Gender Equality: Why Engaging More Women in Tourism Benefits Everyone, and How to Promote Positive Change
An interview with Charmarie Maelge (Associate, Equality in Tourism International and Director, ICRT Sri Lanka), sharing insights into the challenges and opportunities around gender equality in tourism, and positive examples of efforts to create a more equitable tourism industry.
How did you first become engaged in the theme of gender equality in tourism?
Charmarie: After working as a gender specialist in the development field prior to joining the tourism industry, I have always been keen to support women's economic empowerment, especially when blatant gender disparities are visible. Working in the tourism industry for a lengthy period made me encounter first hand situations such as, ‘not a job for a woman’, ‘off limits’ for young girls and women viewed as ‘window dressing’ hence recruited mainly for front office jobs. My background is working towards inclusive development. So, I apply that in tourism too. Tourism has many spin-offs, women empowerment is a key one.
Based on your research and your own professional experience, what are some of the key factors contributing to gender inequality in Sri Lanka?
Charmarie: It is true that tourism contributes to the overall social development of destinations. Tourism can be a women-friendly industry, and in certain destinations women’s involvement exceeds 70%, and the World Bank says it is 54% globally. Sri Lanka underperforms in this area, it is only about 10%, and a similar position could be expected in other destinations in South Asia too.
It is interesting to note that Sri Lanka has an excellent human development record, health and in education. Women are doing very well when it comes to higher professional education. However, there seems to be a mismatch, as there are chronic labour force imbalances and women’s participation in tourism - instead of improving over time - has shown decline.
Tourism is not a new industry to Sri Lanka, it has been there for over 55 years. But, cultural prescriptions and job appropriateness generally lead to women seeking work in other service sectors such as education and medical fields as teachers, doctors and nurses. Banking and insurance sectors also attract women. If you look at women working in tourism, there is also a ‘leaky pipelines’ syndrome, women disappear from work after marriage, some of them rejoin later on after completing their main care work looking after the children.
Now, young women are challenging stereotypes and braving social stigmas. Not only are they very much interested in joining the tourism workforce, but they are also entering male dominated spaces such as in kitchens, and they get formal qualifications as bartenders and cooks.
In what ways is tourism “friendly” to women?
Charmarie: In many ways. At its core, tourism is about hospitality. Sri Lanka, for example, is known widely as a very hospitable nation, and being good hosts is what women excel at. In certain countries, women in tourism make up the majority of the workforce and they also manage their own restaurants, accommodation, retail and many other enterprises. In the informal sector there is an army of women in tourism.
Another advantage of tourism is that it offers those without any prior formal training or professional experience to enter the industry and gain skills on the job. There are also various opportunities for workers of any age. Through their engagement in tourism, in addition to becoming economically empowered, women can benefit from cultural interactions, and can gain decision making power and build confidence.
And lastly, the way we work is changing. With many companies offering flexible work contracts and different forms of employment, we no longer have to accept that working in tourism is only accessible to those who can commit to working a 9-5 job. If we make more flexible opportunities available, more women, including those with mobility constraints, can take advantage of the benefits this industry offers.
How do you think the tourism industry can benefit from having more women involved in different levels and types of roles?
Charmarie: Firstly, since many travellers are women, it makes sense for there to be many hosts who are women as well. To create better experiences for the visitors - and to provide better hospitality - tourism must have women and men both interacting equally with the tourists.
If a destination is facing a skill shortage, a key part of the solution is to have more women join the industry, otherwise the industry will be held back from growing and developing. Like the way we are promoting women’s engagement in STEM, young girls must be encouraged to join tourism too and move up the ladder.
It has also been proven that there is a positive relationship between greater gender diversity and positive business performance. So there is even a business case for having more women involved in tourism; their representation can be leveraged for better organisational performance.
What solutions can be implemented by the tourism industry to realise gender equality?
Charmarie: It would be important to assess the current situation. To do so, a simple measurement such as the percentage of women working in your establishments can be used. Importantly, ask questions about the data you find. For example, Are they segregated in certain jobs and certain levels? Are they mostly in entry level- low skill, low paid, low status and non-managerial roles? If so, why? Why are they not represented in high skilled and managerial levels, why is that their careers stagnate?
From another point of view, if you are a tour operator, you need to find out about the products and services you offer. Check whether your customers get to interact with both men, women and other people from diverse backgrounds, and make sure no one is deliberately excluded in holidays you provide.
Once you have a good picture, the next step could be to look at constraints as well as enabling factors for gender equality. Policies, commitments and action plans can follow. Some examples of such enabling actions are: having gender equality policies in recruitment and promotions; equal pay; having a zero tolerance policy to sexual harassment and taking reports seriously; providing child day-care; easing out the care burden by providing parental leave; offering training and development without discrimination; decent working conditions and safe transport. It must be mentioned that while each of these is important, these actions should not be seen as standalone solutions. Rather, bundled interventions will work best.
What examples (from Sri Lanka or elsewhere) do you consider to be inspiration for creating a more equitable tourism industry?
Charmarie: Let me provide a few examples from the region first. Jetwing Hotels in Sri Lanka has an interesting model. In Sri Lanka it was the first hotel chain to appoint a number of women as General Managers. All of them had joined at entry-level roles such as trainee receptionists and guest relations officers, and moved to leadership roles. The Jetwing model also encourages more women as staff, achieving a much higher percentage than the national average.
The Jetwing Youth Development (JYD) programme involves reaching out to parents, who can have a strong influence on their children’s career. These parents most probably would never have visited star-class hotels, and as such may not understand and thus accept their daughters working at hotels.
Through the JYD programme, these parents are invited not only to the hotel that their daughters would be working, but a few others as well to see how the hotels function including the back-of-the-house operations. According to Jetwing, this has proven to be a successful mechanism to interest young women. Across the island they have offered opportunities to over a thousand youth workers, including a large number of women.
Another programme by Jetwing, Second Careers, reaches out to economically marginalised women aged 40-55 to join the workforce by providing a formal structured orientation and training.
In India, Madhya Pradesh Tourism (MTP) has a multi-pronged approach for women to enter male dominated fields. MPT provides financial assistance for women in the villages to set up homestays. Training is provided for women to be forest guides in Kanha National Park and drive rickshaws. Women are also given training in self-defence to make tourist sites safe tourist destinations and friendly for all travellers.
Lastly, here are good examples of resources and initiatives supporting gender equality in tourism.
- Equality in Tourism International has introduced the Gender Equality Champion of the Year Award this year, the first ever global award in hospitality and tourism to recognise and reward best practices in promoting gender equality.
- Gender Responsible Tourism is a good communication platform to empower women through tourism. It is also a place for women travellers to meet women entrepreneurs in the destinations. Some other tools include; what women must know to work in tourism, how responsible tourism is useful to women and community and where to go for a gender equality backed travel etc.
What ideas and recommendations would you share with other tourism professionals who are passionate about gender equality and are seeking to make a difference in this area?
Charmarie: Gender equality was a hot topic several decades ago. Some of us will remember the Beijing Declaration in 1995. It remains a hot topic even today, which is also a sign that sufficient progress has not been achieved.
Tourism is a transnational business carrying enormous power to make positive change, but it is held back from achieving its full potential if there is gender inequality. For those who are passionate about gender equality, my request is to help keep the gender equality agenda in the forefront to ensure women and girls can reach their full potential in society for sustainable development outcomes.