How hotel companies can give women an easier path to the top

08 March 2024 by

We all know hospitality requires commitment, but the career ladder for women is often kicked out from underneath them. Here's how hoteliers are removing barriers to the success of women

Nearly 56% of people employed in the accommodation and foodservice industries are women, according to data analyst Statista, and yet WiHTL's most recent annual report showed that nearly one-fifth of hospitality, travel and leisure businesses have only one woman on their board.

"I think it's absurd that, in a boardroom of people, you've only got one woman representing 50% of the population," says Sarah Brewster, owner of Stonehouse Court, a 36-bedroom hotel in Stroud. "There's gender parity at mid-management level in hospitality but there's a great deal more to do at senior executive level."

There are, of course, wider social issues affecting women's progression across all sectors, but there are ways employers can make key changes to mitigate these, ensuring women in the hotel industry can achieve their ambitions and make the sector a more welcoming place for all.

Unfortunately, in times of difficulty, such as a recession, equality tends to end up at the bottom of a pile of priorities as companies compete to stay afloat. But as many businesses demonstrate, looking after your staff and encouraging female entrepreneurship can be worth its weight in returns, with equitable and diverse workforces repeatedly shown to outperform non-diverse competitors.

Make flexibility the norm

Flexibility in the workplace can be a huge benefit to women, who are significantly more likely to work part-time than men. High childcare costs and shortages in childcare and social care provision in the UK are making it harder for parents and carers, but particularly women, to stay in work, let alone climb the career ladder or take risks such as opening their own businesses. Until these issues are resolved, some women will require more flexibility, but flexibility, but that shouldn't mean their jobs become less secure or lower paid.

Susan Stuart
Susan Stuart

Susan Stuart bought a house in Penzance, Cornwall, in 2012 after a career as a chartered accountant, and funded its renovation into a hotel by selling her London home. Now at the six-bedroom Chapel House hotel she has two (female) full-time team members. Although business is predictably quiet in the winter, she keeps them both on year-round to help with tasks such as gardening, repairs and decorating.

"It makes a big difference to people to have year-round jobs in this sector," she points out.

Meanwhile, to accommodate Stonehouse Court's male general manager, the business was able to flex his hours so he could work late shifts a few days a week and look after his child during the day.

"I know he works really hard, delegates well and does a great job, so why would I not want to be flexible?" asks Brewster. "The same applies for female managers. Why would you not want to be flexible if you've got somebody with skill and talent?"

The business is also trialling a four-day week with its female-led kitchen team. "We're monitoring whether this better work-life balance increases productivity, creativity, staff retention and wellbeing alongside that profitability," she explains.

"It's too early to say yet, but if we don't try these things we won't know. It's about being creative and thinking, how can we improve the situation? Ultimately, you will gain that competitive edge in terms of recruiting and retaining employees."

Harriet Harman, chair of the Fawcett Society, says making flexibility the norm in the workplace will not only make it easier for women, but will also "normalise men taking on their fair share of caring responsibilities".

This flexibility should also extend to doing other things differently, for example networking, which is often cited as key to ‘getting ahead'. However, if women are primary caregivers and unable to attend events out of office hours, they miss that opportunity.

"I've only been able to network since my children have grown and I've been able to leave them at home," says Rohaise Rose-Bristow, owner of the Torridon hotel in the Scottish Highlands.

Zoe Monk
Zoe Monk

Gender disadvantages

University of Greenwich research argues that inflexibility in the way some hospitality work is structured, including precarious contracts, low pay, and long, irregular shifts, also disadvantages women. It says conceptualising the ‘ideal worker' as available "at short notice for over-time, out-of-shift work and to spend multiple days away from home on business" excludes women who have care responsibilities.

Meanwhile, the ladder that leads to senior management is usually operational, encompassing roles that often require long and unsociable hours, putting some women at an inherent disadvantage and forcing them off those important rungs of the career ladder, slowing their career progression.

It's something Olivia Byrne, owner of Eccleston Square hotel in London, has noticed among her own peer group: "Managing a hotel is 24/7. It's very operationally driven and you have to be available, especially when it's your own business. It's like your child. You have a lot of responsibilities and if someone doesn't show up to work or something happens with a guest, you have to be available. That's the biggest challenge," she says.

But being more flexible and open-minded about career progression routes could help women make that transition to senior management. WiHTL's annual report called for "a renewed focus on potential rather than experience in hiring into senior roles" and highlighted that although 90% of hospitality, tourism and leisure companies had a co-ordinated diversity and inclusion strategy, just 23% had goals and targets, which can also help ensure women are reaching those top roles.

Travelodge has managed to achieve gender parity across its regional directors and operating board, and 65.5% of its hotel managers and assistant hotel managers are female. The budget hotel group credits this in part to its Aspire programme, which supports team members to progress from entry level through to area operation manager level. The company says that, since launching this training, almost 70% of hotel management vacancies have been filled by internal candidates.

Travelodge also aims to have a gender balanced interview shortlist for all senior roles, and at least 20% minority ethnic representation. This year, the company plans to increase the number of part-time management roles, starting with advertising all roles as both part- and full-time, creating a mentoring programme, and trialling an interview process more suitable for neurodiverse applicants, including providing questions in advance.

Franchising giant Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, meanwhile, launched ‘Women Own the Room' last year, a programme targeting women's advancement in hotel ownership. It offers enhanced capital support, reduced initial franchise fees and operational support as well as networking and education opportunities. It has signed more than 30 hotels in the US and Canada so far.

It's something Samantha Trinder, co-owner of the Bingham in Richmond, London, would like to see in the UK, particularly for Black female hoteliers. A total of 10 female entrepreneurs of Black appearance received venture capital investment between 2009 and 2019 – just 0.02% of the total amount invested, according to a report by Extend Ventures. And a 2020 briefing by the Resolution Foundation found that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women experienced a 5% pay penalty relative to white British men.

"There are female investors but they're few and far between, so that could be a barrier to why there are less female hotel owners," suggests Trinder.

Stuart agrees: "Making a successful hotel is not easy and if funds like that can be more attuned to what women can bring to the market, then perhaps the market develops in a different and more accessible way."

Don't aim for perfection

However, until gender parity is achieved at management level, some women may also need support to feel confident that they belong in male-dominated boardrooms.

"When you move up the ladder, you're not given permission to fail. You're not allowed to make mistakes," says Rose-Bristow. She emphasises the importance of supporting female employees to take up training and development opportunities and to apply for scholarships and awards, which can also help build their confidence.

"The biggest blockage for growth is that women are not allowed to fail, because we have to keep up and be better. We don't want to do something unless we're perfect at it and can do it really, really well. We're only going to commit to something if we have control of it and can make a success of it."

Trinder suggests that women "often doubt and second-guess" themselves and can be held back by a lack of confidence in their abilities.

"We're doing some things in our hotel which I wanted to do three, four years ago, but I didn't trust myself because other people weren't on board with it. I wish I'd just done it, because now we're doing it a bit late in the day," she says. "Just because a man has been in the industry 30-40 years and thinks things should be done a certain way does not mean it's the best or right way."

Samantha Trinder
Samantha Trinder

Zoe Monk, lecturer and director of employability at the Edge Hotel School in Essex, says that her female students perceive the London hotel scene in particular to still be an old boys' club, and that most female graduates in recent years have gone on to work at to properties with visible female leaders – allowing them to see themselves in those roles. And it's not just women at the beginning of their careers who might need additional support.

"We need more female role models to encourage and inspire others to reach the top, and that needs to be part of the company strategy, providing those role models and mentors, especially during that return-to-work phase," says Brewster.

"I do speak to mums who had really successful careers pre-children and they struggle to find that confidence to restart after having a family. If companies are going to encourage these women to return to work to reach those senior positions, then they need to be setting out a pathway and a mentoring system to support them, encouraging them to value their core skills and desire to succeed and providing that flexible environment...

The biggest blockage for growth is that women are not allowed to fail

"They really don't feel welcome; they feel they're an intrusion because there's this unconscious bias that they're going to be popping off to look after a child at home."

Rose-Bristow agrees: "There's a massive pause button on a career that holds them back and then to get back in is a lot harder because our male colleagues are so much further ahead."

She recommends coaching as another way to build self-esteem and resilience, but admits that it wasn't until reaching her fifties that she felt truly confident leading a male-dominated boardroom – a time of life many women will also be experiencing menopause.

Time to talk about the menopause

Menopausal women are the fastest-growing demographic in the workforce, and three in every five women struggle with symptoms. Nearly 900,000 women in the UK have left their jobs because of issues relating to the menopause, and three-quarters of businesses still have no menopause policy, putting them at risk of losing experienced employees.

The Torridon has a menopause policy that opens the door to conversations around reasonable adjustments, such as dress code, flexible working, desk location. It also considers the specific needs of menopausal women as part of its risk assessment. The hotel encourages employees to be respectful, understanding and supportive of colleagues, provides training and resources, and encourages staff to talk openly about difficulties they may be having.

Normalising these conversations and making what can be very simple adjustments can help businesses retain women and subsequently help close their pay gap through transparent policies to promote inclusion and discourage biases. For example, the assumption that all women will want to take a career break to have a family, and if they do, the perception of this as a problem.

Brewster hopes to see more collaboration across the industry in sharing best practice and pooling ideas. "If we can share our knowledge on how to improve those policies then, hopefully, we can start to make wider change," she says, adding that businesses should be continuously reviewing their equal opportunities policies.

Ultimately, all businesses need to be thinking about how they can operate differently in a fast-changing world. Existing structures may have worked historically, but the hospitality industry needs to consider new ways of working that ensure everyone can progress equally and feel welcome in the workplace to attract and retain the best talent.

And critically, men need to be part of the solution, says Brewster: "They can make a huge impact in identifying and promoting female talent and fostering a culture where women are encouraged to progress."

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