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Wed 8th Mar 2023 - Opinion Special: International Women’s Day
Subjects: Lack of diversity in boardrooms must be addressed, the danger in trivialising a monumental topic, lift as you climb, the successes and challenges of being a female business owner, the gift of confidence
Authors: Julie McEwan, Louise Palmer-Masterton, Kate Nicholls, Sarah Brewster, Ann Elliott

Lack of diversity in boardrooms must be addressed by Julie McEwan

Today marks International Women’s Day, with this year’s theme focusing on the need to embrace equity. In plain terms, this means doing more than just offering equal opportunities. It means being fair and impartial towards everyone by demonstrating explicit inclusivity among all individuals who start from different backgrounds, to forge harmony and unity and to help drive success for all.
The hospitality industry has a unique opportunity to help foster equity and inclusivity. After all, it is a sector with a large footprint in communities up and down the country, and as a result, is something the vast majority of people come into contact with in some form or another on a regular basis. However, like many other industries, most leadership positions in hospitality continue to be held by men. Just 17% of hospitality business leaders at executive level across Europe are women – and just 6% of European hospitality chief executives are women (European Women on Boards, 2020). This despite the fact that hospitality, more broadly, is majority female.
This lack of diversity at a leadership level is proven to have a knock-on impact on several different areas, from policies to performance. Companies with women on their executive boards are more likely to outperform those companies with fewer or no female executives at all (McKinsey, 2020). It also sends the wrong image to the many thousands of women who aspire to reach the top of their profession, who may question whether a career in hospitality is really for them.
As an industry, it’s in everyone’s interests to reach greater gender equity in management roles, and International Women’s Day provides an important moment to reflect on this. At TGI Fridays, I am proud to lead an executive leadership team that is predominantly female, and a business with a balance across genders. I’m also proud to be a female chief executive at a business that takes equality seriously, not just when we are hiring, but also when we are looking to promote our talented team. It simply isn’t right that women equal or outnumber men in hospitality everywhere except the boardroom, and collectively, we must do more to change that.
We recently launched Aspire, a new leadership development programme. It is designed to equip our high potential managers with the leadership skills to excel in senior leadership roles through group workshops, insights discovery, one-to-one coaching, mentoring and project work. Of course, this is a programme open to everyone, but it is so important to us that women in the business feel empowered and encouraged to take part in it just as much as men. That’s why I’m so driven by ensuring we maintain a culture where women feel as welcome and as supported as men. 
Proof that we’re getting this right came earlier this year, when TGI Fridays was officially certified a Great Place to Work. Being an inclusive employer is a critical part of achieving this accreditation. Late last year, TGI Fridays launched its Show Your Stripes campaign. We evolved the brand’s classic stripes from a symbol of heritage to one of self-expression – encouraging and empowering guests to feel confident about being their true selves.
Through this campaign, it was important for us to modernise our approach to hospitality by celebrating everyone and embracing what makes us different. We wanted to make sure people know that TGI Fridays is a place where diversity and equity is celebrated, and it’s a place for them to come as they are. The launch of this campaign was part of our wider mission to position TGI Fridays as somewhere that guests can come to enjoy themselves and feel liberated – and also as an establishment where equality is encouraged. 
But embracing equity isn’t just about campaigns. After all, actions speak louder than words. Across the industry, we still need to work together to ensure that in every single part of our operations, from hiring to accessible venues to an inclusive workplace culture, there is equity which ensures employees and guests alike are treated fairly and given the same chances to succeed, regardless of gender or background.
While the industry still has a long way to go, TGI Fridays remains steadfast in its efforts to demonstrate inclusivity in the workplace so guests and workers can embrace equity every day.
Julie McEwan is interim chief executive officer at TGI Fridays

The danger in trivialising a monumental topic by Louise Palmer-Masterton

I have a bittersweet relationship with International Women’s Day. On the one hand, it is an incredible opportunity to celebrate how far women’s rights and gender equality have come. But on the other, it massively highlights to me that there is so much that still needs to be done. The world is in great danger currently, and the axis of gender and the disparities that come with it are the root of so many of the issues facing humanity.

Often when we think about women’s rights, we think of women in places like Afghanistan who are fighting for what we would consider to be quite basic rights, such as access to education. In doing so, we somehow place our own societies in the clear. We may be offering education to women in this country, but we are still very much on the inequality spectrum ourselves. And this, for me, is the other issue with International Women’s Day. We are in danger of trivialising something that is so monumentally huge, and deep rooted in all of us.

Let’s not forget just how recent “equality” is in our own society. My mum recounts how it was only in 1974 that women in the UK were permitted to have a credit card in their name. In the 1970s, working women were routinely only granted mortgages if they could secure the signature of a male guarantor. Even in the 1980s, a married woman’s income had to be declared on her husband’s tax return, so he knew how much she earned! (The Guardian).

I am sure many people reading this (myself included) lived through this time, and both women and men were, in the main, accepting of this as “normal”. When you think about it like that, there are without a doubt things we are doing and accepting as “normal” now which we will look back on with horror.

Hospitality is an extremely good example of unseen inequality. A very large percentage of people in senior positions that I deal with in my daily work life are female, so why are so many hospitality talks and events so male dominated? It’s not that we do not have female role models in every walk of life. I don’t think that men are deliberately ignoring women either, it’s far more complex than that.

In 2023, assertive and empowered women are still all too often viewed as “difficult”, “rude” and “abrasive”. A “difficult”, “rude” and “abrasive” woman in our society is a woman that doesn’t fit the comfortable image of how a woman should sound and behave, and they are viewed as anti-feminine and undesirable traits.

Sheryl Sandberg talks about this phenomenon in her book “Lean In”. The book describes anyone subverting the norm of what are considered to be “desirable” feminine traits as being viewed by both men and women as a bit of a freak. Use of words like “difficult”, “rude” and “abrasive” are typical of this.

This is so ingrained in all of us that we hardly see it. Wherever you are on the feminist spectrum, Sandberg’s book is an uncomfortable read at times. The book also introduces the Ban Bossy campaign, and the banning of the word used in a derogatory context when describing female children at school. Sandberg puts forward that when a young male child is assertive, they are labelled a “leader”, but when a young female child is assertive, they are called “bossy”. I certainly got called bossy as a child, and I bet many of my peers did too. If assertive females are viewed as “difficult” and subverting the “norm”, is it any wonder they get overlooked in other ways?

Malala Yousafzai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17, was shot by a Taliban gunman for her refusal to obey orders banning girls from school. But she didn’t subsequently wage a war of hate upon her attackers, she speaks of love and forgiveness: “Whatever hatred you have against this person, it’s not going to solve any of the problems. There is a system in there that will create more terrorists. It’s the narrative that is wrong…It’s the ideology that we need to challenge.”

So, on International Women’s Day, we don’t need to just publicly celebrate our female leaders and activists, we need to challenge and change what’s in our own hearts and minds. This is the only way we will achieve true gender equality in every workplace, in every home and in every single walk of life.
Louise Palmer-Masterton is the founder of vegan restaurant brand Stem & Glory

Lift as you climb by Kate Nicholls

Make no mistake about it – the hospitality sector has made huge strides when it comes to ensuring better opportunities and representation for women at all levels, but that’s not to say that there isn’t still a long way to go.

When I joined the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers in the early 2000s, it was still unusual to see any women around the table, or in some cases, even in the room. And when we formed UKHospitality in 2018, the industry was not on track to meet official targets for female representation on boards. Today, a third of all board positions in the sector are held by women, which is a significant triumph for the industry. It is testimony to the way the sector has recognised its issues and worked collectively to grasp the nettle to find ways to improve.

We’ve also made remarkable progress on the gender pay gap. Hospitality can now boast one of the narrowest gaps of any other industry in the UK economy, and in fact, we can say – and indeed should be shouting loudly – that it has been almost eliminated in our sector.  On an individual business level too, we are seeing much to be proud of, with many examples of businesses employing exciting and innovative ideas to empower women to succeed, including tailored approaches to schedules and career paths.

Of course, significant barriers for women in our sector still exist, and we need everyone to rise to the challenge. At all levels, we need to make it easier for employees to balance work and family commitments. For more senior positions, we need to remove the obstacles that make a return to board-level roles more difficult than it should be, placing greater value on experience and dissolving some of the stigma around career breaks and/or part time working. In doing this, we will pave a path that leads to more rounded leaders and more representative boards.

We must also get much better at not just recruiting blind, but promoting blind too. It is noticeable that, while there is a big focus on this when it comes to appointing people, I don’t hear nearly enough people in the industry talking about it when it comes to internal progression.

As a woman who has worked in several male-dominated industries, I have taken to heart the advice of one of my first female bosses, which is to “lift as you climb”, and a simple but powerful way of working to achieve this is through mentoring. We need to recognise that there are fewer opportunities for informal support and networks for women (something most men take for granted) and acknowledge that men and women have a different response to the need to ask for support. I work with the Plan B mentoring initiative, which has been set up to address just this issue, and am very proud of the work we do to nurture female talent and build an alternative network to support it too.

While all of this work remains crucial for female progression in the sector, what has become more obvious in recent times is that we also need to be looking to tackle barriers for all other underrepresented groups. That’s important not just because it’s morally the right thing to do, but because if the industry wants to provide great experiences for every single one of its customers, we need to recruit and retain the diverse teams that can deliver them. We therefore need to step up our focus on diversity, equity and inclusivity, coming together on this to share advice, guidance and policies to promote accessible employment for all and conditions that allow people to bring the best version of themselves to work.

I am proud of the progress we have collectively made, but there is no escaping the fact that we need to keep up the momentum and, if anything, work even harder so that we can say we are truly inclusive of everyone at all levels. We have the resources, we have the will and we have proved that we can make meaningful change when we work collectively, so we have no excuse. I am confident we can do this, and that our industry will become better and stronger as a result.
Kate Nicholls OBE is the chief executive of UKHospitality

The successes and challenges of being a female business owner by Sarah Brewster

The term “power” is an interesting one. For me, the term isn’t defined by being in a position of power, but rather by the ability to influence, educate and make a difference to others. 

That said, women in a position of leadership need to own their own power; believe in their abilities, knowledge and convictions and feel confident. Too many young girls and women can lack self-belief and confidence in their abilities, often sabotaging their efforts in fear of failure. My advice to them would be to be bold and courageous; whatever the dream, it’s achievable – getting started is always the biggest step.     

Of course, if we want our daughters to grow up independent, confident and resilient, then men themselves need to make a stand too — not accepting the belittling and objectification of women with a sense of superiority and gender bias that, unfortunately, is still prevalent today.

One of the key challenges throughout my career in hospitality has been people assuming that my husband owns the (Stonehouse Court) hotel alongside me, and they are often genuinely surprised when I tell them I started the business myself. Of course, it’s less of a challenge now, but more of an irritation, as it shouldn’t be a question of whether a woman can set up a successful business by herself. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t have done this without the amazing support of my husband, but he has his own career, and I would never take that away from him.

At Stonehouse Court, we have a well-balanced team of strong, independent and inspiring female leaders including our head chef, Kate Adams; Lucy Stirrat and Sophie Tremlin in food and beverage; and Gemma Phillips and Georgina Hopkins in sales and events. Most of these talented women have worked their way up to positions of responsibility while at Stonehouse Court. 

Furthermore, I believe there are great opportunities for all genders to progress within hospitality, especially while there is still an outdated perception that the sector does not represent a sustainable career choice, but instead is often seen as a stop-gap. Hospitality is an extremely rewarding industry to be in, with excellent opportunities for training and development, not just at an operational level, but in sales, finance, marketing and at strategic level too. Our partnership with Bespoke Hotels also offers a wide range of training support throughout an individual’s career with us.

A balance is key though, as it’s important to have a wide range of views and ideas across genders. I believe you can only achieve this with gender equality throughout the workplace. I cannot comprehend businesses that do not have female representation at the board level, especially when females represent 50% of most target markets in terms of decision-making and spend.

Additionally, it’s imperative that as an industry, we do whatever it takes to make people feel comfortable and look to ensure our sector’s leaders are approachable. No one should ever feel afraid or too proud to ask for help. On top of this, it’s important to not think you need to have all the answers; we can’t be masters of everything, and there are plenty of people with expertise to call upon. One of my very early mistakes was not asking for help when I needed it, even from those close to me. Making mistakes is part of the process, and the learning experience is what sets us up to move forward while giving us the courage to plunge head first into continuous learning and development. Ultimately, building a strong team and support network around you is vital. The sum of all parts is greater than one. 

With it being International Women’s Day, I encourage all women working in business and hospitality to believe in their own ability and ride the waves of life’s challenges, knowing that after a storm, there is calm. Be good to yourself, nourish your mind, body and soul and never lose sight of the vision. You may have to change course along the way to achieve it, but never lose it. Be patient, determined and resilient; building a business takes a long time, and the challenges are constant. Recharge and re-energise often. Never give up!
Sarah Brewster is the director at the Stonehouse Court hotel in Gloucestershire

The gift of confidence by Ann Elliott

The wonderful Dame Karen Jones spoke at the Propel Multi Club Female Leaders & Entrepreneurs conference in 2019 and, as ever, she was totally inspiring. She gave many thought-provoking messages that day, but the one that resonated most with me was about having confidence and believing in yourself. I think of her presentation often. She talked about being the best you can be, surrounding yourself with people you know and trust and, “if you always do what you’ve done, then you always get what you always got”. So, do something better and different.

This question of confidence is mentioned time and time again, often in the form of impostor syndrome, in conversations I have with women in the sector, no matter their job title or role. So many feel they are faking it and that sooner or later, someone will find them out for who they really are. The occasions when they don’t feel confident (say making a presentation at a conference) absolutely overwhelm those when they do (say swimming in Hampstead Heath pond at 7am in December).

This perception is then exacerbated when they get talked over in meetings by men, or spoken down to by men, and have things said to them by men that would never be said to a man. Not all men, I hasten to add.

Women have to have confidence to be successful in their working lives. It’s imperative. Work should be joyful, rewarding and worthwhile, but it can’t be any of those things if confidence isn’t present. Instead, work becomes threatening, miserable and challenging, and an unhappy place to be. 

Confidence is a really strange feeling to talk about. It is something that some people just have and some just don’t. Can it be learnt? Why do we sometimes feel confident one day but not the next? Why do we sometimes let other people determine how confident we feel?

The critical importance of always feeling confident as a woman (in a largely male working environment at C-suite level in hospitality) was reinforced for me in a column by Dolly Alderton in last weekend’s The Times. She is a modern day agony aunt and was answering a question from a reader on jealousy, which in the end, was really about her not having confidence in herself.

She paraphrased Eleanor Roosevelt, who once said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”, saying instead, “no one can make you feel anything”. Both statements make the same point, of course you are responsible for your own confidence. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect anyone else to?

Dolly argues that everyone gets their confidence from different things, and it takes a while to figure these out. Some of the elements which made her feel confident included working hard and efficiently; making her best friends laugh with a well told story; setting herself up for a physical challenge and completing it; not bitching and “working out the causes I care about and the ways I can be quietly useful”.

I had to really think hard about what made me feel confident. It wasn’t an easy exercise. She urges her letter writer (and us all, I suspect) to think about the actions they could take, the things they could avoid and the habits they could form to make them feel their truest, most unashamed self. “That what will make the big difference: small daily choices rather than any sort of physical overhaul or personality replacement.” She argues that they will find the confidence they long for, “when you make daily decisions that make you feel proud of yourself, like you don't have anything to hide”.

She goes on to say that every woman she knows had to work hard for her confidence. It’s not something that comes naturally, but rather daily practise to refuse to berate yourself and compare yourself to others. Her advice is to remember that it’s not other people’s job to stop you feeling insecure. “That’s in your remit as your own lifelong best friend and champion.”

If I could, I would give every woman the gift of confidence on International Women’s Day. It would transform our world, and the worlds of those around us, for the better.
Ann Elliott (she/her) is a portfolio non-executive director and board advisor

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