4 Women Leaders in Hospitality & Their Views on Gender Equality in the Industry

4 Women Leaders in Hospitality & Their Views on Gender Equality in the Industry

The last few decades have seen a lot of progress in gender equality, in the hospitality industry. But, when it comes to breaking the glass ceiling at the very top, companies are lagging behind.

Why is it still so difficult for women to make it to the most senior levels?

It’s not because of a lack of talent: there’s a huge pool to choose from.

The hospitality industry has one of the highest numbers of female employment of all industries worldwide, with women making up approximately 70% of the global workforce. However, the vast majority of women stay employed in low-level positions.

The 2019 Castell Project Report, released in February, documents the annual progress of women in hospitality. This year, the report found that women comprise just 11% of hospitality company leadership positions, including managing director, president, partner, principal and CEO roles.

If you thought that the main obstacle for women was juggling family and career, think again.

The report found that most women with and without children in the industry continue to work, and, ‘despite this, in every aspect of the hospitality industry, women’s odds of promotion diminish at each higher level.’

Instead, they fond that institutional bias continues to constrain women’s career advancement. Plus, many have biases about their own career potential. To counter bias, the report suggests the industry needs deliberate and intentional action.

Despite these institutional obstacles, there are lots of inspiring women leaders who’ve made it to the top of the industry.

Who better to help us understand how to improve the status quo, than the women who’ve already fought their way to the top?

They’ve all worked incredibly hard and faced no small amount of adversity, to reach the height of their careers. These women set an example for any ambitious young hospitality hopeful, no matter what gender you happen to be.

Here’s what they have to say about life, passion, work, and gender equality in the hospitality industry.

Clare Smyth

Clare Smyth, former pupil of Gordon Ramsay, was named ‘Best Female Chef’ at the 50 Best Restaurants Awards in 2018. This is after a string of ‘firsts’ as a female chef: first woman to receive 3 Michelin Stars, first woman to receive a perfect 10 on the Good Food Guide, among other accolades.

Last year, she shared some of her thoughts with Ciara Nugent from TIME magazine, on success and gender as a chef. Here are some extracts from that interview:

CN: You were recently named Best Female Chef at the 50 Best Restaurants Awards but said afterward that it was “strange” to distinguish between male and female chefs. Were you conflicted about accepting the accolade?

CS: No. There’s still a lack of women in the industry across the board, and this was a platform to talk about it. What would I be adding to my industry by not accepting it, by not sharing my story and trying to inspire other people?

CN: Have you come across people who make it difficult to work in the kitchen?

CS: When I was coming up in the industry, it was a testosterone-fueled environment. People would hide your equipment or turn your oven off in the middle of service. It was a macho culture, but it wasn’t specifically targeted at women. It was a general toughening-up. Hopefully those days are long gone.

CN: Do you think it’s harder for women to thrive in that kind of culture?

CS: I personally don’t. It was the same for everyone. I knew what I wanted to achieve, and I would never have let anyone get in the way. But maybe that’s just me. I’m very headstrong.

CN: The restaurant industry is having a #MeToo moment, with allegations of sexual misconduct against celebrity chefs. Is this a time of self-reflection for the industry?

CS: It is, and a very important one. I haven’t experienced that kind of behavior, luckily, but there are a lot of people that have, and it’s important they speak out about it. We should say enough is enough.

CN: Do you feel a duty to help other female chefs?

CS: Definitely. I am training a couple in my kitchen. If they can make it to the top, they can change the industry. This generation will break the mold.

Susan Keels

Susan Keels, director of sales and marketing at Royal Park Hotel in Rochester, started her career as a waitress at Shield’s. She worked her way up, while studying accounting and merchandising in college. She joined Royal Park 14 years ago, and pursued her career advancement with determination.

In May this year, she discussed gender equity in the industry with HospitalityNet:

“I feel the hospitality industry is already on the right path to taking women in leadership more seriously. We as female leaders in the industry need to continue to nurture and foster strong leadership roles for women. This is especially important for the next generation of leaders to come…

Placing women in high level leadership positions needs to become more than a standard, but a strong intent. As we continue to pave the path for women in leadership, it will become easier for future women leaders to follow…

The business world has evolved throughout the years, and there is more of a connection between leaders and their teams. It’s important to lead with understanding, compassion and empathy…

Women who are empathic leaders are often perceived as “too nice” and that is not the case; it takes a strong leadership skill set to be a good listener and understand the deep layers of all sides. An empathetic work environment leads to happier employees who feel a stronger sense of belonging, and ultimately take will better care of our guests and business…

I’m not much of a “quota” believer, however companies do need to be aware of creating a balanced environment where each leader brings a different perspective to the table. If a group of leaders is all of the same mentality it can slowdown progress and evolution. I would encourage leaders to look around the table and if everyone looks just like them, clearly something needs to change.”

Mai Kappenberger

After a long career in hospitality starting out as a waitress, Kappenberger is now the GM of Kurhotel Skodsborg, a luxury wellness retreat on the coast of Denmark. Here are some of the things she had to say to Lois Alter Mark of Forbes Magazine last year:

LAM: As you worked your work up the ladder, what were your perceptions of the way men and women were treated?

MK: It was quite tough. The hotel industry in Switzerland was very conservative and, as a young waitress, I was always the one given the late and early shifts. Being totally green, I just worked and worked and didn’t question anything.  When I became a manager, it became easier. And, funny enough, it seems tougher for women to move up the ladder in Denmark than in Germany or Switzerland.

LAM: How are you treated differently as a female GM?

MK: If you do your job well, you will get your recognition, but it will take a woman longer than it takes a man on a top management level. Networking is important, and it sometimes seems easier for women to help women because there are so few of us.

LAM: What is the most challenging part of being a female GM?

MK: I have worked in some old properties, so I would have loved to have an engineering education as well. There are always maintenance projects, construction and renovations. Maybe other women have skills in this area but for me it has been an area where I’ve had to learn on the job.

Hala Matar Choufany

Born in Beirut, Choufany has completed her Executive Education at Harvard Business School. She also holds an MBA in Finance and Strategy from IMHI (Essec- Cornell) University, Paris, a BA in Hospitality Management from Notre Dame University, Lebanon, and is fluent in English, French and Arabic.

After a long career in hospitality, she was promoted to President of HSV Hospitality Consulting Group, for the Middle East, Africa & South Asia, and Managing Partner of HVS Dubai. She is a regular spokesperson on women in hospitality, and was a recent contributor to the Women in African Hospitality Sector Conference (THINC) Africa, where she made the following statements on gender equality in the industry:

 “In the last 10 years, more women have taken leadership positions and while we still have to catch up, governments and organisations are realising the key role women play in the workplace.

We have seen remarkable change and growth for women in the hospitality industry where they have proven that they are every bit as capable and qualified as men. Development of detailed career plans as well as improvement in corporate practices and policies within enterprises continue to be instrumental in promoting equal opportunities for women in career progression.

Challenges and issues around women and men work inequality are universal and not continent specific. There are many internal and external factors that could impact women’s career path such as their own motivation, skills, educational level, lack of support or equal opportunities…. Also, different kinds of cultural norms, values and stereotypes often act as constant barriers.

To close the gender gap in the workforce and overcome societal barriers, women need support and training. Successful women should become more visible and support other women. Organisations too must go above and beyond to ensure women have a chance to work in positions that have been traditionally filled by men as well as have more opportunities to grow in their career.”

These four inspiring women have blazed a trail for the next generation of women to follow.

Not only are they setting an example, they are actually transforming the hospitality industry, by bringing with them a new, more empathetic approach to management. And, it pays! Research shows that increasing the number of women in senior positions is not only good for diversity, it’s better for the bottom line.

Everyone has something to gain from women’s advancement to senior levels in hospitality! That’s a mission worth pursuing.

At William Blue, we’re determined to help our all our graduates get a leg up in the industry, and to do our bit for gender equality. We offer a range of support services and experience opportunities to students. See here to find out more about the courses on offer at William Blue College of Hospitality Management.

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