This is the first in a series about the status of women in travel. The series will present viewpoints from both inside and outside the industry. We also invite readers to share their own experiences and comments.
It’s well known that women comprise the vast majority of travel agents – about 80%, according to PhoCusWright. But the picture changes dramatically when you look at women in top leadership positions in the travel industry.
While little hard data exists, the percentage of female CEOs at major U.S. travel agencies and industry associations, as well as at airlines, cruise lines, hotel and tour companies, appears to be sharply disproportionate to their numbers in the industry overall. (See sidebar.)
“Even though there are a lot of female agency owners, the heads of the big companies still tend to be male,” said Pamela Wright, owner of Nashville-based Wright Travel, a corporate-focused agency with 18 full-service branches in nine states. “Most agencies owned by women are small. There’s a lot more room for success.”
So why is this female-dominated industry not led by more women? We posed the question to women who do hold leadership positions in the travel industry.
Along with Wright, they are: Elaine Osgood, president and founder of Atlas Travel; Andi McClure-Mysza, co owner of Montrose Travel and president of its host division, MTravel; Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion, and Lalia Rach, associate dean at the School of Hospitality Leadership at the University of Wisconsin and named by Forbes.com as one of the Top 25 Most Influential Women in Travel.
Are women as well represented in travel industry leadership positions as they should be, given their numbers overall?
Rach: Research needs to be done. However, the facts are pretty stark. There are not many women in the C-Suites or, for example, as general managers of hotels. It is better than it was, but for all appearances, it’s been glacial in its progress.
We are finally accepting as a society that traits that are considered feminine are as valuable to the success of a company as those that are considered male. Are we doing a good enough job of creating opportunity at the highest levels regardless of race, gender or ethnicity? That is the question.
Friedman: There is no doubt that as you move up the pyramid, the ratio does shift. This is not unique to our industry. However, even if women are not at the very top, there are a lot of them in travel leadership.
Many women are at the vice president level in the cruise industry. When it comes to leading consortia and host agencies, it’s pretty even between men and women. When I look at the panels I’m on, it’s not disproportionate one way or the other.
Since [gender inequality in travel] has not been on my radar, it leads me to believe that this is not an issue.
Why have women in travel not made more progress?
Wright: Sometimes the strengths women have become our weaknesses. For example, women are really good at details and are hard workers – and that can keep women in travel from moving into leadership roles. They’re so busy making reservations that they are not delegating that work to others and envisioning what they need to do to get to the next point.
Sometimes you have to step away from what you do all the time, so you can get out there and network to grow your business.
Friedman: Actually, I don’t think there is anything stopping women from being placed into senior leadership positions. My advice is, if you love this industry, get involved, network and make those contacts. There’s no reason why women can’t progress.
Osgood: I saw a survey in Moneywatch.com in which 36% of men said they want to be CEOs, while only 18% of women said they want to be. So I think women have other goals and priorities – having a successful home life, as well as a career.
And it’s still the woman who’s in charge at home. My husband is a great support, but it’s still me making the decisions in the house. I’m the mom.
Rach: People tend to hire people like themselves. So if you look at the major corporations, they are dominated by Caucasian men. It is a very different battle for women to gain acceptance in seats of power. It’s a very male-oriented environment – the concept of business being a combat situation is a very male definition.
McClure-Mysza: I’ve noticed a tendency for women to just sit and listen during meetings. You really need to give your input if you want people to respect you.
Before getting into travel, I worked in marketing for large companies (Hunt Wesson Foods and Kellogg’s). I was always very vocal in meetings. I was never afraid to give my opinion. I think this is essential for both men and women.
Would the travel industry, as well as other industries, be stronger if more women were in leadership roles?
Osgood: As great as men are in business, there are things that women do differently that bring a lot to the table. We are better listeners, better collaborators.
Rach: The travel industry, just like other industries, is starved for really great leadership. Companies need to look at how are they are growing that next generation. The workplace has to think differently about women’s progression.
This will take individuals in education, in business, and in our professional associations to make a concerted effort to ensure that change does happen.
The travel industry cannot afford to lose any aspect of the female workforce – at any level.
Next: Women travel agency CEOs share their career stories and what worked for them in expanding their business.