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14 Nov 2018

BY James Chapple

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Why women are still losing the board game

TTG’s exclusive look at Equality in Tourism’s 2018 report reveals travel has fallen behind government targets for top-level female representation. James Chapple reports.

Gender inequality
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“If the industry wants to pride itself on its progress in terms of responsible and sustainable tourism, it has to recognise gender equality as an integral part of that”

The travel, tourism and hospitality industry is broadly more gender equal than it was five years ago – but only just, a new report into the standing of women in travel has found.


The latest Equality in Tourism report, entitled Sun, Sand and Ceilings, concludes insufficient progress has been made over the past five years, with the industry “seriously lagging behind” other sectors, not to mention national and international targets.


In 2013, a survey of 78 UK organisations across five sectors – hotels, tour operators, professional associations, cruise lines and airlines – found the overall representation of women on company boards was just 15%. This is despite women, worldwide, representing considerably more than half the labour force in travel and tourism.


Board representation, the new report says, is a “key indicator” for companies’ strategic commitment to gender equality in key decision-making and leadership roles.


The 2013 report proposed a minimum of 25% representation by 2015, in line with the government’s recommendation to FTSE 100 companies as set out in the 2011 Davies Review. The FTSE 100 achieved this goal; three years later, travel and tourism has not.


Equality in Tourism’s 2018 report – this time based on publicly available data from 53 of those 78 organisations surveyed in 2013 – finds female representation at board level across travel and tourism in the UK has increased to just 23%.

State of the industry

This is not only below the 25% target set for 2015, but also some considerable distance short of various subsequent government recommendations.


Three years ago, the government challenged the UK’s 350 largest companies to achieve 33% female board representation by 2020. The EU set a 40% target.


By whichever measure, if 2018, or realistically now 2019, is to be the year travel grasps the nettle, the curve is steep. The industry starts three years behind and some 10% short of where its counterparts in other industries are expected to be by 2020.


“As the employer of a majority female workforce, the tourism and hospitality industry should exceed expectations and take the lead to aim for full equality between men and women, not only on company boards, but also in senior and executive positions,” the report states.


What remains clear is travel and tourism is not only still a male-led industry in which women prop up the majority of its major functions, it is an industry struggling – rather than failing – to embark on the change expected of it.


“We still seem to be facing a situation resembling 1918 rather than 2018,” the report reads, citing Amanda Mackenzie, chief executive of CSR champion Business in the Community. “Whatever progress has been made has been painfully slow.”

Size and structure

This is not lost on Dr Angela Kalisch, chair of Equality in Tourism and one of the authors of the report. She has been leading efforts to encourage collaboration between the industry and groups such as Equality in Tourism. However, despite some progress, she tells TTG the group has encountered resistance.


“It’s difficult to pinpoint why,” she says, citing tentatively, as does the report, the impact of the culture of mergers and acquisitions within travel, which has given rise to “change, turnover and flux”.


“There is always structural change,” says Kalisch. “This contributes to shifts in priority. Perhaps this survival instinct has got in the way.”


Another area she highlights, while making it abundantly clear it should not be considered an excuse, is the size of major corporations.


Of the five UK-based sectors surveyed, tour operators (+1%), airlines (+4%) and cruise lines (+5%) achieved the lowest rates of gender equality growth at board level. They also took the bottom three spots in terms of boardroom equality: 20%, 17% and 16% respectively (women to men).


“These companies have hugely complex structures,” says Kalisch. “The larger the company, perhaps the more difficult it is to implement change quickly. It takes time to cascade this change. That’s not an excuse though. If there is a will to make positive change, it will happen. If you elevate women, change follows at all levels.”


Kalisch cites the hotel sector as perhaps having made the greatest visible advances, in particular Radisson. Its 2016 Responsible Business Report championed diversity and inclusion while prioritising talent – independent of gender. However, again, this has been tempered by M&A.

“Most women are in lower-paid, part-time or lower-skilled roles. It’s difficult to progress from that base”
Dr Angela Kalisch, chair, Equality in Tourism

“The hotel sector is in the process of making big changes,” says Kalisch.


“Radisson has implemented a radical programme for the progression of women. However, they were taken over by a Chinese company [HNA, in 2016] and now has an all-male board. These takeovers fundamentally change the culture at the very top.”


The report praises the efforts of some smaller, more nimble operators such as Intrepid Travel, which has already achieved parity across its leadership team. It has also enacted many of Equality in Tourism’s key drivers of change – mentoring procedures, unconscious bias training and flexible working, as well as setting targets for how it plans to shape its leadership team long-term.


Kalisch believes part of the problem is how the industry is structured in terms of gender, being bottom-heavy in terms of women.


“It is very diverse,” says Kalisch.


“But most women are in lower-paid, part-time or lower-skilled roles. It’s difficult to progress from that base.


“You need diversity in management structures to drive change. It can be psychological too; many women may simply not believe there are realistic prospects of promotion – they don’t imagine themselves in boardroom settings.”

Equality enforcement

While praising the government for ordering April’s gender pay review, Kalisch concedes there are arguments for and against legislative measures to drive gender equality, stressing change is usually more effective when it is organic but acknowledging this change may, otherwise, never come to fruition.


There are successful examples. Iceland has introduced legislation requiring companies with more than 25 employees to prove they pay equally. Norway, meanwhile, has since 2013 mandated at least 40% representation of each gender on the boards of public limited companies.


“The extent of the [UK]gender pay gap… provoked shock and outrage,” the report reads. “Complacency has been replaced by calls for change. There has never been a better time to address the widespread lack of gender diversity at the highest echelons of all sectors of the tourism and hospitality industry.”


It calls for bold strategies, legislation and regulation, rigorously enforced and implemented, and regularly monitored with the results publicised transparently.


Key for Kalisch, though, is positive, affirmative and, crucially, swift action on gender equality. She believes all companies should first undertake a gender audit to simply establish how many women they have, what jobs they are doing, what skills they have and what avenues aren’t currently open to them.


Secondly, with female employees largely concentrated in lower-skilled, less well-paid roles, a common issue, says Kalisch, is a lack of strong female mentors and role models, necessitating both the drive for greater gender equality at the highest echelons of companies, but also high-level corporate leadership on gender equality.

Countering resistance

While she praises the government for its efforts to encourage and promote gender equality matters, such as mandatory gender pay gap reporting, she believes more can be done to measure progress and, importantly, ensure it is reported publicly.


Training is another important consideration, particularly around any unconscious bias that exists in a group. “It’s not always comfortable,” says Kalisch, reiterating the report’s message this must start from “fertile ground”, i.e. executive level.


“This takes time and must be done sensitively,” she says. “When you make people face up to their biases, there can be resistance.”


Finally, companies must draft and adopt strategies for change. They must audit and analyse, set targets and embrace transparency. They must “talk, collaborate and, vitally, learn”, the report advises.


“If the industry wants to pride itself on its progress in terms of responsible and sustainable tourism – and progress has been made – it has to recognise gender equality as an integral part of that,” says Kalisch. “Genuine responsible tourism can’t be achieved without gender equality.”


Next steps for Equality in Tourism include a round-table discussion featuring key figures from all five travel and tourism sectors. “We have to start a debate,” Kalisch says.


“It’s critical people from different parts of the industry speak to each other, share with each other and learn from each other.


“We must be open-minded. We are happy to collaborate. We’re not saying we have all the answers, but we have the knowledge, experience and expertise.”

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