Women hold the majority of roles in tourism, but there is still a sizeable gap in support and access for everyone. | Photo by Chelsi Peter on Pexels

May 6, 2024

For decades, the United Nations has emphasized the importance of gender equality in the pursuit of sustainable development. “Achieving gender equality and empower(ing) all women and girls” is the fifth sustainable development goal — but we are far from achieving that goal by 2030.

Unfortunately, the tourism industry has continued to fail women as well.

According to UN Tourism, women make up the majority (54%) of the tourism workforce, yet they remain “concentrated in lower-skilled, lower-paid, and often informal employment.” Just as they are universally uncompensated for duties related to the home and family, women do most of the unpaid work in family tourism businesses as well. Men might be the visible frontline providers tourists encounter, but women keep the beds made, rooms booked, and coffee on the table.

We see this play out in those positions removed from the frontlines as well. Tourism industry conferences still tilt in favor of men; I recently attended one where only 16% of speakers were women. Women may hold managerial positions, but men still dominate the top leadership roles. And this is to say nothing of intersectional identities that continue to disadvantage women across race, age, religion, ability, and passport privilege.

There is a lot of talk about empowering women (I’ve certainly done it myself), and yet there remains a huge gap in achieving gender equality in tourism.

The Problem with Empowerment

I believe one of the challenges sits with the fact that we continue to emphasize the need to “empower” women. One of the key definitions of “empower” is “to enable or permit.” This is where words can easily become a crutch: Companies encourage women and people of other marginalized identities to apply for jobs. Conference panels discuss the benefits of diversity across the tourism spectrum. Awards applaud women who inspire, innovate, and motivate others.

For the most part, people are happy “to enable and permit” women to be a part of these spaces. Women are welcome to apply for these jobs; no one is stopping them. They are invited to attend these conferences; they are just as welcome as anyone. We’re happy to cheer on their accomplishments; women are definitely worthy of the accolades they receive. These are low-stakes propositions, and they showcase the good intentions that the tourism industry says it has when it comes to gender equality.

It’s great that women are allowed to do these things, but it goes without saying that women should be allowed to do these things. That should be the bare minimum.

There also isn’t a lack of interest. Women want to close this gender gap. They’re just as capable as men at holding top leadership positions. They are well spoken and able to talk about issues across the tourism spectrum. And, as noted, they are the backbone of the tourism industry; without women, day-to-day operations would fall apart.

But being enabled and permitted to close this gap — being “empowered” — only goes so far. It is beyond time for sectors across the tourism ecosystem to make the real systemic changes needed so that women can turn those encouraging words into real action.

Beyond Empowerment to Access and Multi-Faceted Support

To be clear, those working in positions of power in tourism have a responsibility to enable and permit women to work across all roles, attend all events, and be in all spaces. Gender bias is a very real issue: “Empowering” women in the “permit and enable” sense really is the least that should be done and even that sometimes falls short.

So, we need to take a step back and ask why this isn’t happening. The answer can often be summed up in two words: access and support.

As is the case across many industries, women in tourism and hospitality face conflicts that make it difficult to take on jobs requiring long and inflexible working hours. Women are more likely to be caring for children and aging family members, juggling home-related tasks, and taking on other unpaid roles related to their identities as wives, mothers, and daughters. The introduction of remote work helped many women, but some workplaces are now beckoning people back into physical workspaces, and many other decision-making spaces still fail to support women’s needs.

I recently followed Beth Santos’s journey across the United States to the WITS Summit, book signings, and other media appearances with her newborn baby in tow. Beth is the founder of Wanderful, which hosts WITS. The entire Wanderful community is built around supporting women in tourism, so it’s no surprise that she was equally surrounded by the support she needed as a mother at the event. Beth has created an ecosystem where empowerment is the real deal.

But other moments of her journey were definitely nerve-wracking to witness on social media: One morning Beth found herself without childcare so had to take her baby with her to a television interview. Thankfully, he napped in the green room while she was on camera.

Yet Beth’s example highlights what many mothers, specifically, need when it comes to access and support: Childcare, extra help to manage multiple tasks, changing rooms and areas for breastfeeding, and funding to pay for these things so women can actually afford to show up in these spaces. Family-friendly policies that include remote and flexible work and generous maternity/paternity leave are also essential.

In some places, a lack of access to education means that women don’t have the language or professional skills to qualify for more than menial work. There might be cultural barriers that don’t allow women to travel without guardians, or they may not be allowed in certain spaces due to cultural expectations. Or, the meetings and conferences relevant to their work are held in geographic locations they can’t reach, languages they don’t speak, or at times that don’t align with their availability.

Pay, funding, and other economic issues are also a challenge. Women are severely underrepresented in venture capital (VC) funding, and even when they get a foot in the door, few representatives from VC firms are women. Anecdotally speaking, it seems to me a lot of women end up going into business for themselves, possibly due to the inflexibility that comes with working for many established businesses. Grants, scholarships, and even discounts would help make many more opportunities more affordable and, therefore, accessible to women.

One final area that has severe shortcomings when it comes to access and support is mentorship. There are a growing number of female-specific support groups in the tourism space, which is hugely important. These are safe spaces where women can connect with other women to network, ideate, receive support, and work through gender-related challenges. But like any silos, these women-specific groups may not actually resolve problems built upon the existing systems designed to serve and prioritize men. The Women in Travel CIC’s male mentorship program available through its Male Allyship Network is an example of intentional programming that uses mens’ access to pave the way for women.

All of these gender-specific challenges must be considered, and care should be taken to accommodate. Again, it’s one thing to say women are permitted to be part of these tourism-related spaces and conversations; it’s quite another to make a concerted effort so they can actually be present and participate. 

From Access and Support to Power

These barriers that women face are not new. However, it sometimes seems the systemic challenges facing women gets lost en route to the stated desire of “empowering” them.

I can only speak for myself when I say I appreciate being permitted to show up and speak up in tourism-related spaces. But that’s not enough.

Every time a group gathers, make sure a diverse array of women are in the room. Leaders in the space also need to make sure the women present are truly being encouraged to share their opinions and that they feel safe when doing so.

Every time a project is launched, make sure anyone impacted has a representative present. Be inclusive by providing support for language, geography, and other diverse needs.

Every time a trip itinerary is created, be clear about how it benefits women. Make adjustments so that womens’ needs and stories are not overlooked simply because they are not consulted or inconvenient to accommodate.

Every time an in-person event is planned, involve women in all stages of planning. Ask parents what they need. Ask entrepreneurs what they need. Ask who is missing from the space, and put effort into finding them and asking them what they need too.

Always ask who is benefiting and why. Always ask who isn’t being represented in a space and what needs to be done so they are represented. Always ask what you might be missing (at your event, in your company, or during your tour), and enlist the help of someone who can help you identify the blind spots

It’s long overdue for the tourism industry to embrace a second definition of empower: “to give power or authority to.” 

I don’t yet believe that all people in the tourism space are truly interested in or committed to diversity — be that gender, race, age, ability, or any number of other identities — though I do think more people are beginning to understand why it is valuable.

But let’s be real about the real value of true empowerment: Women need support and access to decision-making spaces, financial capital, promotional opportunities, and mentorship and training — and they need to be given the opportunity to make meaningful decisions and hold power positions in tourism. Without this, the industry stagnates. It can never grow into the vibrant, beautifully diverse ecosystem it has the potential of becoming.

We continue to discuss gender equality in tourism because a status quo that favors inequality continues to exist. Let this be yet another wake-up call that a desire to empower women is an appropriate start, but now we need the actions behind the words to truly make a difference.


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