Just 12.5% of the top 350 travel technology companies are led by a woman, with a similar figure for chair roles held by women, new research has shown.
The appallingly low levels of female leadership in the travel, tourism and hospitality sector will not come as a huge surprise to many - but this is the first time that an organization has trawled through the details of over hundreds of businesses to establish a figure.
Spain-based marketing and PR agency Belvera Partners found that hospitality schools and business travel-related tech companies had the highest percentage of women CEOs (29% and 26%, respectively).
But sectors such as hotel distribution (5%), aviation (6%), car rental (6%) and cruise (8%) came in far lower.
Belvera managing director Roman Townsend says: "Sadly the results of this research don't come as a surprise to me and I suspect many others in the industry will feel the same way, too."
"So why do this?" he asks. "We were determined to establish the data to generate further discussion around important topic."
Amadeus, one of the biggest employers in travel technology with a 19,000 headcount in 2020, has a male CEO and one woman member of its executive team (Sabine Hansen Peck as its senior vice president for people, culture, communications and brand) and five on its board of directors.
An official says: "We run active programs that promote equality of opportunity for women. For example, the Amadeus Women Network held its first global broadcast session in celebration of International Women’s Day during 2021 which saw Amadeus women from around the globe join to discuss gender equality in different countries.
"The various chapters of the network also carried out activities throughout the year, including networking opportunities, volunteer peer mentoring programs and interviews with women leaders from across the organization.
"We also help to promote professional development for girls and young women by visiting schools and providing volunteer mentors for girls through programs like Capital Filles in France."
PhocusWire asked a number of women CEOs in travel technology for their feedback on the results of the study, based on the following discussion points (some of the responses have been edited for brevity):
- Disadvantages - or advantages - to being a woman when building companies or is your gender irrelevant.
- Roadblocks related to gender along the way.
- Industry-wide initiatives to raise the profile of diversity and inclusion.
- Efforts required to secure more women at the top of travel companies.
- Experiences raising money or pitching ideas.
- Implicit bias in types of questions asked of female founders and leaders.
Katherine Grass, CEO at Optii
When you are in the minority and navigating a career, you will be at a disadvantage. It's hard to just call out or pinpoint the "what" as this is a very complex and many times subtle issue. It could be as seemingly minor as not being asked a point of view in a meeting or spoken over, or more obvious of not being asked to even attend or actively passed for a promotion.
It's hard to put a finger on, as usually someone doesn't say, "We are making this more difficult for you because you're a woman." I also worked in Europe for many years, and I definitely felt more roadblocks in my career in Europe than in the U.S., though they still exist here in the U.S.
From the top-down, when you look at the boards of companies, they are predominantly male and boards are managing and compiling candidates to lead their companies. Boards need to start focusing on diversity within their ranks and ensure women are equally represented even when compiling resumes. From the bottom up, on the other side of the spectrum and looking at the ranks of a company, many times women wanting to rise through the ranks don't spend as much time networking as their male colleagues nor talking about they great work they are doing.
From a perspective of raising money, there are many organizations and business angels that try to focus on female founders and CEOs. This is very good and there are excellent organizations and resources. These organizations tend to only be focused on seed money though, and at later funding rounds these programs do not exist. One anecdotal metric is I tend to get much more valuable and thorough feedback from female business angels than males when pitching and raising money.
I do think the conversation and questions tend to be different. More than direct questions, the questioning tends to be more around past experience with women rather than future ideas. The age old "have you proven yourself?" rather than backing someone who seems to have great future promise.
Amy Burr, president at JetBlue Technology Ventures
The industry’s attitude toward women in business has changed enough that my gender hasn’t been as relevant in my recent roles. But even 10 years ago, it was a novelty to have a woman leading a business unit or company. The biggest way I might notice this, past and present, is that I’ve often been the only female leader in a room.
I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had many obvious roadblocks to my career related to gender. There are always less tangible examples that myself and others have experienced over the years - being talked over or generally not feeling a part of the group come to mind. I also want to acknowledge the challenges that working women with children might face. In certain areas of the business, being at work a majority of the time is valued by senior leadership, and with females still seen as the primary caregivers at home, this can be a tough act to balance.
I’ve seen improvements as companies begin to emphasize diversification at more senior levels. For me personally, I try to tackle this problem in a two-fold way. I’m a member of the Women Leading in Travel & Hospitality organization which does an excellent job of amplifying existing female voices across the industry. I’m also a board member for the JetBlue Foundation, which aims to give female students the opportunity to explore future careers within the aviation field.
Organizations need to be diligent about bringing in women analysts, managers and directors that can grow into C-suite roles. When I have the opportunity to mentor women, I remind them that while they might sometimes be the only woman at the table, they still need to make sure they take that seat and that their voice is heard.
When pitching ideas, I’ve noticed both for myself and industry counterparts that there is an underlying worry about coming across as too emotional, as opposed to logical and well thought-out. Sometimes being passionate about your work is equated to being emotional, and while this is not the case, it’s something many women are cognizant of as we bring ideas to the table.
To speak to this through the lens of a more largely trending topic right now, I’ve seen many media outlets covering the Elizabeth Holmes trial and its implications for female founders moving forward. This type of narrative can become problematic in that it conflates her gender with the problem, versus examining her as an individual - in turn, further exacerbating the division between male and female founders.
Rebeca Gonzalez, managing director at Roiback
Perhaps it has to do with my mindset, personality or perspective, but gender bias is not something that I have experienced. I have not felt advantages or disadvantages for being a woman as my career has progressed.
I started leading teams some time ago now in heavily male dominated areas in travel (operations, contracting and distribution). Although it’s not always easy, my experience tells me that when you establish trust-based relationships with your colleagues, partners and clients, and position yourself in terms of the quality of work you can produce, you can do away with bias.
Now, leading a travel technology company like Roiback in a time in which equality and inclusion is increasingly on the agenda, I look to instill this mentality across my organization. If you are the best you can be – woman or man – good things will happen to you.
I can only speak for myself, and I’m aware that other women don’t share my perspective and have experienced different realities. It’s for this reason that ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities in my organization is something that I place at the very top of my agenda, and most importantly, at the top of my leadership team’s agenda.
The travel industry has often lagged behind others, not only in terms of inclusion, but also from a technological and workplace culture perspective. A big reason for that is purely generational. The old ways are not easy to root out in some cases. Mindsets, and the company cultures that go with them, cannot be changed from one day to another.
Corporate brand building and training strategies in organizations must have a strong focus on equality and inclusion. But the most important thing is transformational leadership, for it is people and not programs that often drive the biggest change.
More courageous leadership – from men and, also from women – can drive true meritocracy in organizations. Women at all levels in organizations no longer fear rocking the boat. Now, organizations – and their leaders - must do their part to ensure equal opportunity at all levels and positions. The focus must be on who can do the job better – regardless of societal bias on what women can and cannot do.
We must also do more to ensure that work-life balance and motherhood are true benefits for women and don’t become subtle roadblocks that prevent them from reaching their true potential and having access to leadership positions.
Alice Ferrari, CEO at Kyte
When I started my career in my early 20s, working for a corporate based in the U.K., led by a female CEO, my gender really felt irrelevant. I never noticed any bias towards females or males nor in terms of leadership, nor in terms of career progression or how you were perceived in the workplace, as long as you worked hard and made sure your voice was heard.
Later on in life I was given the opportunity to start a business thanks to initial funding that was given to me by my then-employer, Founders Factory, London’s leading startup venture studio. Taking on a leadership role in a tech business without a technical background was a real challenge, but I think I had to work double to earn my respect in such a male-dominated industry.
The other challenge is around fundraising - there are clear numbers showing female-led startups receive a lot less funding than their male counterparts. Do both men and females trust us less with their money?
For many people, the nature of the industry requires out of normal office hour dedication and being away from home. This often does not go well with raising a family.
A household with two people in senior positions is not impossible but is hard, especially when you start having children. It is more socially accepted for women to be in the less leading role in the relationship, so it is down to both men and women to normalize men taking on the responsibility of looking after the home and the children while women can rise to senior roles.
Also, sharing responsibilities around the house and children needs to be more glorified in order for this to work. As more millennials grow professionally into leading positions in corporate organizations we will start to see more of this - I am hopeful.
I’m sure I’ve made many mistakes when raising money, which has led investors to pass on the opportunity. However, having had numerous rejections on funding and having met a lot of well-funded mediocre propositions led by not such extraordinary men, I do ask myself whether this could be a contributing factor. Numbers don’t lie - there has been significantly less funding in female-led startups and statistics show we need to achieve twice as much to get the same amount of funding.
As female founders, we have a responsibility to persevere and push through, to ensure those numbers are on an increase until it starts to set aside the bias.
As an industry we have a responsibility to change this bias by looking at things from a different perspective.
Rita Varga, managing director at Raizup
Due to my role, I face a lot of the so-called "Double Dilemma" when women act consistently with the stereotype of a leader - strong, determined, decisive - and this conflicts with the stereotype of what is culturally expected of a woman - be friendly and accommodating.
Society is judging on my duties as a mother versus dedication to my role as a CEO. Due to my gender and age, people typically look for a senior male around me.
Not being considered for roles, lack of flexibility, role models, networking and self-promotion, being part of the infinite game - organizations do not nurture, promote, grow talent, and we lose the motivation to grow.
Migrants, ethnic minorities, women, persons with impairments and those with poor educational attainment are among those who are under-represented in business. According to research, individuals from these groups who do succeed in starting their own firms have higher obstacles to the entrance, as well as poorer turnover and survival rates than their mainstream counterparts. Some consideration has been given to initiatives that may aid in reducing the hurdles that under-represented groups confront, as well as the failure rate of their enterprises.
Investors are genuinely skeptical, and there is a higher pressure for proof of concept. This inertia is caused by investors minimizing risk by pattern-matching against previous investing success. Unfortunately, due to the disparity in capital access, historical investment data has created a self-fulfilling cycle centered on an archetype of a white, male founder who attended an elite university, studied engineering or business administration, and is based in a mature tech hub such as Silicon Valley.