Report: gender inequality in the travel industry

Report: gender inequality in the travel industry

Sam Ballard asks some leading figures in the industry what can be done to address the boardroom imbalance in travel

The travel industry must be one of the most outward looking sectors in the world. What could be more inclusive than a community of people who all share a natural inclination to sample other cultures, taste other cuisines and learn more about the world in general?

Or, so you would think.

According to research by the Association of Women Travel Executives (AWTE), while 50 per cent to 78 per cent of employees in the travel industry are women, the numbers are reversed when it comes to board level executives. In the cruise industry 29 per cent of board members are women. With tour operators, it is just 20 per cent. For FTSE 100 companies, 23.5 per cent of boards are made up of women.


There are numerous stories to tell here. One is that, while things are going in the right direction, they clearly aren’t anywhere near where they ought to be. Regardless of whether we’re talking about the 29 per cent for the cruise industry or the 20 per cent for tour operators. There is clearly a discrepancy between both entry and mid-level management and the number of women progressing to senior levels in the same kind of numbers as their male counterparts.

“Sexism in travel does still exist, but things have changed for the better,” explains Debbee Dale, the outgoing chairwoman of the AWTE. “In the last five years we have been seen as more professional in our own right. We have some phenomenal senior women in the travel industry and they’re not just being labelled as women any more. They are incredible business leaders.”

The AWTE, which now has 331 members, was started 63 years ago after some industry women were turned away from an event at a members’ club that didn’t admit women. They have since gone from strength to strength and are now expanding into Ireland and beyond.

“We don’t think that there is a glass ceiling in travel – the only one that exists is the one created by the individual,” Dale adds. “From our point of view a lot of it comes down
to confidence – a woman will look at a job spec and say that she can’t do two of ten bullet points listed and therefore won’t apply. It’s about building that confidence up.”


For many women who are now heading up their own company, the industry is a very different place to what it once was.

“Things have changed and are changing, but we have a long way to go,” Kathryn Beadle, managing director of Uniworld, says. “When I first got into management there were very few women around. The atmosphere in boardrooms was completely different.”

For more women to succeed in the industry, Beadle says, society needs to change the way it views issues such as maternity and paternity leave. 

“Senior management isn’t as much of an issue – because of the money and stability that comes with it – but for entry and middle management more needs to be done, both by companies and families,” she says.

“Companies must be far more collaborative. We have people who are away on maternity leave now, but we keep them as involved as they want to be. Don’t freeze them out. People at home need to be there, too. They can’t fear losing their jobs.”

For Beadle, the UK should adopt a system like that already in place in Scandinavia where the pressure on fathers to take paternity leave is far higher – thus relieving pressure on women who feel like they have to choose between family or career. Shared Parental Leave was introduced to the UK in April 2015; however, just fraction of men opt in to the scheme.

“It’s a cultural thing that needs to shift,” Beadle adds. “We should adopt systems like those in Scandinavia. I’m also in favour of gender quotas on company boards, which is something Norway introduced, too. I would say 40 per cent of boards should be filled by women. Not forever, but at least to get that representation up.”

I am turning towards positive discrimination. That’s not just for women but also for race, LGBT, disability – all minority walks of life

Lynn Narraway, the managing director of Holland America and Seabourn, believes that creating a representative board can only be a good thing for a business.

“Companies need balance,” she says. “Whether you’re white or black, female or male, gay or straight. Company boards must represent customer bases and wider society. There should be at least one woman on every company board – but it has to be the right person. Don’t just take someone because they’re female – they have to be able to do the job as well.”

Narraway, who personally mentors a number of women, has also given lectures at the University of Surrey as well as other local colleges and universities.

“It’s great to be able to give back,” she explains. “I gave a talk at the City of London School for Girls and spoke to students about the possibilities that exist within the travel industry. It’s about education – you can be a lawyer, you can be in HR – there are so many opportunities that exist, so we must also focus on recruiting the best.”

The point is something that Jo Rzymowska, managing director of Celebrity Cruises, also backs.

“In a corporate world, I think we have a long way to go on equality,” she says. “The longer I continue in my career, and the more senior I become, I realise that everything comes down to confidence.

“I’m not a fan of anyone getting a job linked to a quota. However, unless there is concerted effort to make a change then it’s not going to happen. I am turning towards positive discrimination. That’s not just for women but also for race, LGBT, disability – all minority walks of life.

“In this building [RCCL offices in Weybridge] we’re pretty much all white. In the travel industry we’re pretty much all white. The LGBT activity that we’re doing is pretty much all white. We have a real issue – as an industry we are trying to get people to go out and explore other cultures.

“I’m not saying that we discriminate in any way but what are we doing proactively?”

The answer, Rzymowska says, is the company’s first diversity and inclusion team. Backed by chairman Richard Fain, Royal Caribbean Cruises has taken on people whose sole job is to look at diversity and inclusion, from recruitment through to employment and benefits policies.

“I’m going to be championing the programme here,” Rzymowska adds. “I’ve always felt great as a woman and LGBT working for this company. Now we need to see what we can do, as a great employer.

“I think this is going to make a big difference. This isn’t about quotas. It’s about questioning ourselves.”

*Statistics provided by the Association of Women Travel Executives

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