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Mind the gap

Illustration: Ben Jennings

Eleanor Ross explores the issue of gender equality to find out if working in a traditionally female-friendly sector translates into equal opportunities from the front line to the boardroom


Travel is aspirational. It’s about adventure and hope, and it’s about new experiences. There’s no reason why women’s expectations in entering the industry shouldn’t be aligned to a customer’s experiences of travel — there should be no limit to their aspirations, their adventures or their goals, and no limit to the opportunity to experience as many new things as possible. It goes without saying that women should be paid and treated as equals to men.

“I always wanted to work in travel because it was exciting, and it gave me the opportunity to see the world. Then I had my daughter when I was 27, and that was that. There was no more flexibility — it was all or nothing, and, as a single mum, I couldn’t do it ‘all’. So I had to look elsewhere.” Kelly Lewis’ story might sound familiar, but in the travel industry, one which is dominated by women, a lack of opportunities for working mothers may seem surprising.

From cabin crew to holiday reps, call-centre assistants to travel agents, many customer-facing employees in the travel industry are women. Yet, despite making up 70% of the workforce, fewer than 40% of senior management positions are occupied by women, the 2017 Grant Thornton International Women in Business report shows. According to the British Hospitality Association, tourism is a predominantly female industry, with women making up 60% of employees, and they’re also the primary consumer — 70% of bookings are made by women.

Gender pay gaps are high-profile news, after recent revelations over salaries at the BBC. Does a pay gap exist in the travel industry, and if so, is anything being done to rectify discrimination?

As in many industries, women do appear to be paid less than men. According to a report by C&M Travel Recruitment and C&M Executive Recruitment, women in executive roles at the top of the travel industry earned, on average, £47,571. Men in the same roles earned £51,167 –7.56% more.

However, the study found that pay wasn’t disparate at all levels. For example, at junior level, women actually earn slightly more than men. In junior travel roles, which are considered to be those paying less than £22,000 a year, women tend to be paid slightly more, on average by 0.53%. This is quickly eroded as soon as women begin to earn over £22,000. When women earn between £22,000 and £29,000 they earn, on average, 3.21% less than men doing the same roles.

Why do gender pay gaps exist?
At one point, women were paid less because they were seen as less valuable. Men were the breadwinners, and women may have been working just to top up the weekly income. For the most part, in the UK at least, this mindset has disappeared. But the hangover of pay disparity clearly has not.

Having children can have a huge impact on salary. According to the Office for National Statistics, the gender pay gap magnifies once women have given birth. And, although the number of women in employment has increased over the last 40 years, men make up the majority of workers in the top 10% of earners for all employees.

According to studies published by the American Economic Review, and another by the National Bureau of Economic Research, unmarried women with no children continue to earn a similar to wage to that of men. This is, both studies found, partly down to an unequal division of labour at home, even when both men and women work full-time.

The study found that having children was the most damaging factor to highly educated women working in successful careers. Rebecca Thornley-Gibson, a solicitor at Ince & Co says: “Even a couple of years out of your chosen career for maternity leave suggests the opportunity to build experience and networks is slowed down.”

Other issues exist beyond childcare. Barbara Kolosinska, director at C&M Travel Recruitment and C&M Executive Recruitment says: “Women aren’t as confident as men when it comes to approaching their employers for promotions. They are also often less confident than men in asking for a pay rise.”

Across the travel industry, employees are often expected to move around frequently. Hotel general managers may be expected to uproot from one city to another, while cabin crew are constantly on the move. Travel careers don’t always complement the lives of parents, making it harder for women, whose role usually falls as the traditional caregiver.

How to challenge the gap
There are many ways we can help to break down gender disparity in the travel industry. One is to be clear about laws that currently exist to protect women from discrimination. Thornley-Gibson says: “If an employer has been treating someone differently because of their gender then there’s a possibility that the employee can resign and claim that it’s impossible to continue to work for that organisation due to poor treatment.”

The good news is that legislation protects employees who raise issues about how they have been treated. For example, a woman who has raised a query about whether her salary is comparable to a male colleague would be protected if she could show her failure to be promoted was due to her raising such issues.

Highlighting the issue is also crucial. Kolosinska says that the pay gap has become a “real topic of discussion”. She believes that the industry needs more people, such as recruiters, employers and governing bodies, to highlight the gap, make suggestions and give advice.

Kolosinska says: “I don’t think men are intentionally being paid more. I think they’re getting more money because they’re putting themselves forward more than women for promotions and pay reviews.”

Pushing for equal opportunities for women can lead to suggestions of discrimination against men, so it’s vital that industry professionals tread carefully when trying to implement change.
Kolosinska says: “There’s a lot of talk about equality, positive discrimination and aiming for certain ratios of women at board level, but as a woman, I think it’s more important to make sure you get the right people in. If you’re aiming to only employ women, then you’re discriminating against men. I don’t think there’s anything positive about discrimination.”

Women in high places
Women who have reached the top in travel include Virgin Holidays’ former managing director Amanda Wills, IHG Europe’s chief executive Angela Brav, and Dame Carolyn McCall, EasyJet’s former chief executive. Creating positive role models is an important step. Seeing more women in senior positions is important because it encourages women to rise up through the ranks, and drives awareness that opportunities do exist.

“Female managers are more likely to encourage, motivate, and incentivise women to apply for more senior positions,” says Kolosinska. Change takes time, but by introducing mentorship situations, giving female leaders and executives opportunities to speak out, and providing more flexible working patterns, there are ways the gender pay gap can be reduced.

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