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New Research Reveals the Truth About Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Hotel Management

I find myself in the presence of all men, and I'm talking to developers and contractors and civil engineers and they're like, so when is your boss going to get here? And I'm like, ‘I am the boss. You're speaking to her; it doesn't go any further than this.’” – Chief Investment Officer

It’s no secret that discrimination based on gender is a problem in the hospitality industry. Stereotypes, low job status, lower pay, and disparity in leadership positions are just a few barriers to workplace equity that continue to plague women. As of 2021, women hold just one leadership position in hotel companies for every 10 men despite making up 57% of the workforce (source: Castell Project). The industry and government have taken several measures to attempt to even the playing field, but the treatment and representation of women in workplace leadership roles remain an issue.

The good news is that there ARE successful women in hospitality. We spoke to some of these successful women and discovered remuneration, career advancement, and precarious positions are the three top areas of gender disparity in the hospitality industry. Here’s what they had to say about navigating these obstacles:


I have found compensation to vary greatly between male and female counterparts, women earning significantly less. Development opportunities are also few and far between for women.” – Senior Vice President of Food and Beverage

Women around the world face wage and position disparity. Government, industry, and academic studies all indicate these disparities are prevalent when comparing men versus women who occupy the same position or when comparing growth opportunities. Female workers often hold positions that require a lower skill set, resulting in lower compensation, or they are presumed to care more about family than a career, so they are not given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Even as women climb the corporate ladder and attain higher positions that require more skills and responsibilities (resulting in more power), the discrepancies do not shrink, but instead have been shown to grow.

If you were to look at other companies, the females are always in human resources because we're supposed to be the touchy-feely Kumbaya. I'm the CFO, but I am also responsible for human resources. And as a female, I don't think that I'm getting paid what a male would be in my position.” – Chief Financial Officer

Career Advancement

Women face myriad challenges when attempting to advance their careers. Several discrepancies exist between men and women at higher levels of management that lead to barriers to career advancement for women: (1) over-dependence on the institutional advancement process versus employment of informal networking opportunities, (2) quality of life issues, (3) imbalance of child-rearing responsibilities, (4) lack of networking and mentoring, and (5) exclusion from informal communication networks.

Discrimination is rampant and my ability to advance was driven by the bro culture. And I'm clearly not a bro. There were hardly any women in the room and the ones who were there were the ones who got asked to take notes or do other more administrative tasks.” – Chief Executive Officer/ Owner

This results in a career path for women riddled with blocks and barriers. This phenomenon, in addition to discrepancies in available education, training, and professional development opportunities, further challenges women’s ability to move up the career ladder.

I definitely see the importance of interpersonal relationships at the more senior levels. We have a number of colleagues who vacation together - their families have been vacationing together for years. They play golf together, they socialize on a regular basis, whether it be dinner or a baseball game… I don't think we've reached a point where you have really good male sponsors for females, yet.” – Senior Vice President of Asset Management

These factors are directly related to the lack of women at higher levels of management and leadership in the hospitality industry, which may explain why women either leave to start their own companies (as the CEO quoted above) or leave the industry altogether.

Risky Positions

I was the only female Food & Beverage director that worked there so pretty interesting. I never thought about it at the time so much because it's just a great project, great hotel and big challenge. When I went there, they weren't making any money. It was a beautiful place - beautiful food and beautiful everything, but bottom line wasn't there. It was nine months or something before I got to break even. And then we profited from then on. I was there for three and a half years and then I got promoted to a GM job after that.” ––Senior Vice President of Operations

When women are offered opportunities for advancement, they often carry greater risk than those offered to men. Women see these risky positions as a chance to gain experience, but sometimes they are expected to either fail or pull off a miracle for the organization. While some were able to pull off the miracle, as the SVP of Operations mentioned earlier, many other women fall off the career ladder due to having been placed in a position already unlikely to succeed. These positions also account for women’s shorter tenure in top positions, and the lack of women in higher industry ranks.

I'm very risk averse, so I'm really not somebody that would take on a job that I felt I couldn't do, and that's not necessarily advisable. I'm not saying do something that's easy, but at least I know this I have the skills, and so there's little risk.” – Chief Operating Officer

Recommendations for a Successful Career as a Woman

There were several pieces of advice given to us by the women who made it past all the barriers and established successful careers for themselves in hospitality:

(1) network and establish a mentor

(2) form a strategic plan and demonstrate successes in the plan

(3) be willing to take calculated risks and make changes

I think it is so vital to have someone in your corner who has a bit of a bigger voice than you to raise you up, and you also have to come to the table willing to work, try, learn, ask, and everything else. You have to also have a man who's willing to invest time and support and educate and talk about you to people.” – Senior Vice President of Sales

This SVP recommended making friends with a man, to have an ally in a higher position who will be able to share his voice with others and vouch for you. To do this, it is important to network and demonstrate your merit. Men form informal mentorships with other men through talking about a common item (sports, investment opportunities, technology, etc.). Find someone with something in common with you outside of work and a natural friendship will form. Women mentors in higher positions could also have a voice for you, so find someone you admire and aspire to be. Then, find out what they like to do outside of work and forge a friendship. Establishing informal mentorships will go a long way in helping climb the career ladder.

It's one thing to do your job well, but you have to manage yourself - people need to know what you're doing… It's also thinking ahead about where you want to be in the future and how to get there and how to start strategically.” – Chief Operating Officer

Informal mentorships may also help you to form a strategic plan and what steps should be next on the agenda in your career progression. Not only doing your job well but taking additional responsibilities toward the next position will put you on the right track. One thing that these women said is a downfall is taking on extra responsibility but not taking credit for it, hoping someone will notice. It is not advised to be modest when attempting to climb the career ladder because most men are not – take the credit where it is due and any seat at the table you are offered. Ask to present any meetings/ slide decks you put together for your boss; meet the regional president with the GM when you are responsible for reducing costs and increasing profit. These actions will help make sure you are noticed when another promotion is available.

Every time I actually made any kind of meaningful move that was because I was willing to take a risk. When I participate in mentor programs or talk to college kids the one thing that I talk about is you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” – Global Brand and Marketing Officer

Many promotions come with taking risks; however, these should be calculated risks. Not every job will you know that you will be able to succeed, but take the promotions or lateral moves that seem like they can be accomplished and that you will be able to acquire any skills you do not already have to complete the task. Many women (and people of color) are offered promotions that nearly cannot be accomplished – failing businesses or departments, for example. Take some time to plan out what would need to be done: is it a big move, turning around a department, or simply a step up across town? Change is a necessary part of the learning process, but make sure the risk you are taking is a necessary step in your overall strategic plan.

The hospitality has successful women, and it has been a hard road for many of them. However, if you have a true passion for the industry and serving others, it is an incredibly rewarding career. Whether just starting or figuring out how to take the next steps, listen to these successful women in forging your own journey. No two are the same, but we share many of the same obstacles along the way.

If you can work in hotels and restaurants, particularly in hotels, you can do anything, because a hotel is a cosmos of the world.” – Senior Vice President of Operations

Dr. Michelle Russen is the Assistant Professor of Hospitality Management

Jack H. Brown College of Business and Public Administration at California State University San Bernadino and Dr. Miranda Kitterlin-Lynch is an Associate Professor and Coca-Cola Endowed Professor in the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University. Interviews for this article were part of Dr. Russen's dissertation research for her doctorate degree, for which Dr. Kitterlin-Lynch was an advisor. The women interviewed are all US-based senior hotel leaders and spoke with Dr. Russen between July and September of 2021.

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