Women in Hospitality: Promoting Empowerment, Ensuring Inclusive Environments and Achieving Equality

The Staff Canteen

International Women’s Day (IWD), this year, highlights the importance of inspiring inclusion and we’re looking at the strides hospitality is making towards gender equality, the barriers it’s still facing, and how the sector can create a culture of empowerment, inclusion and equality.

Gender equality is a global priority that needs to be shared at all levels in hospitality. Efforts by the United Nations (UN) have enhanced this by embedding gender equality into their 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Today, though, the world is not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030. In fact, at the current rate, it will take 140 years to achieve equal representation in workplace leadership.

Hospitality is traditionally a sector dominated by men, where women have historically been underrepresented, particularly in leadership positions. A 2023 report reveals a vast gender imbalance in the hotel and leisure sector, with zero female CEOs or chairs at the world’s largest hotel groups. Signalling a diversity disparity crisis, only 7% of the top positions are held by women, a stark difference from the 50/50 gender balance within the workforce.

From a 50% overall balance across the industry, the percentage of women decreases to 42% in mid-level management and 33% in senior management. The report does show, however, that change is possible. For example, the percentage of women on the boards of leisure companies has risen from 17% in 2007 to 28% in 2022.

Empowering women in hospitality

“Over the years, the catering industry has seen significant progress in terms of gender equality and opportunities for women,” Hannah Robinson, Head Pastry Chef at Goldman Sachs for BaxterStorey, told The Staff Canteen. “More women have the opportunity to take leadership roles, own businesses, and excel in various positions in the kitchen,” added Hannah.

Having women in leadership positions is necessary for true equality. Women inspire and mentor others, creating a pipeline for future generations. In turn, this helps break down biases and barriers in hospitality that work to eradicate stereotypes that hold women back. “Many inspirational women are shaping the culinary world, and it is nice to see them celebrated by most. It is wonderful to witness female chefs supporting each other within the catering industry,” Hannah highlighted.

A higher representation of women in leadership results in increased productivity and better decision-making capabilities, boosts collaboration, improves customer experiences, increases innovation, and produces a more robust financial performance.

“I’m very happy to be working in a Michelin-starred kitchen at this present moment, having heard about how much tougher it used to be, not only for women but for anyone working in the industry,” Simran Preet Kaur, Demi chef at Michelin-starred restaurant, The Cross at Kenilworth told The Staff Canteen. “At the Cross, I’m treated equally and know that I’ve earned respect through hard work and caring about the job. I feel accepted as an important team member and enjoy the camaraderie,” Simran added.

Barriers to achieving inclusion and gender equality

“Through my career, I have seen a significant improvement in the number of women in the hospitality industry and, in particular, the number of young female chefs moving up through the ranks,” Amy Stoyel, Head Pastry Chef at Gouqi told The Staff Canteen. “However, I think there is still great progress that can be made,” Amy added.

Many women face a phenomenon known as a “broken rung” when they attempt to enter management positions, a clear component of the proverbial glass ceiling. Research has found that these invisible barriers to entry into management see women missing the first step on the “ladder of leadership” or the stages in the promotion process.

For every 100 men promoted to an entry-level management position, only 72 women were given the same opportunity, according to McKinsey and Company 2019 data. The broken rung can explain why fewer women in junior management positions lead to fewer women in executive positions.

The hospitality industry’s demanding nature presents challenges for women balancing work and family responsibilities. A 2022 Diversity for Social Impact report found that 55% of women in leadership roles felt that work-life balance was a significant obstacle. The stigma surrounding successful female leaders needing to decide between a career or a family magnifies the obstacles for hospitality executives.

Balancing work and personal life and providing flexible work options like hybrid working are essential for women’s wellbeing and career advancement. In their research on the future of work in hospitality, BCG and NYU discovered that almost 90% of employees would opt for remote or partially remote work if given the opportunity. While men are more inclined towards fully remote or onsite work, women prefer a hybrid working model.

Unconscious biases and stereotypes also hinder progress. In a recent European survey, 63% of women in hospitality reported having experienced gender bias at work. Gender stereotyping means that companies often confine women to what they perceive as traditional gender roles, placing women in customer-facing roles, such as front-desk staff, waiting staff, or housekeeping, restricting their opportunities to progress into leadership positions.

There remains an under-representation of women in hospitality. JLL’s 2023 research into Finding a Voice: Empowering Women in Hospitality found that among the top 10 hotel companies in Europe, on average, the male-to-female split was 70/30. Promoting and encouraging women into leadership roles in hospitality needs strong representation and role models to indicate that future career prospects in senior positions are more than simply aspirational.

Limited access to mentorship and networking opportunities is also a clear obstacle. In Canada, only 42% of women in the hospitality sector reported having access to mentorship programmes. Establishing programmes to encourage mentorship and coaching opportunities for female employees to earn new skills, build confidence and grow their careers is key. It is crucial to facilitate networking opportunities and support female employees in joining women-led professional organisations, such as The Women’s Hospitality Initiative and Inspiring Women in Hospitality, which are designed to support and empower women.

Businesses can champion women by coaching and supporting them, helping them hone their public speaking skills and providing opportunities to speak at industry conferences and events. They can work to recognise and celebrate achievements by highlighting success stories through awards and internal communication channels to inspire others and demonstrate commitment to gender equality.

Creating a more inclusive and supportive environment

We need to cultivate a culture that supports, nurtures, and values women leaders. One that challenges stereotypes is essential. Male allies play an important role in promoting gender diversity in hospitality leadership by challenging biases, advocating for fair policies, and fostering an environment of mutual respect and collaboration.

“There is still some outstanding bias towards women present in the catering industry,” Hannah said before emphasising, “this should be acknowledged and challenged by anyone who witnesses it”. “When it comes to being a chef, the only thing that matters is the passion, dedication and innovation in an individual, which has nothing to do with gender,” Hannah added.

In a 2021 systematic review of gender diversity in hospitality and tourism top management teams over the last ten years, researchers found that female role models, organisational structure, and organisational support are vital to change. Gender diversity improved financial performance, business growth and human resource outcomes.

“In the past, kitchens have been notorious for attracting a certain type of person, but I believe that, as with everything in life, variety is key,” Amy said. “I believe the hospitality industry needs more diversity and inclusivity in all senses of the word as this will lead to a more evolved environment and a more open and creative atmosphere,” Amy highlighted.

Research indicates the sector requires flexible working conditions, family-friendly practices, proactive and transparent gender equality and inclusion practices. Mentoring, transparent recruitment and promotion practices, support networks and the promotion of a gender equality culture are also vital.

“I’d like to see high-achieving kitchens, ideally with the government's support, find a way for women starting families to continue with their profession and not have to choose between family and work,” said Simran. “However, I’m aware this is a universal problem for women in work, not just chefs,” Simran continued.

The hospitality industry needs to also improve disclosure and regular reporting, provide independent regulation and verification, and incentivise and hold leadership accountable for progress on gender diversity to help women get into leadership positions. Regular audits, employee surveys, and diversity reports can help track progress.

Training and development for promoting resilience and self-efficacy, introducing effective mentoring schemes and creating a transparent gender-equal or gender-neutral culture are crucial to women’s career progression. Gender awareness training, transparent recruitment and promotion practices, and promotion of a gender-neutral culture represent organisational enablers for women’s career advancement.

The narrative is changing, and there’s a growing recognition of women leaders’ vital role in the hospitality sector. As we advocate for gender equality and balanced leadership, we must look at the young women starting their careers in the hospitality industry. We are their role models, and they are looking at us. Let’s show them a world where their talent, dedication, and ambition are valued equally.

“By encouraging a sense of community and solidarity, we not only empower one another but hopefully inspire the next generation of aspiring female chefs,” Hannah shared.

Cracks are appearing in the glass ceiling, but we need to make comprehensive, conscious and dedicated efforts for it to be shattered.

Written by: Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th March 2024

Women in Hospitality: Promoting Empowerment, Ensuring Inclusive Environments and Achieving Equality