The leading reason women step back from hospitality

Women are well-represented everywhere in hospitality – except at the top.

Hospitality isn’t an inherently male-dominated vocation, yet women are frequently absent from the finance-heavy fields that most often lead to the C-suite. A study published this year by Atlanta-based Castell Project showed that women represent only 8% of senior executive jobs in development and investment, 18% of such jobs in corporate operations and 26% in accounting and finance.

Women who have advanced attribute the bottleneck to long-held practices and unconscious biases. The demands of family often interfere just when many women are headed toward senior management. Others note that women historically have filled “softer” staff positions in event planning, marketing and human resources, which don’t come with P&L responsibility.

Many hospitality companies have launched programs to mentor and advance women into senior leadership but must do more to enable women to navigate professional and personal responsibilities – and to break through, women must promote themselves more aggressively, executives say.

Millennials care about diversity policies when they choose an employer, says Katerina Giannouka, group president for Asia Pacific at Brussels-based Radisson Hotel Group, and “this is a red light for the hospitality industry to address or risk losing the next generation of female talent.”

Lonely at the top

The study by the nonprofit Castell Project, which analyzed the STR Directory of Hotel & Lodging Companies, found that women represent nearly half of managers and directors but only 30% of vice presidents. Their ranks thin at the senior vice president, chief and principal levels. Only 11% of presidents, and 5% of CEOs, are women.

Most telling is the absence of women in development, operations and finance, says Castell founder Peggy Berg, in contrast to departments such as human resources, where women hold 69% of senior executive roles, and sales and marketing, where 42%of senior positions are held by women.

“Women are more likely to be promoted in HR, sales, accounting and legal/risk management,” she says, “and less likely to be promoted in corporate operations and development/investment, which require financial decision-making.”

Berg says there’s anecdotal evidence that women increasingly are being promoted to GM jobs at select-service hotels. Yet these positions typically include little financial decision-making. “Women are still a small minority of GMs at full-service hotels, and full-service GMs carry more financial weight,” she says.

The Nordic countries are far ahead in opening opportunities for women to stay in the workforce, says Lena Bjurner, senior vice president for human relations and sustainability at Scandic Hotels in Stockholm, citing progressive policies on parental leave and child care.

“That gives the impression that we’re ahead – that we don’t have biases,” she says. While women represent about 50% of general managers at Scandic, there are only two women on the company’s 12-member executive committee, Bjurner notes. “We’re on the journey… but we’re not yet there.”

Addition of financials

Family is still a leading reason why women step back. The demands of more senior positions don’t let up at a time when women are starting families – and women often are still the primary care parent, says Michelle Russo, CEO of hotel asset management firm HotelAve, based in Providence, Rhode Island.

Operations jobs call for long, unpredictable hours, including nights and weekends. But Eileen Moore, regional president of three Caesars Entertainment casino resorts in Las Vegas, says hotel schedules can work for families.

Moore recalls working Friday and Saturday nights running a casino when her son was young. “I had many an interesting conversation with my boss, who said, ‘is that going to be good for your work-life balance?’” she recalled. “I would say, ‘Do you know what my son is doing on Friday and Saturday nights? He’s sleeping. Do you know when he wants his mom home? Saturday morning.’”

Historically, men advanced to plum jobs running resorts and full-service city hotels and moved their families around the globe in the process. That’s a more difficult proposition for two-income families. “Anecdotally, the women GMs I’m thinking of don’t have kids, or their kids are grown,” Russo says.

Running large full-service city hotels or big resorts is the last frontier to conquer, says Anne Marie Wemmlinger, vice president at Marriott International, who oversees support services for branding, marketing, sales and consumer services.

Women have made substantial inroads in corporate staff positions and in?running smaller properties, Wemmlinger says. But running big hotels usually involves moving, which, if you have a partner, involves a negotiation. “Whose career is more important?” she says. “Something has to give.”

Wemmlinger moved often for operations jobs in her 30-plus year career with Marriott, including a stint as GM of the 288-room Greenbelt Marriott in Greenbelt, Maryland. Her frequent moves were easier because she married later in her career, she says. “If you’re a strong leader you can figure it out,” she says.

Hotel families can make the nomadic life work, says Holly Gagnon, CEO of Seneca Gaming Corp. in Niagara Falls, New York, who raised two daughters while moving around the country for gaming industry jobs. “I have a lot of stickers on my furniture,” she says. “You’re spinning plates but you don’t realize the strength you have until you use it.”

An affinity for the softer side of the business doesn’t help women get to the top. “I see a lot of young women getting business degrees but wanting to go into event planning,” Russo says. “I wish they would think more broadly.”

Debrah Dhugga, managing director of Dukes Hotel in London, says women must understand the commercial side: “If you’re a GM, you’re responsible for the results of the hotel along with your staff and your guests — it’s all linked together.”

Higher ambitions

Women “need to promote themselves — tell their bosses about the skills they wish to acquire and the positions to which they aspire,” Gagnon says. “They are not going to be noticed sitting quietly in their cubicles.”

Amanda Hyndman, general manager and area vice president, operations, at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London, says women sometimes lack confidence in their own abilities. Training at Mandarin Oriental isn’t designed specifically for women but focuses on communication, interpersonal skills and conflict resolution. “You have to give women confidence to speak out and put themselves forward for advancement,” Hyndman says, and hotels need to help women seize opportunities. “It’s frustrating to hear an employee propose an incremental step up, such as night manager. I would say, ‘Come on, you work hard. I’d like you to consider a change, to grow your skills.’”

U.K. giant IHG launched its Rise initiative to advance women leaders through mentoring and career planning support. Following a pilot program in Australia and New Zealand, Rise launched in the greater China region in Q4 2018 and rollout in the Americas is slated to begin this year, a spokeswoman says.

Fast-growing hotel operators in Asia and the Middle East have a high demand for talent and can’t afford to discriminate, executives say. “I was in a No. 2 housekeeping position at a hotel for eight years,” recalls Sareena Kochar, vice president, housekeeping at Lemon Tree Hotels in New Delhi, India. “Today, more hotels are coming up in India… Promotions are easy, and people can move fast. It is changing.”

Fortune ranked four U.S. hospitality firms among the 75 Best Large Workplaces for Women in 2018: Hyatt Hotels Corp., Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Hilton and Marriott International.

Following Giannouka’s appointment as group president for Asia Pacific in late 2017, Radisson promoted several women to GM posts in China, India and The Philippines. Still, hotels “can be flexible and accommodate the needs of women, especially when they become new mothers,” Giannouka says. “Companies can create a family-friendly environment by implementing simple policies such as flexible working hours or paid parental leave.”

Male managers shouldn’t assume a woman isn’t interested in a position that requires travel or relocation before she’s had a chance to even consider the?opportunity, Gagnon says.

Scandic’s Bjurner adds: “When positions open, it’s important that male executives consider candidates of both genders,” she says. “We always ask for both genders to be on the short list.”

As well, millennials – men and women – aren’t necessarily hampered by lingering stereotypes. “Women are demanding equal rights, equal opportunities and equal pay, and they are confident enough to leave a company if they don’t get it,” Giannouka says. “Is it all solved? No. But we’re in a more favorable time.”