News analysis: Gender pay gap widens in hospitality

01 March 2022 by

The pandemic may have set women's economic progress back a generation. Emma Lake explores how to reverse the gender disparity

For the first time in three years the gender pay gap in hospitality grew in 2020/2021. The prevalence of women being furloughed or made redundant during the pandemic has been cited as a contributor, and one that threatens to leave a vacuum of female talent that could further hamper progression.

The World Economic Forum predicted the pandemic set women's economic progress back a generation in its Global Gender Gap Report 2021. And a report into the gender pay gap by WiHTL – Diversity in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure said gender parity was still 20 years away, even before Covid-19 saw the gap widen further.

Stats and figures

In 2020 WiHTL published a report aimed at guarding against the ‘unintended consequences' of the pandemic, which found that 65% of women working across hospitality, travel and tourism were furloughed, put on reduced hours or made redundant compared to 56% of men. On top of this employees were leaving the sector in favour of lower-risk industries.

Two years later its report into the gender pay gap, entitled ‘One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back', which was produced with professional services network PwC, found that in hospitality the average mean gender pay gap had increased from 5.7% to 7.7%, with women still lagging behind men in gaining high-ranking positions. (Of the highest-paid 25% of positions across hospitality, travel and leisure, 58% are held by men. Among the lowest-paid 25% of positions, 54% are held by women).

The range of figures given by companies reporting their gender pay gap also increased, with 25% of businesses reporting a gap of more than 14.8%, up from 14.1% the previous year Tea Colaianni, founder and chair of WiHTL, said: "Our research shows that female representation has decreased at every level in our sector since the beginning of the pandemic. On balance more women than men have left the companies participating in a survey we conducted last year, particularly at senior management level, and at entry level the number of women joining the companies surveyed was lower than the number leaving.

"The critical and concerning point here is if this trend continues and if the results are indicative of the industry as a whole, the pipeline of female talent who wish to progress their careers within the hospitality, travel and leisure sector has significantly diminished.

"Without affirmative and immediate action it may take a very long time to rebuild the female talent pipeline, thereby losing years of hard-won progress and impacting gender equality even further."

The statistics quoted in WiHTL's latest report are informed by reports from 60% (475) of firms required to submit data, compared to the 80% who reported in 2018/2019. This reporting rate is lower than that of other sectors, which averaged at 80%, and Colaianni said many of those who did report did so without any accompanying narrative or a robust plan to address the gap.

Pay parity

The findings of the report did not surprise Jane Sunley, chief executive and founder of employee engagement consultancy Purple Cubed, who said she had recently heard of a sole female board member leaving a business after discovering she was paid 20% less than her male counterparts.

"What really worries me is the statement that it would take 20 years to reach parity. We haven't got 20 years to sort this out, " Sunley said.

"There's loads of evidence that mixed boards, or primarily female boards, are actually more successful than male-only boards. So why would you not want to do that?

"My view is that men have got to do something about this, they've got to stand up and be counted rather than women just constantly fighting. There are lots of examples in the acting world where male actors have threatened to walk if their female co-stars are not paid the same."

Sunley also highlighted the actions of easyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren, who in 2018 reduced his salary by £34,000 to match that of his predecessor, Carolyn McCall, after discovering he had been offered a higher rate.

He had said: "At easyJet we are absolutely committed to giving equal pay and equal opportunity for women and men. I want that to apply to everybody at easyJet and, to show my personal commitment, I have asked the board to reduce my pay to match that of Carolyn's when she was at easyJet."

Hospitality, travel and leisure lag behind other industries in regard to board representation, with female representation at 33.8% compared to 39.1% for the FTSE 350.

Whole package

Colaianni has said the most beneficial thing businesses could do to improve representation is offer more flexible working at senior levels to support those caring for children or elderly relatives.

She explained: "I think the vulnerability of the hospitality, travel and leisure sector during the pandemic can be considered to be a factor [in preventing women's progression], however our research does overwhelmingly lead to the conclusion that the lack of affordable childcare and limited scope of family-friendly policies, including creative and innovative approaches to flexible working for people with caring responsibilities, is a key reason women are not progressing."

While the headlines in the latest report are concerning, there are reasons for optimism. Despite the step backwards the gender pay gap in the hospitality, travel and leisure sectors remains below much of the wider market and Colaianni has said that engagement with WiHTL's work is at its highest level ever.

She said: "There is a noticeable commitment to attract, retain and invest in diverse talent pipelines, nurture a culture where everybody feels the same opportunities to progress and celebrate differences. As a sector, we have seen significant investment in developing a common language for inclusive leadership and a remarkable effort to support the promotion of talented female leaders at all levels.

"The best practices that stood out to me were those companies that have used the pandemic as a catalyst for positive change when it comes to gender diversity and new ways of working.

"For example, one hospitality brand introduced a ‘smarter working' policy to demonstrate its change of mindset when it comes to how it supports employees and, perhaps more importantly, setting out its commitment to not return to its old ways of working pre-pandemic."

Jane Sunley's tips to improve diversity

Equity and inclusivity

There's no point in recruiting diversely if people enter your company and don't have what they need. It's important to understand and address the needs of individuals and if someone has specific needs, they need to have those met.

Employees should also be able to speak to managers to request a review and be able to find learning opportunities to drive forward their own progress.

Review pay and benefits

Following the turmoil of the pandemic it's worth reviewing pay and benefits to ensure they are as fair as they could be.


It's difficult to expect salaries at all levels to be revealed, but working towards greater transparency will be beneficial.

Objectivity in recruitment and for internal progression

Unconscious bias is a huge factor in recruitment and recognising its impact is important. Opportunities should be open to all and all applicants should be assessed and considered under the same framework.

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