Breaking through the glass ceiling in hospitality, travel and leisure

07 March 2019

If you want to give your economy a real boost, improve opportunities for women – our newly published Women in Work Index shows that bringing female employment rates in the UK up to the high levels in Sweden would increase our national GDP by a staggering 9%.

And if gender equality is good for the economy, it’s also good for individual businesses. Indeed, in sectors that are all about customer experience like hospitality, travel and leisure (HTL), it’s vital for survival. The leadership of your business and the people driving innovation should reflect your customer base, women included, to have a real understanding of what they want. Connecting with women in HTL is especially important because, as the mentioned in the video below, they make more of some of the key decisions such as where to go on holiday.

Boosting gender equality, and diversity and inclusion more generally, are also increasingly important in shaping your reputation now that the conspicuous consumption that marked the first decade of the century, and the caution that has characterised the second, is rapidly giving way to consumer conscientiousness. In the same way that consumers are gravitating towards sustainable businesses, they want to give their money to diverse and inclusive companies and will vote with their feet if they’re not.

Still plenty to do

It’s therefore really encouraging that the 2019 Edition of the Women in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure Review reveals that most of the leading companies in HTL have reached or are on track to reach the 33% Hampton-Alexander review target (female representation across FTSE 350 boards and executive committees by 2020). If we think about where we were 20, even ten years ago, this is a significant achievement. Yet, this is just a start. Look behind the headline findings and you’ll see that a few notable exceptions aside, the people in the big three positions – CEO, CFO and Chair – are still almost invariably men.

There are many reasons why this glass ceiling is still there – some common to all industries such as unconscious bias and some specific to HTL such as the challenges of working flexibly in a 24/7 operation. Yet, none of these barriers need to be there and if your business can clear them away you’re going to be in a much stronger position competitively. So how can you as a business and we as an industry accelerate progress on gender equality?

1/ Believe in it

No business is going to stand up and say diversity isn’t a good thing. But while some see it as a business imperative, others regard it as no more than a nice-to-have. The businesses that get it are looking beyond isolated initiatives and PR pushes to identify why some women are unable to fulfil their potential and tackling the root causes.

2/ Promote mentors, sponsors and role models

There is a lot of research to say that women are less inclined to push themselves forward for promotion than men. My experience in senior management certainly bears this out.

It’s therefore vital that women have access to mentors who can advise them on the skills and experiences they need to advance their careers and help foster the confidence to put themselves forward. It’s also important to ensure they have sponsors who can open the way to the assignments and leadership programmes that will enable them to progress, along with role models that show that it’s possible for them to get to the top.

Some of this support can come from inside the organisation. I also know from my involvement with a number of women’s networks within the industry how important these are in providing advice, role models and self-belief.

3/ Challenge unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is still ingrained within many organisations. There is also a tendency within all industries, including HTL, for leaders to promote people in their own image, which in most cases is male.

Tracking and analysis of promotion rates between men and women and exit interviews with high potential women can help to identify unconscious biases in need of addressing. As we’ve seen at PwC, steps such as gender neutral job descriptions and more objective capabilities tests can also help to minimise biases and their impact.

4/ Recognise the value of flexibility

While the nature of HTL can make flexible working unfeasible in some roles, this shouldn’t be an excuse for resisting flexibility across the organisation. With the aid of technology, most jobs can be performed well, or even better flexibly. At PwC, we’ve found that moving to more agile working at all levels based on results rather than at-the-desk hours has boosted performance.

It’s also important to overcome fears about the impact on careers that prevent many women, and indeed men, from taking up flexible options or shared parental leave. One of the keys to this is presenting senior leaders who are or have worked flexibility as role models. Some women may need to take their foot off the gas at some points in their career, such as just after maternity leave. But they should be assured that this won’t affect their long-term career advancement.

Level playing field

This isn’t about favouring women. Rather, it’s about making the necessary interventions to create a level playing field and enable talented women to fulfil their potential.

So, gender equality should be at the top of the business agenda every day, rather than just International Women’s Day. Accelerating progress could provide a huge bottom line boost. Innovation, reputation and customer engagement will suffer if you don’t.


To find out more, download the Women in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure 2019 report, and get in touch to discuss progress in your organisation.


Lisa Hooker

Lisa Hooker | UK Consumer Markets Leader
Profile | Email | +44 (0)7802 882562



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