Where are the women?

Men still dominate senior management positions in the hospitality industry.

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By  Shilpa Mathai Published  March 18, 2004

|~|PamWilby2.jpg|~|Le Royal Meridian Dubai’s general manager, Pam Wilby.|~|There are not enough women in senior positions in the hospitality, tourism and leisure business in the region. Although women in hotels have traditionally taken on roles in housekeeping, rooms management and sales and marketing, their numbers drop steeply when it comes to top management positions. But, what is stopping women from breaking through the glass ceiling and taking their share of the senior management roles? Is it because women’s commitments outside of work give them little opportunity to progress? And if they do progress, how do they cope with the role? Hotelier Middle East talks to two notable exceptions, Le Royal Meridien’s Pam Wilby and Marriott Executive Apartment’s Elaine Watson to discover how they made it to the top. “I started off as a receptionist many years ago,” says Pam Wilby, Le Royal Meridien Dubai’s general manager. “I went from being a receptionist to the front office manager and came up through the ranks. But if you’d asked me when I joined here 11 years ago, if I’d be the general manager, the answer is no.” Wilby says on the floor experience is all that counts in the hospitality industry; she works hard and does not think it is in any way connected to her gender. “I don’t think to myself that I’m doing long hours because I’m a woman. I’m Pam Wilby and I work hard because I want to do a good job.” She feels people look at her as an individual and recognise her for her merits, not because of the fact that she is a woman. Up to the senior management level, women are fairly well represented in the hotel industry, they step down once they get married and have a family as the long hours make it impossible to balance work and family. Typically, in the first five years after graduation, over 50% of people will leave the profession to join other industries. This figure is higher in the case of women and as a result the talent pool for general management tends to be more male-dominated. Will the introduction of flexible working hours solve the problem? “I think we have created the expectation of long hours ourselves. Nobody out there expects it of us. In a resort as opposed to a city hotel, you have to give it a little bit more because your guests want to see you in the evenings. I don’t look at it as a pressure to be here, I look it as the sheer enjoyment of being here,” says Wilby. In a resort hotel with several outlets like Le Royal Meridien, some of the F & B outlets do not open till late evening and as the general manager Wilby has to stay late if she wants to meet her staff in those outlets. “I’m lucky, I don’t have any home pressures so I can work as late as I want. I don’t have a family at home. So I suppose I’m unique in that way. Therefore it doesn’t matter how long I commit myself to the job but I make sure I maintain a healthy work life balance,” she explains. More men than women enter the hospitality business in the Middle East and this further skews the ratio. Those women that make it into management positions are also almost always single, and Wilby believes this is important because they do not have family pressures and hence can devote more time and energy to their careers. “I take my hat off to those who manage to juggle work and family. It’s not easy, whether you are male or female, and have a family in our industry. It is very important to spend quality time with your family, I encourage all my staff who have a family to find that time,” she says. The personal touch that might be overlooked by some of her male colleagues is an element that Wilby believes she brings to the hotel. It has been proven that women can multi-task better than men and at the risk of upsetting her male colleagues, Wilby says that women also pay more attention to ||**|||~|ElaineWatson1.jpg|~|Elaine Watson, general manager of the Marriott Executive Apartments Dubai |~|detail. Women do notice the little things about rooms that men might overlook. Wilby wants to encourage more GCC nationals and, women at that, to opt for a career in hospitality. “We are an exciting, vibrant industry and we need to shout about it more. We need to publicise opportunities to university and college leavers. We have to get the fun element across and stop them from thinking they have to work all hours. Staff work their designated hours and then they are free to go home,” she adds. Salaries in the industry have improved over the years and staff are remunerated for working overtime. Wilby says hotels are rife with opportunities for growth. Those who work hard can quickly move up the ranks; people are judged on the basis of their work and not on account of sophisticated educational degrees. “Just like in any other industry, it is no good coming into hotels half-heartedly. I always say to people – you have got to want to work in the industry 100 percent; if you have any doubt you shouldn’t be here. You get a great buzz from being around people. The problem is that most women want to have families and I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it’s difficult to do both.” Elaine Watson is the newly appointed general manager of the Marriott Executive Apartments in Dubai, a 172 unit serviced apartment property. Watson is the first woman general manager for Marriott in the Middle East and joined the hotel chain as the director of finance two and a half years ago. “I attribute the lack of women in senior management positions to that of a lifestyle issue,” she says. “I have no children to worry about. Let’s be honest, this is a job where you have to be prepared to put the hours in. Can you do that with a full time family? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but maybe that is one of the reasons women don’t progress up the career ladder. It is difficult for me to judge as I don’t have a family.” Watson says she has not come across any real barriers to career growth within the hotel business. In the Middle East, in markets like Saudi Arabia, women working as general managers in hotels are ruled out. One has to be culturally sensitive, Watson says Marriott is managing properties on behalf of owners and the owners’ views are always important while nominating general managers in a property. “All these variables in the equation have to be balanced before a senior appointment is made. The owner has to be open minded and the market dynamics should permit a woman to be in the driving seat. If it’s a purely Arabic clientele we are targeting, then the general manager for instance should have the adequate language capabilities,” says Watson. She says she sometimes views things differently from her male colleagues, an advantage she feels she brings into the equation. Women can also have a more caring approach towards staff; “I know that may not always be the case. There are some very hard-nosed women and some very caring men. Staff may feel more comfortable with a lady boss as they are generally perceived to be little more informal than the man in a suit.” Watson also feels guests recognise a property run by a woman and attributes it to a woman’s attention to detail. She says she has not felt disadvantaged because of her gender. “I have never seen any one surprised to see a lady general manager. Maybe it is my mindset, I’m used to working in male dominated industries. I qualified as an accountant in the oil industry. I came into the hotel as a director of finance and then got involved in general management and operations. I think hospitality is an exciting industry, an industry that exceeds your personality. No two days are the same and if you can organise your time well, you can achieve some work/life balance. Mr. Marriott himself is all for employees balancing life and work, he doesn’t want anyone to work round the clock in any of his properties,” she says. “I would love to see more local girls taking careers in hospitality. With the opening of the Emirates Hospitality Academy, I hope that becomes possible. Having a training facility like that will definitely encourage more women to consider hospitality as a career.” Does the industry have to change its established conventions for women to progress? There is more to hospitality than F & B and long hours, she maintains. There are regular 9-5 jobs in accounting, reservation, human resources and sales and marketing, there is an element of alternating shifts for people working in the front office. When she was first appointed as the general manager, Watson says she was intrigued and interested to gauge people’s reaction. She says no one batted an eyelid. The hotel sector is one of the fastest growing sectors in the world and creates opportunities at all levels. If some one aspires to be a general manager, gender is not an issue anymore. Hospitality will always be male dominated but women can play a significant role in developing the sector. Watson is optimistic about the future. “There are indicators that the situation is changing,” she says. “The quality of the work done is more important now than the gender or colour of an employee. More and more women are getting on management courses, we should start to see some of them chose a career in hospitality.” The National Association, a major association for women professionals and business owners in the USA, meanwhile, has just selected Marriott, as 2004’s ‘Best Companies for Executive Women’ for Female Executives (NAFE). For companies to be selected as among the top 30 this year, NAFE focused on the number of women in the management pipeline, as well as those already holding senior positions. It also looked for programmes and policies that ensure training and job rotation and enforce accountability for women’s success. “We are proud to be recognised for successfully providing opportunities for talented women to help drive our company’s growth,” said Brendan Keegan, executive vice president, human resources, Marriott International. In the past five years (1998-2003), the percentage of women in executive positions increased more than 70%, almost half of the company’s managers are women. To help employees balance their personal and professional lives, Marriott offers a broad variety of career and work/life benefits such as flex time, childcare discounts, education and training, an on-site child development center at headquarters and referral services for child, elder and family care issues. ||**||

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