TORONTO — Day 2 of the fourth-annual Women in Tourism & Hospitality Summit, which took place virtually October 14 and 15, started out with a bang as the kickoff speaker, Paula Stone Williams, gender equity advocate, LGBTQ ambassador and transgender minister shared what she wished she’d known when she was living as a man.

In her session, Persistence, Not Perfection, Williams — an internationally known speaker on gender equity and LGBTQ advocacy — brought a unique perspective to gender equity. 

“I was the CEO of the largest non-profit, the host of a national television show, the editor of large international magazine — I was a successful, well educated, white, American male,” she said. “[But then I] came out as transgender and promptly lost every single one of my jobs. In all 50 states of the United States, you cannot be fired for being transgender. But in all 50, you can be fired if you’re transgender and you work for a religious corporation.”

Williams said she’s continuing to learn a lot about what it means to be a female “and I’m learning a lot about my former gender. And I’m here to tell you, the differences are massive. There’s no way a well-educated white male can understand how much culture fits in his favour. There’s no way he can understand that because it’s all he’s ever known — and it’s all he ever will know. Now, he might have an inkling that his life is easier than the women around him, but he’s clueless as to just how much easier it is. And a woman really might just have an inkling of how much more difficult her life is, but she doesn’t really know she’s working twice as hard for three-quarters as much — that life is a lot harder [for her] than it is for the guy in the Brooks Brothers jacket in the office across the hallway. I know — I was that guy. And when I became a woman, it didn’t take long for me to see just how different my life was going to be.”

She compared being a woman in the workplace to being on a knife’s edge. “If you speak up too strongly, well, they have a word for that. And if you don’t speak up at all, you’re not seen as a leader. It really doesn’t matter what you do, you’re between a rock and a hard place — you can’t speak up too strongly and you can’t speak up not strongly enough. And of course, if you do speak up, you’re just going to be interrupted. Because the truth is, men interrupt women twice as often. Guys, if there’s just one thing you can do that would make a huge difference, if you would just assume a woman knows what she’s talking about and treat her accordingly, that would go a really, really long way toward gender equity. Well, and one other thing — stop interrupting and stop other interrupters. If you would say to them, ‘excuse me, I don’t believe she was done speaking yet,’ and if you do that a couple of times, they finally get the idea.”

Williams admitted there’s a lot more she wished she’d known when she was living as a man. “There are three things, in particular, I wish I had understood that would have caused me to be able to help at that point in time, and bringing the world to gender equity. First of all, I wish men would learn the importance of the value of deference — deference is not a respected male trait. Men see deference as weakness. And until the mindset is that deference is a valued trait, we’re never going to get anywhere near gender equity. How can men learn to defer? First of all, become an ally of women. You can say ‘I’m with you; I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure we have equity, up and down through this company, from the C-suite, from the board all the way down to every single employee, I’m going to make sure people of colour are in key positions and I’m going to be with you all the way.’ That is an ally, and that’s important.”

To Williams, great female leaders have confidence, coupled with great humility. “I wish I had learned as a man to be confident and humble. At the same time, I wish I had learned to be collaborative to be more willing to compromise and to be more open to correction. And one other thing I wish I had learned is to truly listen.”

Williams closed her talk by addressing the lack of empowerment in the female gender. “Why don’t women empower one another? Women, we’ve got to learn to empower one another. Instead, women tend to see each other as competition. You know, I’ve had more conflict with women as a woman in six years than I had with women as a man when I was living as a man in 16 years.”

Following an online Q&A session with Williams, Dr. Patch Adams took the floor to share his message of hope and of loving life in his session Decided to Love Life, Now What? When Adams was 18 years old, he heard Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech, which inspired him to become an advocate for love, peace and justice. 

“That’s when I decided to never have a bad day,” said Adams, who was the subject of a blockbuster movie about his life starring Robin Williams. He did this, he said, by learning to control how he perceived the world.

Adams became a doctor and in 1971 founded the Gesundheit Institute, a non-profit healthcare organization. The Institute is a project in holistic medical care based on the belief that one cannot separate the health of the individual from the health of the family, the community, the society and the world. “Our mission is to reframe and reclaim the concept of ‘hospital’,” said Adams.

The popular session engaged WITH attendees and flooded the stream with comments and questions for the lively speaker.

The Fireside Chat session followed, offering insight and advice from Vicki Saunders, president and founder, SHEeo. You Can’t Just Add Women + Stir: Re-Thinking Systems + Models for a More Equitable World, moderated by Amirita Bhalla of A.B. Consulting addressed the challenges COVID-19 has brought to light with regards to women in the workplace.

“Given what’s going on with the pandemic, it feels like things are really backsliding for women,” said Saunders. “It’s incredibly challenging…we have to re-define what’s going to be acceptable for work and how we can be more flexible. So, I’m excited by the potential for transformation of this and also quite concerned at the immediate moment that we don’t have the structures and systems in place to cope with these new realities that we’re all facing.”

Bhalla then asked how, as an industry, do we move beyond this perceived symbolism of adding women to leadership roles or board positions without there being any institutional changes.

“We’re having this giant unraveling at the moment, with the racial reckoning that’s going on in the world and the pandemic happening — it’s like these layers and layers of waves coming at us, that continue to show us every day that the systems and structures we have in place were designed for another time. Women were not at the table to design a lot of those,” said Saunders. 

She said companies can’t put three women on a board in an attempt to level the playing field. “We need to actually create, we need to look at, why it is that we haven’t created the conditions for women to thrive on their own terms?”

When Bhalla asked Saunders for advice for how women can succeed in the tourism and hospitality industry, which has often been regarded as a male-dominated profession, her response was “blaze your own trail, find your own path. Don’t try and follow someone else’s leadership model. That, to me is, is one of my big learnings over time — it’s very, very hard to be a leader following in someone else’s footsteps. You need to find out what works for you.”

The final session of the day, Build Resiliance in Your Workforce, led by Dr. Ryan Todd, CEO, Headversity, took attendees through what workplace mental health could look like.

“What we’re doing now is absolutely re-imagining what workplace mental health can look like. And COVID has shaken that situation up,” said Todd as way of introduction.

He pointed out that the two most high-risk populations for mental illness during COVID-19 are young students and young mothers, “so we know the burden of mental-health issues is not shared. A greater burden is put on women — in particular, women who are working in the hospitality industry.”

Todd ran attendees through some cognitive-therapy exercises and offered advice for ways to make workplace mental health a priority. 

“The flaw we’ve seen in the model, up until now, in terms of workplace training and mental health has been a leadership focus — there’s been this idea that if you only train those in the top line, if you only train those in the C-suite, that messaging will cascade down, it will trickle down and we’ll be all good. We know that not to be the case; we know we have to put tools in the hands of everyone. And the best initiatives are those that start from the grassroots and go from the ground up.”

This year’s Women in Tourism & Hospitality Global Virtual Summit 2020, presented by Kostuch Media Ltd. and Sequel Hotels, drew registrations from around the world. 


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