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Does the travel industry offer equal opportunities for women?

International Women’s Day not only recognises women for their achievements – regardless of their age, background, ethnicity or occupation – but it also highlights the need for a more gender-balanced world. In support of this important day, we talked to a selection of our clients – talented women who have carved successful careers in tourism – to discover their experiences and how well the travel industry is faring when it comes to equal opportunities.

In the UK, gender discrimination prevails across many industries and occupations, with the battle to close the ‘gender pay gap’ remaining at the top of the campaigning agenda.

According to ONS data, hospitality, one of the UK’s highest earning sectors, employed around 1.75 million people in 2018 and yet, at the beginning of 2018, women made up only 26% of senior management positions.

This would suggest that, even in the UK hospitality industry, women are still finding it hard to get senior roles because of their sex.

For women in many other countries across the globe, the path to the top has been far more challenging.

Ipek Tolbas, Founder of Villa Mahal in Turkey, told us that when she started her career it was very hard to be taken seriously. “People were not used to women being in business in Turkey – it was not easy to be heard or make people listen to you,” she told us.

With this in mind, Tolbas’ achievement is even more remarkable. Villa Mahal, which she opened 30 years ago, is widely feted as one of Turkey’s top boutique hotels. Its renowned beach club is also home to one of the most sought-after waterside restaurants on the Kalkan coast.

Gitanjali Haaland, General Manager at Ulagalla (an Uga Escapes hotel) in Sri Lanka, has also worked in hospitality for 30 years. She explained that she found it very difficult to get where she is now in her career. However, with passion, commitment and a ‘can do’ attitude, she has excelled within the industry and is now GM at one of Sri Lanka’s top hotels, having previously been Group Rooms Division Manager at COMO.

Gitanjali reports that Uga Escapes is now actively championing the career progress of its female employees. There has been an increase in female participation across Uga Hotels and the team always gives preference to female applicants, as and when positions within the resort fall vacant”, she said.

Latest stats for the UK show a glimmer of fresh progress in the past year.  According to the Women in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure 2020 Review – 2019 Edition, the percentage of women in board level positions at FTSE 100 hospitality, travel and leisure companies has increased to 32%, just short of the 33% Hampton-Alexander review target (female representation across FTSE 350 boards and executive committees by 2020).

Although it is, of course, cheering to see that more women are making their way up the ranks, this percentage is still rather low. Companies need to focus on innovative ways to close the gap and empower women to seek management positions.

There are many hotel groups across the country that realise that female role models are important and are making sure that women are given the same opportunities as their male colleagues.

Beth Rehman, Brand Director of Perle Hotels in Scotland, told us that within the Perle group, there are “approximately 60% women and 40% men.Rehman said: “Perhaps, more importantly, there are more than 60% of women in management roles. Perle has female role models at all levels of the organisation.”

At Lime Wood hotel in the New Forest, most of the key departments are headed up by women. Michelin star chef, Angela Hartnett, Chef Patron for Murano restaurant, Cafe Murano in St James’s and Covent Garden, Cucina Angelina in Courchevel, and joint owner of Merchant’s Tavern in Shoreditch, is also executive chef at Lime Wood’s celebrated Hartnett Holder & Co restaurant. The hotel’s F&B, Spa, Reception, Housekeeping, and Marketing departments are also all run by women.

Leading tour operator, Red Savannah, reports that they are working with more and more women-led organisations, including a taxi service in Mumbai called Viira Cabs (meaning ‘courageous woman’), which is staffed entirely by women, uniquely for women, and provides employment opportunities for women from low-income environments.

Within Red Savannah’s team, two-thirds are women, one of whom is Melissa Matthews who was awarded Condé Nast’s Top Travel Specialist in 2017.

Whilst there is a long way to go, it’s good to see that things are changing, and hopefully, after a few more years of celebrating International Women’s Day, equal opportunities will be the new status quo and gender discrimination relegated to history.

Words: Esme Hulme