Asia's failure to tackle the issues preventing women from occupying more high ranking travel positions is just one of the reasons the continent is still struggling to make a complete recovery.
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Attracting and developing talent is arguably the most critical factor needed for the travel industry to make a complete recovery. Although women represent approximately 55 percent of the travel industry’s workforce, the vast majority of them, however, occupy lower-level positions. They were also among the workers most impacted by the pandemic.
Our mega industry cannot recover or capture its great potential without improving career opportunities for women. There are opportunities for progress in diversity and inclusion in all sectors and most countries.
But the challenges women in Asia in particular face could fill a book. On the occasion of International Women’s Day on Wednesday, I’d like to remind your readers of the biggest obstacles the continent presents for women working in travel and tourism.
Thriving Colonialism in Asia
Preferential treatment of western, usually white male executives is a commonly accepted practice in Asia and more over than in the West. Colonialism has had a complex impact on Asian women’s career progression. On one hand, colonial powers introduced Western education and corporate opportunities that allowed some women to pursue careers outside of traditional gender roles. Unfortunately, colonialism also reinforced patriarchal business cultures and created multi-layered, deep socio-economic power disparities.
Hollywood is famous for the producer-to-aspiring-actress-power disparity. Imagine the power disparity between a Western expatriate and young Asian women escaping the poverty of their rural villages. Colonialism has contributed to white male executives favoring their own for promotions and assignments as well as the discrimination toward Asian female job seekers. This sense of entitlement can also enable pursuit of corrupt self-interests. It also makes Asian women feel that leadership roles are just not attainable.
Expected Cultural Communication Styles
Some common expectations include politeness, humility, non-confrontation and respect for hierarchy. These expectations impact the way Asian women communicate — or don’t — in the workplace and can affect their career development.
Articulate Asian women can get backlash and the label “disrespectful” when just voicing their opinion, asking a question and speaking as an equal. Silence is the preferred default rather than challenging the status quo. Asians in general prefer not to speak publicly as keeping a low profile is more respected than seeming to “grandstand.” Asian female leaders often refrain from taking the stage. Sadly, this exacerbates their lack of visibility.
Bias Against Short People
A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that taller individuals were perceived as having greater leadership potential than shorter individuals. In reality, aspects such as communication skills, experience and track record should factor more strongly. Look at the following leaders shorter than 5’5”: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Corazon Aquino, Angela Merkel, Jack Welch and Desmond Tutu. How many other great leaders might we have if this caveman-era bias weren’t prevalent? The world needs more petite, rational leaders and less of the tall, angry, shouting version.
Finally, one aspect of Asian culture is filial piety, which places a high value on family obligations and responsibilities. While it’s an honorable concept that engenders harmony and respect for elders, it has its challenges as well. Women are often expected to prioritize the family duties over their careers. There’s little to no movement for shared responsibilities between dual working couples in Asia, and women are still assumed to carry the bulk of responsibility for children and elders.
Even when women choose to prioritize their careers, they can be made to feel guilty by leaders who expected them to do otherwise. That can result in women feeling conflicted about pursuing their career goals.
Filial piety can have a more sinister side as well. There is an Asian tradition of following your leader even if they are corrupt which is rooted in the concept of loyalty and respect for authority figures. Individuals can justify or be silent about unethical behavior by their leaders just to maintain a sense of loyalty and harmony.
So in addition to enacting a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment and overt bias, I am putting forth the following solutions to help women in Asia overcome the challenges they face in landing executive roles in the travel industry.
Ensure Diverse and Visible Leadership
Avoid man-els — all male panels — and all-white panels in Asia.
Provide Mentorship and Sponsorship
Both female and male executives in particular should act as mentors or sponsors to women, providing guidance and support to help them navigate the industry and advance in their careers.
Challenge Unconscious Biases
Progressive male executives in particular can play an important role in challenging unconscious biases. So provide training because it’s human nature to have bias for the like-minded and similar. It’s important we acknowledge it and conquer it when appropriate.
Foster a Supportive Culture
Encourage work-life balance and flexibility. This can include offering parental leave and flexible work arrangements as well as providing resources such as child care and support to care.
Empower Women to Take Leadership Roles
Create opportunities for women to take on leadership roles by ensuring they have access to training and development programs. Encourage communications training in particular to help them come out of their muted voices.
Tell Women to Speak Up
Female leaders — don’t hesitate to step up in the conference room and on stage. It’s important that younger women see and hear you.
Liz Ortiguera is the founder of Bridge Experiences, a marketing consultancy company. A veteran travel and corporate business executive, she’s held roles at Merck and American Express Global Business Travel among other companies. She recently served as the CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, the first woman to ever occupy that position.
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Photo credit: Women around Asia often have to climb many steps en route to landing executive roles in the travel industry Colin Anderson Productions / Getty Images