As the hospitality industry rebuilds after the COVID-19 pandemic, women are making major strides. Although still underrepresented in top management – particularly considering that females comprise more than 50 percent of the lodging workforce – the tide is starting to turn.
According to industry thought leader Emily Goldfischer, founder of hertelier, an online media platform that connects and supports women in the hospitality industry, it makes good business sense to promote women to executive positions. “Diverse companies are profitable,” she said. “The evidence is irrefutable.”
Moreover, as women rise to top positions, they are encouraging one another, resulting in stronger and more confident leaders. “They are lifting as they climb,” noted Goldfischer, a former vice president of public relations at Loews Hotels and a graduate of the Cornell Nolan School of Hotel Administration. “They are offering their colleagues the support they wish they had been given on the way up.”
HU recently talked with three women who have reached the top of their professions in the hospitality industry: Heather Bishop, vice president of digital at Royal Caribbean Group; Riise Walker, marketing director at ASSA ABLOY Global Solutions; and Susan Graves, chief executive officer at Experience Alive. These women discussed their career paths, some of the challenges they encountered and the importance of mentors to their success.
The road to the executive suite
For Susan Graves, who spent more than 20 years with Marriott and five years in the convention space before launching her own hospitality technology consulting company, the road to the executive suite wasn’t always smooth. “When I began my career in the 1980s, there were very few women in top positions in the hospitality industry,” she said. “I had to navigate a number of challenges along the way. I’d like to think I helped forge a pathway forward.”
Indeed, she has done that and more. Graves served as the first diversity council chair for Marriott International and was the founding chair of the Innovation & Technology Committee at the Ohio Hotel and Lodging Association. She now works with hospitality CEOs, COOs, owners, operators and others to select technology that will reduce expenses, increase revenue and enhance the guest and associate experience.
Yet early in her career, especially during her childbearing years, she says, she was passed over for promotions simply because of her gender. But she persisted, sometimes transferring to other divisions where she was able to expand her knowledge base and enhance her skillset. “Not all growth has to be vertical. That’s a big lesson I learned along the way.”
Heather Bishop encountered an altogether different kind of challenge in her career journey. While she always believed she had an equal chance at promotions and pay raises, she had to learn to assert herself. “As women, we sometimes tend to let others take the floor,” she said. “Young girls are instructed to be nice and get along. That trait can follow them into adulthood and all the way into the board room.”
It was a male boss who encouraged Bishop to use her voice. “He told me I had valuable contributions to make and that I should never be afraid to speak up.” As a result, she began expressing her viewpoints more directly and emphatically. “Being assertive doesn’t mean being the loudest voice in the room,” she noted. “It simply means sometimes stepping out of your comfort zone and not being afraid to offer another opinion.”
For Riise Walker, one of the keys to upward career mobility was finding an organization that valued diversity. “So many industries, including hospitality, have traditionally been male dominated at the top levels, which made it difficult for female professionals to get their foot in the door,” she said. “I looked for a company that viewed diversity as an opportunity rather than a risk.”
Her strategy paid off. She began at ASSA ABLOY as a sales lead coordinator and steadily moved up through the ranks, becoming a marketing supervisor within four years. A few years later, she was promoted to marketing manager and in 2018 was named marketing director for the Americas.
She says one of the strongest indicators of an organization’s approach to diversity is a leadership team that values contributions from everyone. “Leaders who actively seek input from all of their employees, regardless of gender, position level or personal background, foster a work environment where everyone can thrive."
And more, she said, these companies typically are more successful in the marketplace. “By valuing the unique perspectives of a diverse team, they are able to discover new and improved ways of serving customers.“
Mentors contributed to success
All three women credit mentors as having a role in their success. Graves cites two bosses, both male, who not only encouraged her but also provided opportunities to lead. “They each appreciated my contributions and didn’t feel threatened by my accomplishments,” she said. “They had enough confidence in their own capabilities to help others achieve more.”
Likewise, the boss who emboldened Bishop to use her voice became a mentor who gave her a chance to grow within the organization. “He helped me build a network and feel more comfortable speaking up, even if I was the only woman in the room,” she said.
Additionally, that same boss supported a work-life balance, which was especially beneficial to Bishop as she moved into motherhood. “He really helped me understand the importance of setting boundaries.”
Studies show that creating a work-life balance can be difficult for females, who often feel guilty when they have to press pause on work to take care of themselves or their families. “It’s important to remember that it’s about blending the two worlds harmoniously,” said Bishop. “You can only do so much, and you have to be intentional about taking time for yourself.”
For Walker, mentors included family members and teachers as well as bosses and coworkers. “My mentoring began with grandparents who instilled in me the values of working hard to achieve my goals,” she said. Later in life, college professors encouraged her to strive for excellence. Today, her mentors include a supportive spouse as well as work colleagues and industry peers, many of them women, who inspire her to aim for the stars. “These people have my best interests at heart and lead by example.”
What if a mentor doesn’t materialize? Graves urges women to seek one out. “Although young professionals are often reluctant to ask for help, there’s no shame in seeking guidance.” She advises women to choose colleagues they admire, perhaps for their management style or a specific skillset. Then, it’s as simple as approaching that person. “Tell her you’d like to meet regularly to share experiences and learn new skills,” she said. “Most executives are more than willing to give back by offering their assistance.”
Optimism for the future
Goldfischer is optimistic about the future of women in top hospitality roles. “I’m sure we’re going to see a wave of new female leaders over the next five to 10 years,” she predicts.
Bishop concurs. “At conferences and in boardrooms, you’re starting to see the landscape shift, with more women at the forefront. I’m excited about the future, as I think that landscape will only continue to grow.”
Walker is also confident that change is underway. “Although the road to full equality will take time and involve additional challenges, the hospitality industry is attracting and empowering more female professionals than ever, and women are increasingly driving new business opportunities.”
Indeed, the number of hospitality companies and associations as well as colleges and universities that have created programs to support women has grown exponentially over the last few years. “Today, there’s a real focus on women throughout the hospitality industry,” Graves said. “Yes, there are still obstacles, but there are plenty of opportunities.”
Goldfischer agrees. “Women are making their mark as general managers, owners and senior executives,” she concluded. “They’re making a positive difference in the industry, and the future is definitely bright.”
Best Career Advice for Women
What should young women be most mindful of when embarking on a hospitality career? Following is best advice from Bishop, Graves and Walker:
- Build a female network. “A network of women will build your confidence,” Bishop said. “They likely have experienced the challenges you’re encountering and can help you navigate them.”
- Accept challenges. “Take on new tasks, even those outside your comfort zone,” Walker instructed. “Although it might seem intimidating, the benefits are more than worth the effort.”
- Seek opportunities to solve problems. “Problem solvers are valuable within any organization,” Graves said. “Improving those skills can give you a definite edge.”
- Find your voice. “Then don’t be afraid to use it,” Bishop advised.
- Never stop growing. “Acquiring new skills is essential to reaching your goals and progressing in your career,” Walker said.
- Keep in mind that the path to success is different for everyone. “Horizontal growth is often as important as vertical growth,” Graves said. “The key is to constantly learn and remember that obstacles are a part of everyone’s career journey.