The U.S. hotel industry is inching along in opening paths for women to reach senior executive and C-suite roles, but data shows that women still aren’t widely seen in roles within finance and operations.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Women are roughly one-fifth as likely as men to get C-suite positions and roughly one-third as likely to rise to the EVP or SVP levels at hotel companies, and Castell Project Director Peggy Berg said this is evidence the industry needs to do a better job tackling its biases head-on.
the Highland Group
and Castell Project
Berg, who conducted the 2019 “Women in hospitality industry leadership” report, said there seems to be a disconnect “between what is happening with women moving into leadership and what makes sense.”The most important thing “is to recognize that unconscious biases exist,” said Berg, who is also founder of the Highland Group. “We all have them, don’t care who you are; we’ve all got them. The second thing is to notice when they’re kicking in and for company leaders to challenge the people who work with them to identify it when they see bias.”
What makes sense is that people who are really good at working with money, finances and numbers should be moving up into leadership positions, she said. But what she’s finding is that women are perceived as not being good at finances and numbers in business, but skilled in other aspects of their lives such as balancing household incomes.
Julienne Smith, SVP of development and owner relations at Hyatt Hotels Corporation, said she finds Castell’s data striking.
“In Peggy’s report, she indicated that nearly half of financial decisions are made by women, and that’s certainly the case in my household. I drive the finances just because I’m interested in it and I’m good at it,” Smith said.
Smith said if women are making half of the decisions on how to spend money at home, that should play out in the hotel industry, too.
There seems to be a similar perception with roles that require negotiation skills, Berg said. If women are given opportunities in those types of roles, it’s typically “lower-paid roles,” she noted, “but they’re not given the same opportunity in, say, finance or real estate.”
“I think that we’re very effective negotiators. … We are really able to bridge the brand’s needs, which is who we work for, and the franchisees’ needs, which is who we want to grow with,” Smith said. “Finding the balance in negotiating contracts and bridging relationships that are durable, we do well.”
Smith said she’d love to see more women in development roles, and she thinks about that when hiring for her team.
“On my team, I want the best person who’s qualified for the job, but there are a lot of young women out there coming out of hotel school who are very well qualified, and we need to give them chances to be part of our organizations—whether it’s feasibility, finance or development to grow into leadership roles,” she said.
The Castell Project data shows the odds of women reaching the VP or EVP/SVP level in development at hotel companies is one woman to nine men and one woman to roughly 11 men, respectively.
Michelle Russo, founder and CEO of HotelAVE, said every person in her company that is an asset manager in the EVP/SVP level has those skills and abilities. She said her job is to support them and cultivate those skills.
“My job is to prep with them, roleplay with them, ask them if they want me to be on the call but then stay silent unless they reach out for me,” she said. “People don’t step up if their bosses are going to take over the meeting.”
Looking deeper at perceptions
Berg said it’s typical that once a man has about 30% of the skills needed to go for a promotion, he will apply. Women, however, will wait until they have 100% of the skills before they are comfortable, she said.
“The question is why?” she said.
Berg said the answer, in part, is that a man who is 30% ready and applies for the move up is perceived as “enterprising and a go-getter.” When a woman is 30% ready and applies for the move up, she is perceived as “unrealistic,” she said.
“Women are trained, ‘don’t do it until you’re 100% ready; even at 100%, you may not be taken seriously,’” Berg said.
Leaders at a company need to recognize there’s two sides to this: “We have women responding to a learned behavior, and we have a culture that is teaching that behavior,” she said.
To address this, Berg said companies need to look at the women who are currently in the organization and who are close enough to be highly competitive. If six resumes are from men, and they’re all between 30% and 50% ready, managers should consider “what women do I have in the organization that are 50% ready?” she said. “And let’s put them in the mix.”
Smith said building relationships was key when moving up in her career.
“Relationships have been a big piece for me, being open to opportunities, not pigeonholing myself, believing that I could do more and having the confidence that I could show people that I could do more … and going after promotions that maybe I wasn’t 100% ready for,” she said.
She advised women in the industry to not be shy, raise a hand and throw their hat in the ring.
Berg said women move up and are highly successful where there are opportunities available. There are plenty of “paths” in human resources roles; “they’re doing great all the way up to C-suite,” she said.
Paths are openings for employees to move up in ranks, but biases can act as roadblocks on those paths, Berg said.
Leslie Pchola, SVP of operations at Hilton, said paths start at the property level. In the 35 years she’s been in the industry, she said she’s noticed a big change in the diversity that Hilton has within its hotels, “and I think that brings a greater strength.”
“At the property level, having more female GMs and more diverse GMs in the seat … from there, you’re able to create pathways to move up the organization,” she said.
Human resources is the only category in which women outnumber men at all levels, according to the report.
Michelle Woodley, president at Preferred Hotels & Resorts, said when looking at men and women in terms of innate characteristics, “typically we do see that women … may have an emotion on certain topics and men may not.”
“But sometimes the opposite can happen, too,” she said. “However, typically it’s more often than not we see women having more passion and emotion about something.”
She said these perceptions and the reality of which roles women are lacking presence in become evident in meetings with existing or potential partners—whether it’s an owner, developer, asset manager—“where more often than not it’s a man across the table, not another woman.”
At Preferred, even within the female leadership, there is a “range of cultural backgrounds, (and a) range of ages,” Woodley said. “I hope that we are helping to set an example (so that) some of these past thoughts get dispelled,” she said, adding that when a conversation is started, “we can just kind of tell our story.”Many of these perceptions can be deep-rooted in organizations dating to the 1940s or ’50s, when there weren’t as many women in the workforce, she added.
How companies can offer extra training
Berg said some companies will do gender-specific training either internally or externally. But it’s important to do it in a way that is not “punitive.”
“It’s something that should be a strength-builder,” she said.
If women are looking for extra help outside of the company’s formal groups, she suggests to always ask within the company what those resources might be. Pchola said Hilton does a lot of different leadership training for women at both the property and corporate level, including “lunch and learns,” diversity summits and mentorship programs.
Smith said Hyatt has about seven different diversity business resource groups. The original was “Women at Hyatt” more than 15 years ago, she said. The group now has transformed to be open to everyone and geared toward topics that are interesting to women and men, such as balancing a career and a family.
Smith said she’s also a big fan of encouraging employees to attend networking events to establish and grow relationships. This could help lead to finding mentors who are inspiring, regardless of their gender or background.
Woodley said her company did toy with the idea of having a women’s group, but she found topics that might be interesting to women were also of interest to men.
Russo said HotelAVE also takes a gender-neutral approach.
What’s on the horizon
Woodley said she hopes women continue to move forward, which will also help move the industry forward, by putting the best people in the best places.
“I guess our job is to make women at least feel comfortable, that if they want the opportunity, it’s there for them,” she said.
Smith noted women need more representation at industry conferences.
She said she’d love to see more women in leadership roles asked to be on panels, adding it’s also up to the conference holders to mix it up.“Typically when I see leadership panels, it’s pretty homogeneous, which again is disappointing for those who are young and up-and-coming and want to see themselves in a leadership role,” she said. “If you don’t see someone like you, you get kind of turned off.”
Russo said she feels like the industry is trying and there is a desire among conference holders to have more women speak.
“Unfortunately, I think it’s just a reflection of what the actual ratio is of working women versus men in hotel real estate,” she added. “But I really do feel like there is a focus and a huge awareness.”
Berg said there is a strong bench of women moving up in the industry, and she hopes to see the numbers get stronger and stronger at the next levels.
“Our sense is that things are inching along,” she said.