Roundtable: Women in hospitality discuss a male-dominated industry

Amid the #MeToo movement and an overall dearth of women in upper-echelon hospitality industry jobs, a bright bunch who currently are leaders participated in Hotel Management’s inaugural Women in Hospitality Roundtable, held at the Renaissance Times Square at the tail end of 2017. Participants discussed many of the myriad issues that women face in a business landscape still dominated by men.

Andrea Foster, SVP of development at Marcus Hotels & Resorts, pointed out that her company has two female members on their board and while that is something to celebrate, it’s hardly an ideal scenario. “When we show up [at conferences] we have two representatives, typically, and it’s a male and a female,” Foster said. “But other companies aren’t necessarily sending as many women, or maybe they don’t have that balance.”

Foster was quick to name her mentors—both men—as positive figures who helped elevate her career in the industry. She called on more men to provide advocacy for female employees, and she also said women should be seeking out these opportunities whenever possible.

"The mentoring concept is one that is crucial,” said Cindy Estis Green, CEO and co-founder of Kalibri Labs. “Whether your mentor is a male or a female, it really is what helps you move up. I was fortunate early in my career and had male mentors who really put me out there and let me do things that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, and accelerated my career tremendously.”

Allison Reid, CDO, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants; Michelle Russo, CEO, hotelAVE; Mary Beth Cutshall, SVP and chief business development officer, HVMG; and Andrea Foster, SVP of development, ‎Marcus Hotels and Resorts, discuss the necessary skills women need to be taught to succeed in hospitality.

New Faces

An industry can’t have new leaders if it doesn’t have new applicants. Allison Reid, chief development officer at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, said more women are coming into the hospitality industry with an eye on the business side of hotels, something that is reflected in the crowds attending trade shows.

“With the younger generation you see more women coming out, and… it just takes time to get women into more senior roles,” Reid said. “Most of our junior analysts… are women rather than men at this point.”

Once they get in the door, however, several of the women at the table said it is an uphill battle to be considered for promotion. Peggy Berg, director of The Castell Project, said it isn’t enough to change jobs and work hard. Traditionally, she said, women are not taught as they are growing up to have a skillset that is valued by the business community. Instead, they either rely on mentors to teach them, or they learn these skills autonomously.

“We have this funny thing where business is gender neutral, business has no gender, but every human being in business has a gender and we don’t have a way to talk about it,” Berg said. “We don’t have a way to admit it, and we don’t have a way to teach the skills that our gender needs if they want to succeed in development, or on the equity side or on the ownership side.”

True Equality

Since today’s companies are led by boards of directors that are entirely male, can we look forward to a future where a hotel company’s board of directors will be entirely female? The consensus at the table was that voting based on gender is a flawed concept – entirely the reason why quality female candidates have been passed over before.

Rosanna Maietta, SVP of communications for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said it’s up to women in business to put themselves out there and apply for positions where they feel they might be a fit.

“I read a study that said on a given job application, if a man has three of 10 qualifications he applies,” Maietta said. “Women want eight or nine of them before they’ll even consider it. So part of the challenge is we have to put ourselves out there and challenge ourselves to do something that maybe we have an 80 percent chance of getting. We should do it anyway.”

Michelle Russo, CEO of hotel AVE, said women face other challenges in the applications process. For instance, a young woman with children might doubt her ability to work within the confines of a schedule set by someone else, and may benefit from the ability to dictate their own schedule or be flexible in other ways.

“Part of our job is helping [these women] succeed by saying ‘You can manage your schedule, and if you get your work done, you’re successful,’” Russo said.

As the concept of working remote came up, Marina MacDonald, chief marketing officer at Red Roof Inn, said flexibility in working conditions is growing more common in all corners of business as millennial permeate the workforce. However, understanding the mentality of millennial workers requires more than knowing their birthdate, as gender and marital status also have a role to play. Single women in business, MacDonald said, value their free time, and they also value experiences.

“This is a great industry for millennials… if my marketing team isn’t going on a trip every six weeks, it’s not good,” MacDonald said. “I’m like, ‘Send them to New York,’ because they love that experience, and they’re more loyal for it.”

Kay Lang, president & CEO, Kay Lang + Associates; Rosanna Maietta, SVP of communications, AH&LA; Allison Reid, CDO, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants; and Michelle Russo, CEO, hotel AVE mull over the possibility of an all-woman board of directors in hospitality.

The Next Wave

Creating diversity is a different process from accepting diversity, and to create a diverse workforce requires a concerted effort. Most of all, it’s worth it; companies with women CEOs have been proven to outperform on the S&P 500, and attracting a steady flow of applicants has become the industry’s next great fascination.

“We have a recruiting program for students graduating from college, targeted recruiting,” said Anne Smith, VP of brand management and design for Choice Hotels International. “They're hungry for opportunities, so they're not necessarily interested in a linear careers. Some of the things we've talked about is taking a chance, trying something different, moving laterally, particularly when you're younger in your career. And I think confidence begets confidence. So the more that we act rather than think about acting, the more confident that we become.”

Confidence is going to be necessary to affect change in this area. As Mary Beth Cutshall, SVP and chief business development officer at HVMG pointed out, women are often discriminated against when it comes time to receive promotions or raises, while most boards of directors are beholden to Wall Street. Therefore, the issue of changing the makeup of the hotel industry must be solved, in some way, from outside of the hotel industry.

“If you look at Wall Street, it’s predominantly men. They have this issue in their own industry,” Cutshall said. “So, who’s included in that club? And who are they looking for? They are looking for someone who looks like them.”

On the subject of salary transparency, Kay Lang, president and CEO of interior design firm Kay Lang + Associates, said millennials are gradually changing the way we as a society approach the wage gap. However, she also called on both women and men to have more courage when negotiating for more pay.

“It’s a culture thing,” Lang said. “We have to change the way culture of how we raise our kids, and how we raise the value of men and women. It’s obvious that… there’s been this code of silence, or shame, or whatever it’s been, but I’m sure there are a lot of men that have gone through the same situation in a totally different way and they would probably never talk about it where I have a feeling women will talk about it.”

Anne Smith, VP of brand management and design, Choice Hotels International; Cindy Estis Green, CEO and co-founder, Kalibri Labs; and Amy Jakubowski, Managing director & design director, Los Angeles, Wilson Associates discuss the culture in which we are raising children, and how it affects the business environment.

No Tolerance

Toward the end of the discussion the concept of harassment came up, with the panel agreeing that zero tolerance is the only acceptable policy at this stage. With high-profile harassment cases making headlines right now, women are feeling emboldened to speak out against past injustices against them, something Kate Henriksen, SVP of investment and portfolio analysis at RLJ Lodging Trust, said is hard for any industry – let alone an individual – to ignore.

“If it’s just one person coming up and saying something, you can make excuses,” Henriksen said. “But when you have that many people with similar stories and similar circumstances, it’s really difficult to ignore.”

Defining harassment is of equal importance, with Berg pointing out that an environment of fear is not one where anyone – man or woman – can be an effective advocate. Amy Jakubowski, managing director and design director, Los Angeles, Wilson Associates, agreed.

“Dealing with it in the immediate, not letting it fester, not letting it become office gossip, where it becomes harder to deal with but dealing with comments in the moment – that makes for a stronger example,” Jakubowski said.