As the PhoCusWright Conference came to a close last week and attendees began the trek home, I had a chance to reflect on my experiences, including participating in the inaugural Class of 35.
While the Class of 35 is meant to represent the future of our industry by connecting and developing young leaders in travel, one thoughtful question posted to attendees via Twitter shifted my attention for a moment to a sobering, depressing truth.
Where are all of the women?
While women were extremely well-represented in the Class of 35, this may also have been true for those who came before us as the supposed bright young things of the industry. In other words: has it always been this way?
Only two of the 34 innovators at the third annual Travel Innovation Summit were female – which doubled the total of one participant from 2009, if I put on my rose-colored Positive Patty glasses.
Otherwise, females were noticeably absent from the keynote roster, with only a small number on conference panels. Even as PhoCusWright showcased some of its female talent front and center to moderate many of the sessions, the real story of the industry behind the balance PhoCusWright tried to represent is much different.
And what are we to expect. You can’t exactly invite big name female CEOs of industry-leading global travel companies to give keynote addresses if they don’t exist.
These are the testosterone-heavy cards our industry has been dealt… well, maybe that’s too generous… that our industry has chosen.
Simply put, we have an embarrassingly small number of top female leaders across the board, and the trickle down of that trend into the conference attendee demographics reflects the same.
So once again, where are all of the women?
Research continues to show that putting women in leadership is good for any large company’s bottom line.
Specifically, Fortune 500 companies with the largest representation of women in senior management had a 35% higher return on equity and total return to shareholders than those that did not. (Catalyst 2010)
Still doesn’t explain why I never once had to wait in line for a bathroom stall at a conference attended by over a 1,100 people, and this only makes me curious if this is the silent killer of our industry’s future talent pool.
What is the tipping point in a woman’s career when she gives up the fight in a particular industry – is there a “final straw” or range of experience one reaches when it becomes evident her progress is no longer equal to that of her male counterparts?
Have those with the ability to break the cycle simply all just jumped ship too soon?
And to be clear, it’s not just about equality in general. There are big benefits long-term for those industries and companies that can build a reputation for aggressively promoting women into senior leadership positions.
Those companies that make a concerted effort to do so are the ones who will snag the cream of the future talent crop, as 6 of 10 college graduates are now women. And today, consumer goods and media are the pacesetting industries to whom many talented women flee, while technology and engineering – including travel technology - lag behind.
So, why haven’t we caught up?
Do we secretly enjoy stale conference panels and mediocre customer experiences? I’m not proposing that adding estrogen necessarily improves those things. What I am proposing - or asking - is are we too comfortable, too afraid to change the formula made up of 97% testosterone that has “worked” for decades?
If no one steps out to intentionally break the cycle, as many other industries have had to do over the years, then none of the women with the potential to help us do so will ever see that what they aspire to achieve is possible.
Travelocity was one of the first, crowning Michelle Peluso, one of the youngest CEOs in travel ever – male or female – at a company of that size. And while Travelocity today is in her predecessor’s capable hands, her example that females across the industry aspired to emulate is greatly missed.
The magnitude of this issue hit me while watching the revenue management gurus from three of the top airlines on a panel Thursday afternoon.
Each of these individuals comes from the traditional world of the airline industry, where women were historically, at best, stewardesses with a pretty smile and high-potential talent was defined by a great set of legs.
While females have fervently progressed into highly-influential management, strategy, technology, engineering and marketing roles over the years, it seems as though the Don Drapers of travel are stuck on the same stage, having the same argument, reciting the same stale talking points decade after decade.
As an industry, the result is a talent pool with weaknesses in skill sets inherent to women – such as key soft skills that research has proven make women a key asset in negotiations.
So this leads me to ask… what might happen if you added a woman into male-dominated issues in our industry today to go toe-to-toe… whether doing so now or 30 years ago, how different might things be with females in the C-level mix from the start?
- Would airlines be gasping for as much ancillary-supported air as they are today?
- Would the direct connect battle be as ego-influenced?
- Would our industry be experiencing such overwhelming customer dissatisfaction?
- Would the startups truly showcasing what we define as a truly innovative solution be as few and far between?
- Would Steve Hafner be as irreverent?
The answer to the last one is probably...
But as for the rest, we simply can’t know. And until something changes, until our industry catches up with the others who have paved the way for women in senior leadership positions decades ago, we’ll be asking the same questions again to each other one decade from now.
So, batter up. What company will pave the next path for female leaders in travel? And will that company inspire the rest into action to break the cycle once and for all?
For the sake of the strong female talent we all are lucky enough to still have staking their much-deserved claim for the industry’s respect - the Carolyn McCalls (EasyJet), Barrie Seidenbergs (Viator), Victoria Sanderses (Teletext Holidays), Valyn Perinis (OpenTravel Alliance), Krista Pappases (Bing Travel) and Flo Luglis (Wyndham), to name a few.
And for the sake of the younger women, and men, who look up to each of those listed with hope for what our future holds, I sure as heck hope so.
NB: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Sabre Holdings, its partners, customers or subsidiaries.