by Larry Mogelonsky, MBA, P. Eng.
The calendar year of 2018 has already proven to be a watershed moment for increasing diversity in the workplace and shattering the glass ceiling of gender bias. What started in Hollywood with #metoo and the Time’s Up movement has had profound repercussions across many other industries as professionals around the world have come to understand that a more inclusive work environment is also a healthier and more profitable one.
But how has hospitality reacted to this sea change? To help shed some light on how women can navigate a hospitality career and how to make the workplace more accepting for all, Today’s Hotelier recruited five top executives for an interview on the subject.
Vice Chairwoman AAHOA
Senior Vice President and Global Head, TRU by Hilton
Director of Asset Management, Westmont Hospitality Group
President and CEO, American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA)
President and CEO, New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association
Tell us a bit about how you started out and your career in hospitality.
JP: My family had a hotel, so I guess you could say that I’ve been in the hospitality business since I was 19! I’ve done everything from front desk to manager to partner. There is tremendous potential for a woman to grow in this business.
AJ: My father was a general manager and so I ended up traveling throughout Southeast Asia, India, Germany and other countries. In those days, the GM typically lived in the hotel, and therefore so did I; hotels are in my DNA! My official start was an internship with Four Seasons before I tried my hand at Wall Street, but my passion for hospitality soon drove me back to hotels. I’m quite lucky in that from a young age I had the opportunity to see other cultures and to understand the stories behind every person – how they did their jobs, their struggles and how they endured in their daily lives – and this has shaped me as a leader and as a mother.
DL: I don’t really have a traditional hospitality background. I was working for a CPA. She had a contract with my current employer, Westmont, and made the introductions for me. Now, I’m approaching 35 years at Westmont and no two days are the same for me.
KL: My background is in public affairs and advocacy. I had worked in government and with several firms that represented the industry with government. AH&LA was looking to both understand Washington and, at the same time, to recognize the potential for the industry. But all of the work that I have ever done has been consumer-facing, and hospitality is a business of people taking care of people. That was tops for me. Then there were the groups that make up our industry – the brands, owner and management companies. All of these had to be aligned for common goals, with a common narrative.
MH: Like many, my first experience in hospitality was as a hostess in a restaurant, and when I was in college I had a part-time job as a bartender. One of my early jobs was working for Radio City Music Hall in New York City as their event manager handling everything from the Grammys to corporate activities. I left that to work for an events company, but with children I recognized that a life on the road was not for me. As I was involved with the New Jersey Tourism Association, I joined a family run attractions business as their marketing director. After 13 years, I was ready for something new and joined my current association.
What would you say to the current state of women in hospitality in terms of leadership role availability, gender bias and how things have changed?
MH: Let me start with a funny story about prejudice. I volunteered to become a member of the Gaming Commission in New Jersey. I was the first female member since the group’s inception in 1942. The board I joined comprised five men plus myself. We all had official board titles and I was appointed to the position of secretary. To the men on the commission, this seemed logical. Then the chairman passed away, and as secretary I immediately assumed the role of chair. Quite the opposite of prejudice, they were delighted! This aside, there is often an unconscious bias that some retain, and we cannot get rid of it. I have been fortunate that, with few small exceptions, I have never felt any discrimination because I am a woman.
DL: Traditional careers for women were not in business. I started as an administrative assistant some 35 years ago, and there were few women in the senior ranks. In terms of gender bias, we have had to work twice as hard to get to where we are. But that is the past. Today, I would say that we are approaching a level of equality between men and women in our business. We don’t yet have half of our general managers as female, but it is inevitable that this day will come.
KL: Hotels are embracing diversity, but there is more work to be done, in particular at the board level. There is proof that diverse executive teams and boards means better decisions and, ultimately, improved profitability. There is certainly more room for upward mobility and opportunities for women, but we are not fully satisfied, nor should we stop the conversation. The reality here is that women are typically the caregivers, both to their children and often to their parents in their later year, and this raises challenges insofar as the long hours that someone typically puts into their career as well as the ability to change locations. We need to find flexible solutions, perhaps through technology, and this may mean undertaking new ways of doing business.
AJ: We have come a long way in this industry, but the degree of gender bias depends on the company. At Hilton, the experience has been positive. The reality is that women still have roles as mothers. Hilton gives us the flexibility in our environment and the ability to balance the needs of a mother with the needs of the job. There is no judgement; no stigma attached to these duties. In fact, last year we launched a program called Thrive@Hilton that enables Team Members to balance their busy lives and flourish in body, mind and spirit.
JP: I’ve been in business for 20 years. When I joined AAHOA eight years ago, there were two to three women in the top 100. We are not at parity with men, but today there are many more. Looking at the brands, I see more doors opening now, but I believe that in the past we did not create a welcoming environment for women. AAHOA creates educational events that are excellent tools for women. In the past, we had a hard time finding suitable panelists. That was 10 years ago, but things have changed. We now have 8-10 women’s leadership panels per year. We need to provide a platform for diversity and we need to ask for what we want. And we have to do more than just talk, we have to implement. Once you have diversity at the top, it will work out because everything flows from the top downwards.
How can we encourage young women pursuing careers in hospitality and continue to promote equality?
MH: At the moment, my entire staff, save for an intern, are women. The decision was unconscious; it was just that we hired the best candidates and that is the way it worked out. In any business, decisions are better when both men and women participate. For another point, we have to be respectful of younger men as we want to avoid what was being done to us in the past.
DL: I would encourage young women to come into the industry, but to come with an open mind. See the opportunity. Work hard, perhaps harder than anyone else. There may still be some detractors, especially with some of the old guard or more conservative senior staff. But don’t let them dissuade you. The future for this industry is our youth, and we need bright, enthusiastic women as leaders. This industry is an ideal one for women to thrive and prosper.
JP: We have a roadmap and a platform. Next is getting more qualified women to participate in our industry. AAHOA has over 18,000 members, all of which are hotel owners and most of which are husband and wife teams with the bulk of operations managed by the wife. So, you see in many ways we are much more progressive than the brands in terms of female business participation! But, for the first time in 30 years, AAHOA has a female officer (me), and this is a big step forward. This was a milestone for the board as it took one small element of negativity out of the AAHOA.
AJ: My encouragement would be to first not go in with a hat on that says, “I am a woman.” Be good at what you do, work hard and do something that you have a real passion for. Then recognize that challenges can be overcome, but you must persevere through both good and bad times. Forget five-year or ten-year plans. Rather, think about opportunities that come your way in this ever-changing environment. Do not stay overly concerned about your functional area. Be curious; be respectful. Remember that everyone can teach you something; what not to do is sometimes as important as what to do.
KL: This is already a fantastic field for women and one that is continually improving. Harness your passion for hospitality. You can contribute, and you will be valued for this. Look for balance between business and your own personal lives. We need you!