Cracks in the Hospitality Glass Ceiling

Opening a path for female executives in the hospitality industry.

By Ann Fastiggi, Managing Director, Herbert Mines Associates

I have met (and placed) many fine candidates over nearly two decades as an executive search consultant focused on the hospitality industry. But it’s fair to say that the majority of my placements have been men. Why? I’m typically engaged in “retained search” at the upper echelons of the industry—CEO, COO, and similar “C-suite” roles—and there is a striking lack of female candidates for these positions. All right, so it’s simply a numbers game. More male candidates mean more men gaining the top posts. But that just begs the question, “Why are there so few ‘qualified’ female candidates for leading executive positions within the hospitality industry?”

I believe the answer lies in the manner in which the industry attracts and retains its operational talent. I also believe it’s time for a change, as we’re missing out on the opportunity for strong female talent that might otherwise choose another industry.

Women Make the Majority of Travel Decisions

Don’t get me wrong. I could point to any number of men who are doing an extraordinary job leading their hospitality companies. However, research continues to substantiate the fact that women make, or influence, the majority of travel decisions. With this in mind, surely there are potential benefits to a hospitality or travel services company that gains a woman’s perspective on its board of directors, or in the C-suite itself. However, the UK-based One and All Foundation found recently that only 6 percent of hospitality company directors are women, compared to approximately 12 percent across all industries.

More broadly, a recent Wall Street Journal article cited a 2011 study from nonprofit research group Catalyst, looking at the impact of female board members across industries. The study reported that major (Fortune 500) companies with three or more female board members achieved significantly better financial results than their counterparts. Compared, for instance, to Fortune 500 companies with no female board members, the companies with three or more female board members achieved 84 percent higher return on sales, 60 percent better return on invested capital, and 46 percent higher return on equity.

A diversity of perspectives and backgrounds, then, can be useful. Certainly, there are barriers to the advancement of women within the hospitality industry that mirror barriers elsewhere. These may include a lack of role models and mentors, and a range of other factors. However, there also are industry-specific factors at work. The most impactful of these, I feel, is the development of the operational talent pool.

Women as General Managers

The role of general manager is often a stepping stone to advancement within executive ranks in hospitality, and it’s already at this level that we find a great disparity in the number of male vs. female GMs. Many women rise to senior roles in marketing, and (perhaps to a lesser degree) in finance and legal functions at individual hotels or hotel brands. So, why not in operational roles such as general manager? I believe it’s because the general manager’s lifestyle and training requires trade-offs that women are less likely to accept than men.

It’s become standard industry practice to “reward” top-performing general managers by rotating them out to new hotels and geographic regions frequently. In theory, this exposes the talent pool to new challenges and diverse cultures, grooming the GMs for increased responsibility on a regional or global basis down the road. In practice, I believe that this emphasis on relocation forces out a crucial component of the workforce. Cultural norms make women less likely than men to take the lead in uprooting a family, or themselves, for a move. This is especially true for women whose spouses have careers and/or for those with school-age children. What’s more, I don’t believe the practice is always necessary. There are several other job training options beyond relocation that can expand an employee’s skill set and capabilities. In addition, the benefits to rewarding performance with stability can positively impact individual hotel properties.

The general manager’s position is also famous for the long hours required on a daily basis, which again may affect a woman’s decision, as she must balance conflicting needs in her family life, with men generally expected to devote less hours to household maintenance and childcare. In this area, though, women often are just as willing as men to put in the long hours at work. What can change here is a willingness to recognize the true benefits of flexible hours. A hotel setting, in fact, may be ideal for flexible hours, as a GM can have a real impact with exposure to and supervision of multiple shifts.

Senior hospitality leadership must take a hard look at the strengths and weaknesses of a model that requires moving high-potential talent every couple of years. As hospitality companies look to their base of general managers as a core of their talent pool, they would be well served to explore the possibility of attracting more women to these roles if modest changes to the lifestyle were made. They will be rewarded when they see how much more robust this talent pool will seem in just a few years.

Managing Director Ann Fastiggi directs the Hospitality practice at Herbert Mines Associates, aretained executive search firm focused exclusively on consumer-driven businesses including retail, consumer products, fashion/apparel, digital/e-commerce, hospitality, foodservice, and the private equity firms that invest in these businesses. After 18 years in executive search with search firms such as Heidrick & Struggles, Spencer Stuart, and Korn/Ferry International, Fastiggi joined Herbert Mines in 2012. During her tenure with Spencer Stuart, she helped to establish the firm’s hospitality practice. In her most recent role as a senior client partner with Korn/Ferry International, Fastiggi served clients in the hotel, restaurant, gaming, and travel industries on a range of president, CEO, and C-suite searches. She also has worked with clients from the cruise line, car rental and retail industries. Fastiggi received her Master’s degree in counseling psychology from Temple University and her undergraduate degree from Boston University.

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