Female talent in the hospitality industry

Attracting, Developing, and Retaining Female Talent in the Hospitality Industry
By Paul Vanderbroeck, PhD – Faculty Member Glion Online

The hospitality industry has traditionally attracted a high number of women into its workforce. The student bodies of hospitality schools, such as Glion, contain a good number of female students, usually around 50 %. So there is enough female talent in the pipeline. The current challenges therefore are not a matter of attraction, but of retention and progression to the highest level.

A quick look at a random sample of big players in the hospitality industry in April 2014, shows a similar picture as in many other industries: Fair numbers of women progress to mid-management levels. Then more women than men drop out until there are only a handful of women left at the most senior ranks. There are either no women in the senior team (Kempinski; Kuoni; Shangri-La) or only a few and often in non-operational roles such as legal, communication and HR (Accor; Carnival; Disney; Four Seasons; Hilton; Hyatt; Mandarin Oriental; TUI). Companies with a fairly balanced senior team, such as Best Western and Marriott, remain the exception.

Regarding retention, organizations are confronted with a “leaking pipeline”: women who quit in greater numbers than men before they reach their full potential, mostly because they feel they cannot combine family and career. Whilst this issue has been observed and recognized for some time, we now can observe a new phenomenon that results in the hole in the pipeline getting larger: rising numbers of women who leave corporations to set up their own business in the belief that in this way they can combine family and career. The risk for larger corporations is an increasingly smaller return on investment in female talent. Regarding progression, there is the “glass ceiling”: the challenge to progress women to the top.

From my perspective, it is not that organizations do not want to bring women to the top. Rather, they don’t know how. Or, more specifically, plenty initiatives are taken with the best intentions and the poorest results. Through my own experience and research in leadership development I have identified four pitfalls that prevent the successful development of female leaders and thus prevent organizations from leveraging all available talent. Addressing the first two traps can help to plug the hole in the pipeline and improve retention of female talent. The two others deal with the “glass ceiling”. Let us now explore these traps as well as what organizations can do to help women avoid these traps.

The equal treatment trap

Different gender means different needs. Companies confuse equal opportunity with equal treatment. In their eagerness to avoid making a difference, companies put in a lot of effort to ensure equal treatment. This is helpful, when it comes to salary and bonus. However, it makes less sense in terms of benefits: in a dual career couple, for instance, a second company car would be perceived as a lesser perk. A choice of services that cover real needs may well have a higher impact on retention. For example, childcare or a savings plan to meet financial constraints, should one choose to take time off for child rearing. Organizations need to value an infrastructure that makes it easier to integrate career and family. Both internal initiatives and collaborations with local government and other community organizations can be instrumental in this effort. Some organizations in the hospitality industry may well consider using their available infrastructure and staff for such purposes. Differentiating compensation and benefits policies according to individual needs helps to retain talent.

Career vs family

The career trap

Different gender means different career progression. In the 21st century, most companies still seem to believe in linear careers: “High potentials” are identified before reaching a certain age, so that they can progress to the most senior ranks in the remaining time of their careers. For women, this time window often coincides with the age bracket in which they want to start a family and take care of their small children. Thus, they often feel forced to make a difficult choice between family and career. Who does not show enough potential and performance within a certain time frame, misses the window of opportunity. Once out of the “high potential pool”, one does not get back into it. Here it is helpful to offer longer and more flexible career paths: open “high potential pools” for older age groups and allow flexible entry and exit points. This prevents women from stepping off the career ladder or leaving the organization all together. The following two traps concern the “glass ceiling”.

The men-and-women-are-alike trap

Different gender means different leadership. Women on their way up the corporate ladder get caught in the assumption that women and men have the same leadership qualities. This assumption has been reinforced through the use of 360° and other behavior-based evaluation tools. The problem is that these popular evaluation tools are not, in fact, gender neutral. Research shows that women and men tend to have different and complimentary leadership qualities. Organizations, on the other hand, seem to have a tendency to model their leadership development on past success, i.e. male leaders in male-dominated organizations. Consequently, organizations have unwittingly built in obstacles to women’s progression to the top, forcing women into a behavioral framework that is more suited to men than to women.

Organizations can help their leaders become more attuned to the differences between men and women leaders. This will improve the effectiveness of efforts to find the right person for the right job. Rather than trying to “fix” women to make them “suitable” for leadership positions, organizations should work to create a gender bilingual culture so that perceptions measured by 360-degree evaluations are not influenced by unconscious biases against women. Organizations therefore need to review and update their talent-management processes and systems (e.g. competency frameworks and 360° evaluations) to ensure they are gender bilingual and remove hidden biases against women.

The do-as-the-boys trap

The previous trap leads to the second trap: the belief that women must pattern their leadership behavior on the behavior of men in order to succeed. This gets women into a “double bind”: since they are expected to be “feminine”, women who display too much “male” behavior are not well received by their peers at the top.

The key to success seems to lie in leveraging the differences between men and women leaders rather than in seeking to highlight the similarities between them. Women must find and develop their own style in order to progress. They need to turn being different into a positive contribution that adds value to the business. A well-designed mentoring program for that matter may give a good return on investment; better than for example programs aimed at “training” women to acquire “skills” that help them “survive” in the corporate world. Rather than the default option (a senior woman mentoring a junior woman), it would be wiser to choose a man as a mentor. For he may be better able to reflect on what works and what does not for a woman in an environment surrounded by men. Organizations must help talented women to discover their specific leadership skills to develop and use, so that they move forward in their unique way.

female talent in hospitality

In summary, to manage and leverage women’s leadership talent effectively, organizations need to recognize that women and men have different leadership development needs, motivational needs, and different career needs. To improve retention of women, organizations would be well advised to open up their leadership development process, compensation and benefits system, and career tracks to make them more flexible in order to respond to gender differences.

Organizations that want to maximize the opportunity of gender diversity at the top need to update their talent-management processes—such as leadership competency frameworks, assessment, leadership development, and succession planning—if they are to benefit from a gender-balanced, and therefore high-performing, leadership team.

Men and women tend to have different leadership qualities. When organizations don’t recognize those differences, they develop women leaders in the wrong direction. As a result, women find themselves barred from the top. Talented women need to discover, develop, and leverage the specific leadership skills that will help them progress in their unique ways. Organizations can use such differences to their advantage by ensuring that behavior by women leaders is perceived in its true light and appreciated for its true value.

1 Discussion on “Female talent in the hospitality industry”
  • I find these articles very interesting. However, I don’t think that to reach the top is more difficult for a woman working in the hospitality industry that in any other industry. It depends on who you really are and aim at.
    I became HR VP and GM in a very well known hotel chain despite the fact that I never studied in a hotel school. I even became VP of EHL! I am now working for a well known business school and coach executives working in all kind o f industries. My experience tells me that women (young or older) have to know what they want, to understand the name of the game and decide if they want to play it…and the road is open. Good luck to all!

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