While women historically have faced challenges being promoted to CEO and senior executive roles in the U.S. hospitality industry, change is on the horizon.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—The percentage of women who hold the titles of chief executive or president is growing in the U.S. hospitality industry, but women in those roles are still greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts, according to a new study, which compared data from 2012 and 2016.
Peggy Berg, The Highland
Group and Castell Project
Women held only about 5% of CEO positions at U.S. hotel companies in 2012, and that percentage was the same for 2016, according to Peggy Berg, founder of the Highland Group and head of the non-profit organization Castell Project.
The Castell Project’s “Women in hospitality industry leadership” study shows 9% of U.S. hotel company presidents were women in 2016, compared to 8% in 2012.
“The good news is … we actually made progress from 2012 to 2016; the industry isn’t leaping ahead, but it’s inching forward and that’s a very good thing,” Berg said.
Recognizing biases, where the lag begins
While women are outnumbered overall, Berg said women are more often successfully promoted to top leadership roles within sales and marketing, and human resources departments.
Women’s upward mobility in other departments is hindered in part by biases, Berg said, including the perception that women are weaker negotiators than men, which may lead to them being overlooked for chief development, investment or finance roles.
Janis Cannon, SVP of upscale brands at Choice Hotels International, said women are more often seen in roles that have stereotypically been perceived to be more on the emotional or creative side.
Janis Cannon, Choice
She said those stereotypes are inaccurate and don’t reflect the realities of the business. She noted this can be seen within disciplines like sales, where women are often put in group sales positions while men are more likely to hold franchise sales jobs.
“Both are sales functions that require high intelligence and being experts in your field,” Cannon said.
Cannon said when she is looking for someone to fill a sales position at Choice, she looks for leadership confidence and capabilities.
“It really should be more seamless than what we have today. Men and women should be able to cross back and forth (between these roles) with more relative ease,” she said.
Retention and work-life balance
Cannon said perceptions of traditional roles can also prove to be professionally challenging for women, particularly after childbirth.
When a woman comes back into the workforce after taking two years off to raise children, her counterparts now have two more years’ experience, and that could be a deciding factor in any consideration for advancement, she said.
Cannon said she encourages employees to take responsibility of their own learning to stay sharp. For example, she suggests a woman at home on leave should join webinars or go to seminars to stay up to date on the industry.
“It’s really important that you continue to invest in yourself,” she said.
Some hotel companies are recognizing that it’s not just a women’s issue anymore. That stigma is disappearing, as companies offer more flexible work hours for men and women.
“Men are as interested in having time and resources to devote to families as women are, among millennials,” Berg said. “It’s often posed as a women’s issue, but I don’t think it is anymore.”
At Choice, women who are new mothers are allowed 12 weeks of full-paid leave, and men are allowed up to four weeks, Cannon said.
Such policies are likely to become more prevalent in the industry, she said.
Mentors and advocates aiding promotions
Sources said developing a culture of mentorship is key for the advancement of women in the industry, and it will be key for women looking to climb the ladder in the industry.
Sue Sanders, HVMG
To advance in their careers within the industry, women need encouragement from mentors or their direct supervisors, said Sue Sanders, SVP of strategic planning and chief HR officer at Hospitality Ventures Management Group.
Sanders has worked in large organizations and never had a formal mentor, but she said all of her direct bosses have acted as that in her career.
“I could talk to them about where I was going to go next, where they thought I should go next …. A lot of my success businesswise I attribute directly to those relationships,” she said.
Most of Sanders’ bosses were men, she said, but she doesn’t think it would have mattered if they were women.
Cannon agreed that as long as the employee has someone acknowledging their potential, the gender shouldn’t matter.
The future of female representation
To encourage and prepare more women to take on higher roles, Cannon said there needs to be more of a focus on external development programs for women, like the Castell Project.
Development includes training in negotiation skills, networking to build an internal circle and coaching on career planning, Berg said.
Sanders said women just need to go for the job, even if they’re a little bit underqualified, because the initiative to take on new challenges will reflect positively.
But responsibility also lies with hotel companies, she said. If companies want to intentionally move more women into leadership roles, they need to raise awareness through internal development programs. Sanders said HVMG and other hotel companies have that.
Companies need to set a goal, keep metrics on it, track performance and reward performance, Berg noted. Ones “that are just waiting for something to organically happen are going to be less successful,” she said.
In the future, Berg said, she wants to see substantial representation of women across hospitality company’s C-suites, boards and in visible roles on the podium.
“The opportunity is now; the conversation has started,” Cannon said.