Women’s Empowerment in the Hospitality and Tourism sector

Drawing in the tourists – a Sri Lankan sunset over the Indian Ocean

I have visited Sri Lanka in a work capacity every year for the past five – posting about it just recently on this site – however, this April, I’ll spend my 40th birthday there, as a tourist, on the country’s southern coast.

Post war Sri Lanka (since 2009) has much to offer the increasing number of tourists, flocking to experience white sand beaches, up-country tea plantations, and the joy of some spicy coconut sambol for breakfast.

The hospitality and tourism sector is one upon which Sri Lanka is heavily relying, not only in terms of driving up economic gains for the country, but also in making a positive ripple effect on related social factors – in particular, supporting the employment needs of what equates to several million young Sri Lankans on the look out to secure a job.

Within this context, as well as having the potential to positively tackle youth unemployment in the country, the hospitality and tourism sector is in a position to also address why it is that so many women in the sector are not being supported in their careers – and in some cases, why in the very first instance it is a challenge for women to even enter the workforce.

From various research, including some conducted recently by Professor Tom Baum, from the University of Strathclyde, we know that women make up close to 70% of the total workforce in Sri Lanka’s hospitality and tourism sector however, paradoxically, they hold less than 40% of all managerial and supervisory positions in the international hospitality industry, hold less than 20% of general management roles, and make up only between 5% and 8% of corporate board members of publically-quoted hospitality businesses.

To that end, my organisation, CARE International, has been working since 2012 in partnership with Diageo, as part of the company’s “Plan W” initiative – a long term commitment by their business to empower women across Asia Pacific through training based programmes.

Teaming up with the Jetwing Hotel Group, CARE and Diageo are providing hospitality skills training for young adults at a local community level, with an emphasis on simultaneously growing the talent pool and actively encouraging the inclusion of women into the hospitality industry.

Students are trained in the different disciplines of restaurant service: cooking; front office; housekeeping; as well as learning English language and softer, communication-based skills.

The female participation rate of 33% on our courses is a marked increase from actual female representation in skilled jobs in the industry, and higher than the national female labour force of 28%. As such, these statistics stand as a positive initial development, in a sector which currently fails to attract women into such roles, due to the negative reputation of the industry, and existing cultural norms and perceptions of appropriate employment for women.

Photo credit CARE and Plan W
Photo credit CARE and Plan W

In order to bring about what equates to an encouraging take-up of women on these courses, the partners involved spent time at the design stage actively involving community leaders and government bodies, to change perceptions of female participation in the industry. Amongst some of the results of this were that a grievance redress mechanism was put in place, and students were also encouraged to work in less traditional ‘female roles’ in the hotel – an important initiative to enable progression to leadership positions.

Next Thursday, in advance of International Women’s Day, Diageo is convening an event in Hong Kong, the ‘Women in Hospitality and Tourism (WITH) Forum’, as part of their establishment of a WITH Coalition – a complimentary group of cross-sector organisations, each of whom believes the current status quo of unequal rights and representation of the role of women in the sector, needs to be re-framed.

Whilst women take on over 70% of all work in the informal hospitality sector on the one hand, on the other, as owners of hospitality businesses, and owners of hotels worldwide, women make up less than 20% and 10%, respectively. These figures are not simply unbalanced, but they are failing to capitalise on the talents of hundreds of millions of undervalued and underrepresented women – in Sri Lanka, and beyond.

A White Paper – “Women in Tourism and Hospitality: Unlocking the Potential in the Talent Pool” – will be launched at next week’s event, co-authored by the WITH Coalition members, and detailing a set of recommendations for Governments and public sector agencies, for education providers, the private sector, and for civil society more broadly.

Some of these recommendations will propose the removal of practical obstacles to female participation in the hospitality workplace, others will support more suitable childcare provision to enable employees (both male and female) to remain within their workforce. More generally, the White Paper will call for robust dialogue between hospitality enterprises, trade unions, national governments and other key players, such as civil society.

This last point is crucial: training courses, regulatory adjustments, and other “interventions” can bring about positive outcomes however, ultimately, a full commitment by all sectors to collaborate over the long term, and to advocate joint investment and improvements on a number of levels, will be what truly stands as the winning formula for sustainable and equitable change to the current paradigm…

There are many interesting and related events and fora currently focusing on women’s empowerment, some led by business, others by Governments or by the international NGO community. Next week’s WITH Forum does not stand alone, or to one side, from what is increasingly becoming more mainstream parlance in society when it comes to the empowerment of women.

That every sector seems awakened to the business case for investing much more aggressively in this agenda – whether to bring about positive outcomes for Government, for industry, or for women as a whole in society – is both a sign of the times, but also a sign that we must not ignore just because we might assume that it being en vogue means it will be dealt with by others.

This agenda is for everyone, without exception.

And if positive advances are made, not just in the hospitality and tourism sector but elsewhere too, it will be the defining agenda for our generation.

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