Sign that reads, ""Girls Just Wanna Have Fundamental Rights"

Gender equality is more important than ever in the tourism industry. | Photo by lucia on Unsplash

On a recent call with a colleague, we were discussing the book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez. Page after page, Perez uses data to illustrate the uphill battle women face each and every moment of each and every day.

We were specifically talking about the grossly unbalanced number of statues in public places of men versus women. In the United Kingdom, the author found that only 2.7% of statues in the United Kingdom are of historical, non-royal women. A group called inVISIBLE Women is actively tracking monuments that meet this criteria. 

This work and this book are essential because, as most women would probably tell you, we’ve been told that the discrimination we’ve faced because of our gender is “in our heads.”

But data doesn’t lie. And, coming out of the pandemic, it is essential to keep a critical eye on stats related to women even while keeping a foot on the accelerator for growth in the tourism industry.

Aligned with Sustainable Development Goal 5, the United Nations has tracked gender equality and women’s empowerment issues for several years. We are still a long way off from full gender equality, even in those nations considered the most “advanced.” The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, have set SDG 5 back significantly.

According to the UN, lockdowns have increased the risk of violence against women and girls (up 30% in some countries). Women have shouldered far more household burdens than men — and they were already spending three times as many hours on unpaid domestic and care work before the pandemic. And, as 70% of the health and social workforce, they’ve made up the majority of frontline care workers.

Women also make up the majority of workers in sectors like tourism, which means they bore the weight of devastation when the industry came to a screeching halt. All told, the COVID-19 crisis cost women around US$800 billion in lost income in 2020, and that’s likely to be an underestimation.

In discussing the statue issue, my colleague suggested we start a campaign to build more monuments highlighting awesome women. While admirable, I argued that it would be quicker to tear down the monuments of men. In a way, I think we’re both right, which got me thinking about how to address the gender parity issue in the tourism industry moving forward.

There’s no question about it: COVID-19 has impacted everyone. But as the tourism industry begins to find its footing again, it is essential that gender equality is part of every conversation and decision.

Hand Over Leadership and Advisory Roles

According to a UN report from late 2019, 54% of the tourism workforce is made up of women, but many of these women are clustered in low-skilled jobs like food service and hotel work. This is especially true in small island destinations, which were hit particularly hard by COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Women working in the industry must be given a seat at every table, but beyond that, they must have the space to speak and opportunity to lead, and men must actually step aside and listen to what they have to say. I, personally, want to see more women speaking at conferences, serving on advisory boards, and holding leadership positions across tourism sectors, departments, and roles.

Support Female Entrepreneurs

According to the World Bank, only one in three small, medium, and large businesses are owned by women. They face greater challenges in accessing funding for businesses, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. Yet women have historically been known to consistently pay back collateral-free microloans.

Beyond funding, though, women need mentorship, exposure, and support to fully recognize their business potential. Women have incredible problem-solving skills that are not fully appreciated, and they stand behind some of the most innovative social impact projects and forward-thinking initiatives in the tourism space. 

Some organizations, like Women in Travel, have done an excellent job in filling in the gaps so that womens’ brilliance can shine. But what has always struck me is that it’s usually women lifting other women up. In my experience, women will be the first to financially support, promote, and encourage other women. I want to see men make the same commitment and put forth intention and action to support their female colleagues.

Consider Women’s Needs in the Workplace

As noted earlier, women bore an unequal amount of the burden over the past 16 months. Though we are still years away from “normal,” travel-related companies need to make sure their workplaces consider women’s needs, and this includes how companies specifically respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

Prior to the pandemic only 11% of social protection or labor market measures addressed unpaid care and domestic work. Coming out of the pandemic, it is essential they address policies related to childcare, paid family or sick leave, and flexible work schedules and arrangements.

Pay Attention To Women on the Local Level

There is increasing focus on community-based tourism experiences, but the role women play in these relationships should be carefully considered. Good intentions do not necessarily result in the right actions, especially when it comes to involving women. 

This is an issue that has surfaced in relation to the climate crisis. In one instance, agricultural workshops held by international organizations in Chillca, Peru, were held in Spanish and attended primarily by men. Women, the primary herd caretakers, generally only speak Quechua and didn’t have the free time to attend the workshops. Linguistic and labor-related barriers excluded women from these important discussions. Similar situations can easily happen in the community-based tourism context.

The needs and desires of women with whom travelers interact must be centered in community-focused decisions, and the power dynamics in these relationships should be carefully navigated. Women need to drive these conversations under the conditions that work for them. 

Invest in Local Women

It’s not enough for the tourism industry to say it supports local communities; it must detail who specifically benefits from tourism dollars. Women invest 90% of their income back into their families whereas men invest 35%. Specifically investing in women can powerfully impact economic progress and sustainable development at the community level.

Much Better Adventures recently launched female-led trips in Mongolia and partnered with a social enterprise that supports women through tourism. We need to see more intentionality like this across the industry if there truly is a desire to support local communities.

Address Your Toxic Culture

If your immediate response to this heading is “we don’t have a toxic culture,” I encourage you to take a moment and sit with that reaction. Even if your organization is led by a woman, there is likely room for improvement when it comes to creating a work environment that is safe not only for women but also BIPOC and people who identify with other marginalized communities.

Not so very long ago, a well-known male colleague in the tourism space told me that I should “smile more.” I can’t ever imagine him saying the same thing to another man. Women in your workplace face these kinds of microaggressions every single day … and they also face them in the grocery store, in comment threads on Facebook, on public transportation, etc., etc.

Your work environment should be one where women don’t encounter this kind of behavior. In addition, when this kind of behavior happens, women should feel safe addressing these issues without fear of repercussion or retaliation.

Empower Women While Decolonizing the Dangerous Tourism Narrative

This article recently published by Beth Santos about why those “safe places for women to travel” lists are so harmful is right on point. Travel media does a huge disservice by publishing articles that rank entire destinations in any format without context, but these lists are particularly problematic in that they are largely written from the privileged perspective of white, Western, and wealthy travelers while failing to consider intersectionality.

Men and women have different lived experiences, and it is okay to address those in content creation. However, check in with how personal experience, privilege, bias, and racism may play into that content, especially related to gender issues.

Better yet, let’s work together to create a world where — regardless of where they travel, live, or work — women feel safe, supported, appreciated, heard, and respected.


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