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Women in Hotel Tech - On Challenges, Triumphs and the Importance of Mentors

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August 12, 2021
2021 Technology Leaders
Fran Worrall

In recent years, women have made enormous strides in the American workforce. According to a study by networking site LinkedIn, hiring has flipped from majority male to majority female in 23 occupations in the last five years alone.

Yet women remain significantly underrepresented in technology–in the hospitality sector and elsewhere. A recent report issued by information services company TrustRadius reveals that 72 percent of women in tech are outnumbered in executive meetings by at least a 2:1 ratio, with more than a quarter of them being outnumbered by a 5:1 ratio. A majority of these women reported gender bias as an obstacle to promotion, and more than 74 percent indicated they have to work harder than their male counterparts to prove their worth. The pandemic highlighted these inequities, with women nearly twice as likely as men to have lost their jobs or been furloughed.

Despite these and other challenges, women are making inroads in technology. Their unique abilities and creative problem-solving skills are increasingly being acknowledged, and more women are rising to technology leadership positions within their companies. HU talked with three women who have reached the top of their professions about the challenges and rewards of a career in hospitality technology, as well as the importance of mentors in achieving success.

Bringing something different to the job
Keryn McNamara is vice president of hotel technology at Aimbridge Hospitality, a global third-party hotel management company headquartered in Plano, Texas. A self-declared risk-taker, she has never played it safe in her career. “I’ve always been the kind of person who raised my hand and said, ‘I want to try that.’ And that attitude has afforded me a lot of opportunities.”

McNamara, who was in senior management at Omni Hotels & Resorts prior to joining Aimbridge, believes that women bring a number of positive traits to the workforce that add value to the organization. “Women excel in intuitive skills, such as thinking about how business decisions might affect associates or owners,” she said. “Likewise, we tend to consider the effect of communications on the people around us. We definitely bring something different to the job.”

Kristin Gassick, corporate director of IT at Enchantment Group, a portfolio of distinctive privately-owned resort properties, agrees. “Women rank high in emotional intelligence and tend to look at situations on a deeper level,” she said, adding that these qualities serve them well as they navigate the workplace and move up the corporate ladder.

Gassick, who serves on the board of directors of the Arizona Chapter of Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals (HFTP), also notes that women typically employ leadership styles that motivate others to achieve. “We’re encouraging and inclusive and want to bring out the best in everyone,” she said. As a result, employees take ownership of their work and feel more engaged in their jobs.

According to Denise Walker, vice president of information technology at lifestyle boutique brand Virgin Hotels, women tend to be extremely resourceful, a trait often acquired from life experiences. “We think outside the box, particularly when it comes to tackling difficult situations,” she said.

Walker, who served in senior technology positions at Atlantis Paradise Island Resort and Royal Caribbean International before joining Virgin Hotels, believes that women also bring an invaluable energy to the workplace. “Although we sometimes get branded as ‘emotional’, we’re really just passionate about what we do,” she said, adding that women use that passion to shape experiences, create positive outcomes and solve problems.

Inequalities still linger
Still, women face a number of challenges at work, particularly in male-dominated fields like technology. The path to the top can be difficult due to gender bias, different performance standards, sexual harassment and workplace cultures that marginalize females.

“Certainly, I’ve been in uncomfortable situations in the past,” McNamara said. “But it’s my nature to be direct and open and to try to educate in the moment.” She finds that humor often prevents such situations from spiraling out of control. “It’s not always necessary to call someone out or publicly berate them. You can make your point and educate colleagues while still keeping things positive.”

Walker said she has witnessed gender bias in the workplace. Many times, she has been the only woman in the room. In fact, early in her career, she was often the only female on the team. “I definitely felt like I had to go the extra mile to demonstrate my abilities,” she said. “There was a constant need to prove myself, particularly when I was starting out.”

Likewise, Gassick felt the sting of gender bias in one of her first jobs when a male vendor she brought on board in a partnering relationship suddenly dropped her from the line of communication, going instead to Gassick’s male colleagues. “I had to remind him that I was the person he was partnering with, and I was the person who was making the decisions.”

She also has faced wage and title disparity. “Early in my career, I was in a situation where I contributed three times the effort yet was paid less than my male counterparts, and I was given a title that wasn’t commensurate with my competency and experience,” she said.

Walker, noting that wage disparity still exists in the industry, cites culpability on both sides. “Companies should pay market value, regardless of gender; but women also need to do a better job of standing up for themselves,” she said. “Men tend to be more assertive when it comes to stating their value; and, as a result, they often get the promotions and pay raises they ask for.”

The importance of mentors
Perhaps nothing plays a more important role in the careers of women in technology than mentors. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the wonderful mentors I had, both male and female,” McNamara said. “They took the time to understand my strengths; and, more importantly, to understand my weaknesses. They helped me develop into the leader I am today.”

She now gives back, particularly at Aimbridge, where she is involved in WLEAD, the company’s women’s leadership program. “It’s so important to mentor within hospitality and within technology,” she said. “At every conference I attend, I make it a point to spend time with women on a personal level, which always leads to connections on a business level.”

Early in her career, Walker was paired with a female project manager who became a mentor and who still serves in that role today. She fondly recalls a lunch they had before their first business trip together. “She saw that I was really green, and she prepped me for working with a group of male engineers, many of whom didn’t appreciate a woman coming in and giving them advice. Because she took the time to do that, I didn’t take their negative comments personally, and we all ended up working well together.”

Similarly, Gassick had a mentor at her first job who recognized her strengths and encouraged her professional development. “He helped me see the value in my ideas and inspired me to pursue my career goals,” she said. “He also offered insight into the company’s inner workings and helped me navigate some challenging situations.”

She notes the importance of female mentors, particularly in occupations where women are in the minority. “It’s important for young women to have strong female role models who offer support and guidance,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate to have female mentors who not only helped build my confidence but also took the time to remind me of the importance of self-care to my success.”

Women on the rise
McNamara, Gassick and Walker are all optimistic about the future. Technology programs that didn’t exist years ago are now part of the curriculums at colleges, high schools and even elementary schools across the country. Moreover, initiatives that encourage women to pursue tech-oriented careers are commonplace. “I predict a big increase in the number of women in technology during the next decade,” McNamara said.

Gassick has observed a growing number of female technology students who participate in local HFTP meetings. “It’s exciting to see young women who are passionate about careers in hospitality technology,” she said. “They can see the path forward and envision themselves in management roles. The days of technology jobs not being for women are over.”

Walker agreed. “Women are no longer competing for a place at the table; we’re already there.” And more, she believes that women in senior-level positions have helped propel hospitality into the successful industry that it is today. “Women are slowly but surely having a positive effect not only on hospitality but on corporate America as well,” she concluded. “For women in hospitality technology, the future is limitless.”
 

FRAN WORRALL is the features editor at Hospitality Upgrade. She can be reached at Fran@hospitalityupgrade.com.

©2021 Hospitality Upgrade
This work may not be reprinted, redistributed or repurposed without written consent. For permission requests, call 678.802.5302 or email info@hospitalityupgrade.com.
 

Best Career Advice for Women

When asked what advice they would offer to young women pursuing careers in hospitality technology, here’s what Gassick, McNamara and Walker had to say:

Ask questions. “Women often hesitate to ask questions out of fear of being thought incompetent, but if you don’t ask questions—particularly in the field of technology—you may lose out,” McNamara said. “I ask questions every single day.”

Be bold. “Don’t be afraid to take chances,” Gassick advised. “And speak up without worrying about how you’ll be perceived.”

Be authentic.  “It’s okay to not know something,” said Walker. “Don’t try to ‘fake it till you make it’. Be honest with yourself and others.”

Volunteer.  “Take on a task or a project that allows you to interact with other employees or departments,” McNamara advised. “You’ll gain an understanding of the organization and will be in a better position to advance.”

Acknowledge your differences. “Women bring different skills and qualities to the workplace,” Gassick said. “Don’t downplay those differences; celebrate them.”

Negotiate your pay. “Women are sometimes reluctant to ask for more money, but there’s nothing wrong with letting others know that you recognize your value,” Walker said.

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