Skift Take

Grassroots activism is now the go-to tactic for achieving gender equality in the Trump-era travel industry. Lobbying male executives one-on-one isn’t working, so women are employing their collective influence, reminiscent of recent movements like the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.

Travel industry executives are overwhelmingly male, and these days, women aren’t just discussing the topic openly. Some are mobilizing for change.

Not unlike participants in the Women’s March, which took place in January in Washington, D.C., as well as cities around the world, many women in the Trump-era travel industry seem ready to actively take on gender discrimination.

Laura Mandala, founder of Women in Travel & Tourism International and managing director of Mandala Research, spoke on a panel at the Women in Travel Summit (WITS) in Milwaukee on April 23. She suggested that women take collective action, in part by using rallying cries like #grabyourpurse, which is associated with boycotting Trump-owned businesses.

“Every time we see an organization or an entity where women are not being treated equitably, we can point it out, we can send [the hashtag] out… We’re encouraging women: Grab your bag, work somewhere else, grab your bag, go travel somewhere else.”

Mandala said that at the Priceline Group, 27 percent of the senior management team is comprised of women; at Amadeus 20 percent; at Disney 14 percent; at Delta 11 percent; and at Hilton eight percent.

It should be noted that at the Priceline Group, the CEO of its most important brand,, is a woman, as is the CEO of its OpenTable unit, while the Group president is male.

“We did an analysis and found that there were a dearth of women in most senior leadership roles in this industry,” Mandala said. “Women are making 70 percent of all travel decisions, 72 percent of all travel agents are women, and yet only 33 percent are leading a travel organization like the American Society of Travel Agents.”

Mandala mentioned North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill,” which resulted in a significant loss of tourism revenue for the state. Out-of-state organizations “are boycotting North Carolina, it’s kind of grab your bag, grab your wallets… we’re taking our dollars elsewhere… that’s one way that we can work together and be really powerful,” she said.

One of the attendees was Katie Henly, founder of Yes Way! The company highlights women-owned businesses in various travel destinations, and furthers the idea that women can and should vote with their actions and dollars.

“What was pivotal in my career was getting engaged in a completely male-oriented association,” said Holly Agra, panel speaker and president of Chicago’s First Lady Cruises.

She recounted attending an industry association meeting earlier in her career. “They had the chairs in the front and then a rope, and they said all the women will sit on the other side of the rope because they won’t be voting members. Well my husband didn’t attend the meeting so I sat in the front with all the men, and that was really the beginning for me.”

“We have nurtured and promoted several women to be [tour boat] captains, which is a very male-oriented business,” said Agra.

In an interview with Skift, Marissa Sutera, executive chair of WITS, noted the importance of social media and digital community when it comes to “uncovering the companies that are not doing it so well.”

The panel speakers identified themselves as older than many of the women in the audience, with social influence being a major differentiator as well as a crucial tool in the 21st century.

“Our idea of success was always measured by a title, profits, volume, etc.,” said Cathleen Johnson, principal of Cathleen Johnson Tourism Consultants, formerly having created the travel and hospitality practice at Edelman. “The definition of success is very different these days, and the biggest measure I think is influence. That’s where you all have such an advantage because you are already in the business of influence.”

Sutera said much of the WITS audience is comprised of influencers.

One audience member recounted a venture capital pitch competition in which she momentarily froze in front of an all-male panel and was told by a panelist that he expected her to run out of the room crying. Another described attending an industry event and being asked whether she was hired as a model for the event rather than being an entrepreneur.

Another was told by coworkers that she had a cute voice and needed to put lipstick on to meet with a journalist.

“Maybe Bill O’Reilly will teach some people a lesson,” said Johnson of the Fox News host who was ousted in April amid sexual harassment allegations. Along those lines, in the travel sphere, a former Uber employee recently brought much attention to sexual harassment allegations at the ride-hailing company. Uber president Jeff Jones resigned in March.

Getting down to the basics — dealing with everyday discrimination as opposed to propelling a broader women’s movement — Johnson asked, “How do you reach salary parity in a better way? …When men get a raise their response is, ‘Is that it?’ When women get a raise they say ‘Oh thank you!’ I think we have to learn to be more bold. I would say being bold, to me, has really gotten me where I’m going.”

Sutera took up the theme. “There could always be more of stepping outside your comfort zone… taking action and working on building up, building out,” said Sutera, who also mentioned that WITS would like to continue this conversation at future events.

“Challenging men who say things like wear lipstick or say things like you’re so cute. Challenge them. Don’t let anything go by the board because every time you swallow it, you’re allowing that to be considered as good behavior,” said Johnson.

Disclosure: Cathleen Johnson is the managing director of public relations firm Percepture Travel, which counts Skift as a client.


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Tags: leadership, women

Photo credit: A Women in Travel Summit panel discussion on April 23, 2017 in Milwaukee, WI about getting more women into leadership roles resulted in much storytelling from female professionals in the audience. Pictured is moderator Laura Mandala, founder of Women in Travel & Tourism International. Women in Travel Summit

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