Skift Take

The hotel sector needs more women in leadership. Thankfully, a handful of companies are getting savvier about the importance of mentorship, flexibility, and other support.

Gender diversity in hotel leadership was boosted this week when Wyndham said its year-old program “Women Own the Room” had signed more than 30 hotels, with 10 already open. But the effort is an exception, not the rule — and efforts have faltered in the past few years.

Women make 85 percent of all travel decisions and 54 percent of travel and tourism employment worldwide. Yet, they only account for 30 percent of leaders in hospitality, say researchers at the Castell Project, a diversity, equity, and inclusion program funded by a hotel lobby.

“While there is parity for women at the director level, gains for women in higher level hotel company leadership are minimal,” researchers said.

When it comes to hotel ownership, those numbers are even lower. Women hold less than 10 percent of hotel development and development leadership roles.

Last week, Choice Hotels kicked off its inaugural HERtels by Choice development seminar, connecting women owners with industry veterans and Choice executives. Jyoti Sarolia, president & CEO of Ellis Hospitality, says that such programs go a long way in encouraging her and others like her. “One of the most significant barriers to hotel ownership is a lack of industry connections, and as a program built for women, by women, HERtels serves as an important link in closing this gap,” Sarolia said. 

Yet more needs to be done. In other words, you’ve come a long way, baby — just not far enough. 

Pandemic Delayed Progress

Combined with an ongoing decline in enrollment in college hospitality programs (enrollment that was primarily female), a higher rate of workforce burnout reported by women compared to men, and trouble securing development financing, myriad factors might continue to engender inequality in hotel leadership in the short term. 

Beyond financial concerns, women still get an unfair share of personal and professional obligations. The pandemic created a childcare crisis, one in which mothers typically have borne more of the burden. Three in 10 women quit their jobs, noted the Kaiser Foundation. That reduced the percentage of American women working for pay to its lowest level since 1986.

These findings align with Barbara Zubiria’s experiences before starting as Selina hotels’ global chief financial officer two years ago. Zubiria said that more women are studying accounting and finance, so entering the workforce as a certified professional accountant raised no eyebrows. 

Then there comes a tipping point. 

“I think it’s at a point where fewer women are making it to a higher level, and that’s often a product of personal choices and possibly having to give up other things in life to make it there,” Zubiria said.

Women account for 50 percent of Selina’s workforce, 43 percent of the brand’s management positions, and 43 percent of the board of directors. That makes Selina the exception and not the norm in hospitality.

Wyndham’s initiative intends to help expand the number of women hotel owners in North America. Nearly half of those are new construction projects, which require an enormous amount of capital. One sample beneficiary is Preeti Singh, the owner of a recently
opened Travelodge by Wyndham in Macon, Georgia.

Overcoming Isolation in the Workplace

You need a pipeline of leaders to fill roles at the top. So creating leadership positions further down the organizational roster is important.

As Marriott International hired 200,000 associates globally last year, it had to overcome some obstacles to woo women for management positions.

“They were struggling to come back into the workforce,” said Ty Breland, chief human resources officer, about women, particularly young mothers. “We had a conversation. ‘So why can’t we have shared management jobs?’ We started bifurcating roles and really giving people a mechanism to still be a part of Marriott.” 

For example, Marriott’s leadership introduced new part-time manager positions. 

Hong Kong-based Ovolo Hotels has adopted a similar approach. Nicole Downs, director of people and culture, says the brand is committed to ensuring a 50/50 breakdown of women and men in management positions by 2025. Part of the strategy to get there is similar to Marriott’s: flexible working hours, working from home, and job sharing. 

At many hotel companies, hiring conversations differ from those of a few years ago. They now include more dialogue about benefits and work-life balance in addition to finances, say leaders. The other topics of those conversations? The elusively defined “corporate culture.” 

Zubiria says a friendly environment is one primary reason she joined Selina two years ago. Not only is there a sense of “transparency and trust” — her calendar’s school drop-off appointments are available for the rest of the organization to read and heed — but leadership puts its money where its mouth is, she said. 

“The culture of Selina — that of the digital nomad — got accentuated because of COVID. I’m no longer in an office rushing to get home, on a plane looking at a clock and saying ‘ohmigod,'” Zubiria said. “I have way less guilt but I’m more efficient and patient because I’m working from home many days of the week.” 

At Ovolo and Selina, there are programs to encourage leaders of all genders to focus on professional and personal development through workshops, seminars, and one-on-one coaching sessions. However, “we know that it takes time to cultivate a culture of authenticity, inclusivity, and equality,” said Downs. “Equal weighting of importance needs to be given to each step to develop a collaborative community rather than it being ‘just another job.’”

However, the track that those mentorships take needs to be more targeted based on individual circumstances. Zubiria says that when she had her first child 10 years ago, there were no other moms in higher-level leadership to emulate or ask questions.

Today, she’s in a position to help coach a new mom returning to work.

“I remember being that person coming back, thinking about how you feel, what you went through, will anyone understand?” Zubiria said. “That conversation is likely different with someone who’s been through it.”

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Tags: ceos, DEI, diversity, diversity and inclusion, future of lodging, gender diversity, women

Photo credit: Wyndham’s Women Own the Room program aims to advance women ownership in the hospitality industry, has signed more than 30 hotels across the U.S. and Canada. Shown here is one participant: Preeti Singh, the owner of a recently opened Travelodge by Wyndham in Macon, Georgia. Source: Wyndham.

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