Women in Hotel Leadership: What It Takes to Climb the Ranks: Statistics Show It’s a Tough Hike

Article by Stacy Ross

A large majority of hotel employees, students in university hospitality programs, and travel decision-makers are women. By contrast, just 7 percent of hotel company executives are. “(Women) make most of the purchase decisions driving demand, are the majority of industry employees and dominate university hospitality enrollment,” according to the Women in Hospitality Leadership 2017 report. “Industry leadership today is not aligned with its market, employee base, or talent pipeline.”

The report was produced by the Castell Project, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the hospitality careers and providing leadership training for women.

Some companies are trying to change that narrative. Marriott International and Hilton are two of the five hotel companies that made Fortune’s 2017 list of 100 Best Workplaces for Women. Since 2016, Hilton has offered two weeks of paid parental leave to all new parents and an additional eight weeks paid leave for women who have given birth. Marriott has had a women’s leadership development initiative for almost 20 years and 50 percent of its executives are women, according to the company.

So what is the climate for women in hospitality leadership in Missouri? We decided to find out. We focused on hotel general managers, the highest on-property position in the 24/7 environment of a hotel.

Despite the statistics, most of the women we spoke with downplayed the idea of gender bias, but identified several factors that may keep women from reaching the top echelons of the hotel industry.

Here are their stories:
Adrienne Lathan – Residence Inn by Marriott Airport-Earth City
Thirty years ago, Adrienne Lathan was a young single mother looking for a job. She wasn’t thinking about a career path or what would come next. “It was just getting a job,” Lathan said. “Housekeeping was not my first choice.” But a housekeeper she became, never imagining she would become any kind of manager. And that job led her to where she is today: general manager of Residence Inn by Marriott Airport/ Earth City, her second stint as a GM.

She credits her housekeeping supervisor, who became her mentor. “She really pushed me when I thought I wasn’t ready,” Lathan said. “She told me ‘I can see you going places.’ That was the first time I started thinking of it as a career.”

Today, Lathan mentors men too, but finds herself mentoring more women. “This is a big corporate world that tends to have predominately men in this industry,” she said. “Sometimes you feel lost in the shuffle.” When she hears “I can’t do it,” from one of her young mentees, Lathan said, “That does not sit well with me. That’s when I tell my story.”

She would like to see the industry provide more support and educational opportunities for women, especially early in their life. But there are no easy answers. “It is hard,” Lathan said. “It is a challenge and it just depends on how bad you want it.”

Chandler Thayer – RHW Management, Kansas City
Chandler Thayer is chief operating officer for RHW Management, which has 18 hotels in its portfolio, six in the Kansas City area.

“I am proud to say that we do have several women GMs within RHW, Thayer wrote in an email. “In fact, three of our five largest assets are operated by female GMs.”

While the company doesn’t do anything specific to promote women, Thayer said, it has a culture that fosters equality and inclusiveness. “One possible contributing factor to our gender-neutral hiring process is that at least half of the four to five professionals involved in GM hiring decisions are women,” she wrote.

Thayer is part of a women’s hospitality leadership group, Women Supporting Women, in which the Castell Project is heavily involved. Thayer’s own experience aligns with the Castell Project report’s findings that just 20 percent of investment conference attendees are women; even fewer are speakers or panelists. Attendance at major hotel investment conferences provide important career development opportunities and visibility, according to the report.

“I have personally attended many hotel investment conferences and I will tell you they are mostly attended by men,” Thayer said. “These men are out there raising capital and putting together partnerships with which to launch new hotel developments.”

The C-suites of the new developments are then filled with men, Thayer said, and as the companies expand, women are not included because they have not been at the table.

“At the same time I have seen very few women reaching for those seats,” Thayer said, adding, “And they very seldom become available.”

Amanda Joiner –  Ritz Carlton St. Louis
Amanda Joiner’s first job out of college was supervisor of 740 housekeepers at the 1,600-room Hyatt Regency Atlanta. She worked her way up through different hotels and a variety of positions, moving several times. After 25 years with the Ritz Carlton, Joiner landed in St. Louis as general manager.

Despite being one of just nine female GMs out of 100 Ritz hotels, she said she hasn’t faced gender discrimination. In fact, she recounts pitching her idea for a new position to her boss while she was three months pregnant with twins.

“At no time did it ever come up,” Joiner said of her pregnancy. Then, just a few months into the job, she went on bed rest. “My boss said ‘we can make it work, don’t worry,’” she said. “I worked remotely from my couch.”

Over the course of her career Joiner had several other supportive bosses and mentors, both male and female. She remembered her first day on the job at the Ritz Carlton corporate office, her last position before becoming GM in St. Louis.

“My boss told me ‘I hired you because I wanted to hear your voice.’ And he’s pointing his finger at me,” Joiner said, demonstrating. “He was someone I could confide in. He made it clear that I belonged and he made it clear that he expected me to participate.”

But Joiner’s climb through the ranks wasn’t without the challenge of trying to balance a 24/7 career and a family. At one point, her husband had an opportunity for a promotion that would involve a move. The couple had a decision to make. “We had a long discussion,” Joiner said.

“We made a critical decision.” They ultimately decided that Joiner’s career would take precedence over her husband’s. And they hired a nanny.

“It’s important for women to feel totally comfortable with your childcare,” she said. “You have to have a support network.”

Stacey Howlett – Hotel Ignacio, St. Louis
Stacey Howlett believes her challenges have been no different from any other hotel GM.

But she does see bias. “I definitely think it’s harder for women in this industry,” she said. “I think that it’s typically been a male-dominated profession. When people think of a general manager off the top of their head, they think of a man.”

She theorizes that one reason for the dearth of women leaders in the industry is the impact it has on family life. “In the hotel industry, especially with a chain, the opportunity for advancement often comes with a move,” said Howlett, who is married with no children. “That’s very tough for women, especially if they want to have a family. Moving in order to excel in (hotel management) is difficult. I don’t know how to change that.”

Denise Haddad – St. Louis Marriott West
We caught up with Denise Haddad at the airport on her way to a GM position at a Marriott resort in Miami, having just left the same position at the St. Louis Marriott West. Haddad said she didn’t face challenges because she is a woman. “I was lucky enough to work for all the hotels I’ve worked for,” said Haddad. “If you could produce the right results they were very thankful.”

“I had fantastic mentors, they were all men,” she said. “They leaned on me in times of crisis. We worked as a team. Through hurricanes and blizzards, the owners, the vice presidents, the GMs, they depended on me to do the right thing. Take care of guests, take care of the hotel, take care of the associates.”

Women may be paid less than men, especially early in their careers, because, Haddad said, they are often reluctant to negotiate. “I don’t go any place for less money,” Haddad said. “Go into every job with your eyes open. You can negotiate.”

Cynthia Savage – Raphael Hotel Group, Kansas City
Cynthia Savage grew up in the hospitality industry, the daughter of well-known Kansas City hotelier Philip Pistilli, who once owned the Rafael Hotel and where Savage was general manager for many years.

She dismisses the idea that the hotel industry is harder for women than men. “My philosophy is simply you take care of your guests, you take care of your people,” Savage said. “I learned early on from my family you’re only as good as the people supporting you.”

Savage acknowledges the job can be hard on family life. “There are things I missed out on, just like working men,” Savage said. “But when you need to, you have a little bit of flexibility to get to a program or a game; you can shift your work around. I really did learn you can balance it; you have to have good partner.”

Learn more about the Castell Project and access the Women in Hospitality Leadership 2017 report at www.castellproject.org

Stacy Ross is a freelance writer in St. Louis

About the author

The MEET Family of Publications

The MEET brand produces regional and national publications that keep corporate, association, medical, education, independent, and religious meeting and event planners informed about relevant industry suppliers, news, tech innovations, and resources that impact and influence how and where they plan their upcoming company function(s).