Real change will come when powerful women are less of an exception,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which examines why women’s voices are not being heard in business and government. Data indicates it’s because women are under-represented at the highest decision-making levels.

According to Statistics Canada, women comprise 59 per cent of university graduates and more than one-third (34.5 per cent) of MBA graduates However, they hold only 13.1 per cent of seats on Canadian Boards of Directors, based on results from the “2013 Women on Boards Survey” conducted by GMI Ratings in New York City.

There are many theories for this imbalance, including factors surrounding family and child rearing. Joumana Ghandour, GM of The Westin Edmonton, a Starwood hotel, says some of her associates being groomed through succession planning may not want to relocate or may find a GM’s work hours extensive and difficult to balance if they have a young family. “Executive roles are demanding, with 24-7 needs and travel, and [women] are predominantly faced with the decision of having to sacrifice time with family if they choose these roles,” adds Anne Larcade, president and CEO of Sequel Hotels & Resorts in Huntsville, Ont.

Outside of personal choice, however, prejudices do prevail. “Biases may come into play for women who have young families, especially at higher levels,” says Nancy Munzar Kelly, GM of
The Hazelton Hotel in Toronto, whose senior management team is nearly evenly split between men and women. “Since the primary caregiver is still often the woman, some employers may think they don’t have as much flexibility or time.”

But regardless of biology or personal choice, it’s difficult for women to crack the old-boys network. “Human tendency is to gravitate to people like oneself, which leads powerful men to sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise. [But] despite a lack of discriminatory intent, subtle forms of work-place gender bias can obstruct the leadership identity development of a company’s entire population of women,” maintains Larcade. “The resulting under-representation of women in top positions reinforces entrenched beliefs, prompts and supports men’s bids for leadership and maintains the status quo.”

Stephen Renard, president of Renard International Hospitality Search Consultants in Toronto, agrees a bias exists among men. “Most men over 50 have it,” he says. “But most men under 50, no. So how do we stop it? Women [must prove] how good they are in senior roles and the bias disappears.”

The advancement of female talent is a core value at Stamford, Conn.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts. Five of the seven executives on Ghandour’s team, including her director of Finance, director of HR and director of Sales & Marketing, are women, and her SVP Operations, West, to whom she reports, is also female.

“Initiatives to advance female leadership at all levels in the company is a key component of our overall business strategy,” says Trevor Bracher, area director of HR, Eastern Canada for Starwood. “Programs such as Leading Starwood, our in-depth talent profile and review process, Reaching Our Potential mentorship program and management trainee initiatives help ensure we advance and grow female talent. This talent helps ensure we’re meeting and exceeding the needs of our female guests, clients and customers.”

But even with so many women around, Ghandour has felt like a minority when she travels outside her immediate corporate environment to national or international industry events, particularly in her early days as a GM. She was once called “sweetie” and has had to initiate handshakes with men.

Even Betty Anne Latrace-Henderson, who’s been president of Saskatoon-based Airline Hotels for the last 15 years, sometimes doesn’t feel heard by the men on her Board. “We’ve got [an] amazing Board, but they’re male,” she quips. “To this day, I can sit in a meeting, say something that gets washed over, and five minutes later one of the men directors will say exactly the same thing, but in a few different words, and it’ll be listened to.”

Entrenched gender stereotypes about what makes an effective leader are major hurdles for women seeking senior jobs. “In most societies, masculinity and leadership are closely linked,” notes Larcade. “The ideal leader, like the ideal man, is decisive, assertive and independent. In contrast, women are expected to be nice, [nurturing] and unselfish…Women who excel in traditionally male domains are viewed as competent but less likable than their male counterparts, [and] behaviours that suggest self-confidence or assertiveness in men often appear arrogant or abrasive in women. Meanwhile, women in positions of authority
who enact a conventionally feminine style may be liked but not respected; they are deemed too emotional to make tough decisions and too soft to be strong leaders.”

The “glass-wall” phenomenon is another roadblock to top management. Women reach high-level roles in segments such as HR, PR, marketing and finance, but this experience isn’t sufficiently diverse and doesn’t expose women to different company departments. “Our business is a business you have to learn from the ground up,” says Munzar Kelly who thinks the industry is moving in the right direction. “Regardless of how you start, to have a successful career in hospitality you have to learn every level of the operation. If women travel and work in different hotels and markets all over the world, that can be extremely beneficial in moving up the corporate ladder and obtaining a successful career.”

Several hotel companies have defined manifestos to attract and retain a diverse workforce, including Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International. The Marriott Women’s Leadership Development Initiative, founded in 1999, has led to the growth of females in decision-making positions. And it’s proven fruitful. Globally, women comprise almost 60 per cent of management positions and more than nine women lead divisions worth more than US$100 million annually.

Numbers speak volumes. Research confirms women are effective leaders and their organizations are lucrative investments for shareholders. According to results from the New York City-based Catalyst report “The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards” published in 2011, Fortune 500 companies with the most women directors outperformed those with the least with a 16 per cent return on sales; and companies with the most women directors outperformed those with the least with a 26 per cent return on invested capital.

So if the numbers add up, how can we better utilize female talent? Ironically, it can start with men. “It’s important for women to have mentors,” notes Munzar Kelly. “The mentor doesn’t need to be another female, just a support mechanism to encourage success.” Larcade concurs: “In many ways men are self-serving in their approach and consider their needs first. Women on the other hand are reared [to put] themselves last and the needs of others first; they often lose out in business, because they are not selfish enough. Men need to identify this challenge and disparity and speak up on behalf of women seeking senior level roles.”

Murray Gottschlich, former CEO and COO of Airline Hotels, was a mentor to Latrace-Henderson. He modelled how to listen to people, finding their strengths and advising them how to enhance their careers. Latrace-Henderson also learned early on how to give away responsibility. “Women need to understand they don’t have to be everything,” she explains. “As females we want everybody to succeed, [but] in doing so we take away the other person’s ability to prove themselves.”

In addition, Larcade emphasizes that women must put themselves forward for leadership roles, ask why they are not being considered in final selection and negotiate work arrangements that align their personal commitments with their performance requirements.

All in all, women must arm themselves with the right tools for the job, advises Renard. “The more education you have the better off you’re going to be,” the consultant says. “Be honourable, work hard and show that you’re passionate about your job, and people will notice.”

But an overall culture shift is necessary for meaningful change. In that vein, Canadian organizations can affirm their commitment to gender diversity by signing the Catalyst Accord (catalyst.org), a pledge to increase the percentage of women on their Boards of Directors to 25 per cent by 2017. Air Canada, Desjardins, RBC, Telus and WestJet are among the 28 Canadian signatories. Though no hospitality company had taken the pledge at press time, they would clearly be in good company.

Volume 27, Number 2

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