To a casual observer, hospitality might not seem like an industry beset with gender inequality. From the concierge in the reception to the restaurant staff, the visible faces of a hotel are equally likely to be male or female. In fact, a recent report found that women make up nearly 70% of the workforce – a heartening figure for anyone concerned with overall recruitment levels.

Dig a little deeper, however, and an uncomfortable trend becomes apparent. The same report revealed that women hold less than 40% of all managerial positions, less than 20% of general management roles and between 5% and 8% of board positions. It appears that the higher up the hierarchy you climb, the fewer women you see, with the majority of female employees concentrated in lower-ranking roles.

Where, then, does this leave an ambitious female recruit who’s hoping to make it big in hotels? As European Hotel Managers Association (EHMA) treasurer Johanna Fragano makes clear, today’s young talent doesn’t have a huge amount of historical precedent.

"I can’t speak for other countries, but in Italy a woman has always been seen more as a wife and mother than an executive," she says. "I think this is definitely changing though. In the past 45 years that I have been working, most women now leave school with a degree and aspire to better things."

When Fragano retires later this year, she will be bidding goodbye to a long and illustrious career. Starting out at the Hilton Malta in 1970 at the age of 21, she moved on to a succession of luxury properties including the Cavalieri Hilton, the Hassler and the Excelsior. In 1990, she became general manager of the Hotel Quirinale in Rome, where she remains to this day as MD. And in 2007 she was appointed president (later treasurer) of EHMA – the first woman ever to fill the role.

"When I was offered the job of general manager, it was challenging from many points of view, not least the fact I was a woman," she recalls. "The staff were in shock for a couple of months, but then they got used to the idea and it has got better ever since. I look back with great pleasure at many years of hard work but also great experience."

A turning trend

Over the course of her career, she believes the industry has undergone a major transition. With more women than men currently graduating from hotel school, the marketplace has seen an influx of females that are poised to fill the leadership roles of tomorrow.
At the association’s recent general meeting in Geneva, Fragano listened to an economist deliver a talk about the growing number of women in positions of power. Struck by the gender composition of the audience – of about 200 delegates, only ten were female – she asked him how he could account for the discrepancy.

"He told me it’s the same in all industries – if you talked to a group of senior lawyers, there wouldn’t be many women," she says. "But in ten years’ time there will be 50 women in the room, as the new young people who are coming out with excellent degrees make their mark. It’s only a matter of time."

While this trend is undoubtedly emblematic of a wider societal shift, it would be fair to say that hospitality has posed particular obstacles to women’s success. Generally, the life of a senior hotel executive is a mobile one: following the rise of the multinational hotel group, willingness to uproot oneself is an asset in a potential general manager.

Similarly, hours can be long and irregular, making it difficult for the senior hotel executive ever to fully clock off. In a society where women have typically borne the brunt of the childcare, both these factors can make the job difficult to balance with family life.

"Child rearing and maternity are going to affect some jobs in some ways," concedes Jane Sunley, CEO of the HR agency Purple Cubed, which has worked with many major hotel groups. "I think men are taking more responsibility now for that kind of thing, but it’s still going to be a consideration. I remember once I was doing a talk to some senior hotel people, and I asked how many women in the room had children. Nobody put their hand up, so maybe nobody was making those choices back then."

Fragano, for her part, believes that having children should pose no real impediment. She feels that while general managers do need to work hard, this is common to senior members of all professions, and the ability to juggle competing demands is a strong indicator of success.

"You obviously have to get organised and be able to delegate everything that’s delegate-able," she says. "I always say: ‘Your children need quality time with you, but they don’t always need you to be cooking their food or ironing their shirts – you can delegate all that and just keep your free time for playing or reading.’ If that’s what you want, it can be done."

Sunley believes times are changing, and that more hotel companies are waking up to the merits of flexitime. Having previously worked in hotels herself, she remembers a point when 80-hour weeks were standard. She feels, however, that the industry is moving away from a culture of long hours, realising this unbalanced approach is neither good for people nor for business.

She also holds that negative attitudes towards women are fast becoming a thing of the past. While some male employers do persist in hiring in their own image – and ‘old boys’ networks’ are still an issue – the industry is placing ever more importance on diversity. In an era where hotel groups are fighting to attract female travellers, this makes simple business sense.

"I think we’ve got quite a healthy, vibrant appreciation of women in this industry because we know the value of the female pound," she says. "I was reading the other day that white, female business travellers are going to present the biggest opportunity for hotels, so companies know they’ve got to get the offer right. While you don’t need female leaders to achieve that, it must surely make it easier."

"I don’t think women will be stopped in this industry because there will always be opportunities for them." 

A changing landscape

These days, it isn’t hard to find examples of women who have smashed the proverbial glass ceiling. Firmdale Hotels, one of the UK’s biggest privately owned boutique hotel chains, is notorious for recruiting female general managers. The operations director, Carrie Wicks, has promoted a number of women returning from maternity leave, indicating that neither young children nor a brief career break need stand in the way of progression.

Dorchester Collection also has a number of women at the top, including Zoe Jenkins at Coworth Park Hotel in Ascot and Le Meurice GM Franka Holtmann. Malmaison and Hotel du Vin have ten female general managers out of a total of 27. And in 2011, three prominent female hoteliers launched a group for senior women in the industry, Leading Ladies of London.

While the lack of women at board level does remain galling, even here there are signs that change is afoot. Recently, the hospitality company Whitbread, which owns Premier Inn, appointed banking director Alison Brittain as chief executive. When she takes the helm in January, she will become only the sixth female CEO of a FTSE-100-listed company.

The trend towards gender parity is undeniable. While hospitality still does have some way to go in shaking its macho image, we are starting to see ever more women at its highest echelons. Sunley and Fragano are optimistic about the prospects for women entering the industry today.

"I think we have to keep in mind that women who wish to succeed have had to try harder at it – just to justify their being there – but I think that as time goes by, that won’t be necessary anymore," says Fragano. "People will be promoted or not, or recruited or not, according to their behaviour, skills and attitude. I think the future will be full of women in important positions, with lots of general managers in the making."

"I think many companies have got a very healthy attitude towards employing women in senior jobs," adds Sunley. "I don’t think women will be stopped in this industry because there will always be opportunities for them."