Crystal Cruises.

Celebrity is a Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. line, while Carnival and Princess are Carnival Corp. brands.

In May, an all-women crew, led by captain Jan Lumbrazo with about 100 female United Airlines employees, took delivery of a Boeing 737 aircraft.
In May, an all-women crew, led by captain Jan Lumbrazo with about 100 female United Airlines employees, took delivery of a Boeing 737 aircraft.

United Airlines, too, made a statement last year regarding the role of women in its company. In May, an all-women crew led by captain Jan Lumbrazo and a plane full of female United employees took delivery of a Boeing 737, a first for United. According to the FAA, only 6.5% of commercial airline pilots currently are women.

The history-making flight (albeit a short, 7-mile one) was among the initiatives championed by an internal organization at United called uImpact, a women's business resource group created by the airline to help women within the company achieve professional growth.

"Our mission is to encourage each other to step out of our comfort zones and not shy away from new challenges," said Mandeep Grewal, the president of uImpact.

In early March, in honor of International Women's Day, Air India made history with the world's longest flight operated and supported entirely by women: a 17-hour, nonstop route from Delhi to San Francisco.

The flight was under the command of captain Kshamta Bajpayee and captain Shubhangi Singh, along with first officers captain Ramya Kirti Gupta and captain Amrit Namdhari.

The company stated that one of the core facets of its corporate responsibility goals is to make women more self-reliant. The airline has some 3,765 female employees, or 13% of its total 28,085 workforce.

Other companies and organizations are also working to make strides toward greater gender equality. Carlson Wagonlit Travel, for example, as part of its commitment to fostering diversity and equal opportunity, increased the ratio of women leaders on its executive team from 18% to 36% in 2014, according to the company's most recent annual report, which was released last June.

And the USTOA in December tapped Paula Twidale, the executive vice president of Collette, to serve as the organization's first female chair since its founding in 1972.

Prospective job candidates take a written driving test in New Delhi in order to join the Women on Wheels program that G Adventures uses to pick up female travelers.
Prospective job candidates take a written driving test in New Delhi in order to join the Women on Wheels program that G Adventures uses to pick up female travelers.

Boosting women in destinations

As the travel industry works to improve its gender equality stats at the corporate level in the developed world, some travel companies have also recognized the unique opportunity that exists for travel to create improved economic parity for women in the developing world as well.

"The tourism industry has this great platform to provide job opportunities to people who may not have had formalized education," said Adrienne Lee, project manager with G Adventures' Planeterra Foundation, which in honor of International Women's Day on March 8 kicked off a campaign called Planet Her, aimed at raising awareness and money for projects that will benefit women.

Some of those projects have been incorporated into G Adventures itineraries as a way to support female-led entrepreneurial efforts.

"The tourism industry allowed for this place where women could have sustainable job opportunities," Lee said. "We're definitely creating breadwinners within these families. This is a woman who is now financially independent."

G Adventures in March added three itineraries that integrated community-development projects aimed at supporting women in Morocco, Australia and Belize. All three expanded on existing efforts to support programs that benefit women in India and East Africa.

For instance, in India, the operator partnered with a New Delhi-based charity called Women on Wheels, which works with marginalized women to train them as drivers. All G Adventures travelers who book a transfer service in Delhi are picked up by Women on Wheels drivers.

According to Lee, this service benefits both the women in India for whom it is supplying jobs as well as women travelers who travel solo to India for a G Adventures tour.

"With regard to female travelers, we hope these projects offer a certain sense of security as well," she said, adding that women arriving alone late at night in India are comforted by the fact that they are being picked up by a female driver. She said the project also resonates with the growing number of women travelers who are hitting the road in general, whether or not they are traveling alone.

"From what I've observed, it makes the female traveler experience more fulfilling," Lee said.

Mefi Pishori Alapat, owner of Journey to Africa, is leading a safari in Tanzania this month during which she will be bringing female travelers to interact with women-led projects such as a jewelry-making cooperative in the Maasai village of Mkuru.

"I find that most of the clients who ... are booking this activity are strong women," Alapat said. "They want to enjoy the amazing wildlife Tanzania has to offer, but they want to know more about Tanzania and maybe make a difference when they leave. When I tell them they will be visiting these women who are benefitting from being given work skills, hence gaining financial empowerment, they want to go more."

One of the Maasai engineers sits atop a home for which she installed a cookstove as part of the Maasai Clean Stoves Project, supported by G Adventures.
One of the Maasai engineers sits atop a home for which she installed a cookstove as part of the Maasai Clean Stoves Project, supported by G Adventures.

The long road ahead

Clearly, women have become a strong enough force in the industry that travel companies can no longer afford to ignore gender gaps. And yet while there appears to be a noticeable momentum gathering on the path to gender equality along those lines, the industry still faces plenty of hurdles.

For one, as mentioned earlier, there is a lack of a comprehensive data about the status of women in the travel industry. Witti is hoping to conduct a study that would compile research about where women in the industry work, how much they are paid and how they view their career prospects, which Mandala said she would ideally release in the fall.

"My greatest dream is the day that I can say to our collective Winit family that our work here is done," Mick Lee said. "I do not think I will see that day during my lifetime.

"In the two years since we started, we have seen an increase in the number of women speakers that are considered at our industry associations," she said. "We have seen an increase in engagement, and we have seen an increase in the number of [women-focused] programs that are being created within organizations. And yet, we're still having this conversation. The fact that we're still having this conversation in 2016 is surprising, but it's also a realization that it's going to take a long time."

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