6 -min. read

Women dominate every aspect of the travel industry bar one: the very top. Nearly two-thirds of all travel employees are female, a proportion that gets even higher if the hospitality sector is taken into account. However, once you start peeking into boardrooms at the world’s most glittering travel companies, women become an endangered species.

Travel is hardly alone in this. From fashion and beauty to law and publishing, major industries around the globe allow women to flourish in the low and medium ranks, then whip out the infamous glass ceiling before they hit the upper echelons.

Theories abound as to why this is. One is that, while women continue to shoulder the weight of childcare, a successful career in a demanding international industry is difficult to balance with a family. In travel, most CEOs are appointed between the ages of 35 and 45 – the exact time when women are caught up with child-rearing. With a growing emphasis on paternity leave, this is changing; but until men and woman share the burden of childcare, working mothers will always find it difficult to operate in an industry that revolves around the concept of travel.

“Studies have shown that men tend to be promoted on potential, while women are promoted based on results they’ve already delivered”

And then there are the unfair stereotypes so often foisted upon women: we don’t ask for raises; we have less confidence in our abilities than men do. Regardless of whether these are true, studies have shown that men tend to be promoted on potential, while women are promoted based on results they’ve already delivered – a phenomenon that was covered in depth in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.

“There are some men – across all industries, not just specific to the luxury travel industry – who have a natural bias that they are not even aware of themselves”, says Alexandra Margull, the managing director of Wilderness Safaris’ Namibia operation. “Luckily, there are others, too, who have given me some great support and guidance throughout my career, encouraging me to grow and embrace the opportunities that have come my way. I have, however, worked really hard to get ahead in this industry, learning the importance of being self-motivated and a self-starter early on, as well as not taking things too personally.”

Interestingly, consumer research by Female Factor, a consulting firm that examines the behaviour of women consumers, shows that women make 70 per cent of all travel-buying decisions. Moreover, 72 per cent of travel agents are women. Which means women are clearly the dominant consumers and sellers of travel – and yet their numbers aren’t reflected in the highest decision-making positions in the industry.

“Women are clearly the dominant consumers and sellers of travel – and yet their numbers aren’t reflected in the highest decision-making positions in the industry”

Reacting to this disparity, Alessandra Alonso founded the website Women in Travel, as a way of helping her gender finally get into the corner office.

“As I progressed in my career and the more senior I became, I noticed there were far fewer women in the room”, she says. “This issue is not unique to our industry. But women have an amazing economic potential that is still largely untapped. As a recent McKinsey’s piece of research shows, $12 trillion could be added to the global economy if women fully contributed to wealth creation. What’s more, women’s economic independence translates into sustainable livelihoods for communities worldwide. I think these are important enough reasons to be passionate about this topic.”

The travel industry is far from homogenous, and various branches of it need entirely different approaches in order to achieve the goal of equality. In travel PR and media, for example, women are generally fairly represented all the way to the top. However, the number of female hotel GMs and pilots is still staggeringly low the world over.

To help even out the aviation numbers, easyJet launched its Amy Johnson initiative in 2015, with the aim of doubling its new-entrant intake of women from six per cent to 12 per cent. After reaching that target in the first year, it created a new goal of increasing that figure to 20 per cent – or around 50 pilots a year – by 2020. Every year, six of these new recruits will have their loan underwritten by easyJet. British Airways (BA) has launched a similar campaign to increase the visibility of women pilots by visiting girls’ schools and all-women recruitment events – although, despite their efforts, BA still only employs 220 female pilots out of a total of 3,800.

Female general managers, once a rarity, are certainly becoming much more commonplace – but they are still underrepresented around the globe, with women rarely progressing to the very top.

“Good, competent women are often overlooked, as they are either not close enough to the top management or do not have the opportunity to play the political game”, says Margull. “But it has been proven that companies are more successful if women are part of the management team, so I would like to see this being embraced by the industry. It may take some time, as we first need to shatter some stereotypical views and biases on women’s abilities. But I am a firm believer that with the right coaching and mentorship we can grow and develop powerful women in the industry.”


A shift in attitudes in the wake of #MeToo has reminded us all of the importance of mentoring and listening to women in the workplace; but even before this global movement began, the travel industry was already evolving.

“People who work in travel are generally quite open-minded, so compared to other industries I feel like it’s quite open to women taking on important roles”, says Lucy Jackson, a director at Lightfoot Travel. “In my formative career years I did notice a swathe of men in black suits at important industry events and very few women – but perhaps that’s because they tended to be focused on corporate-style hotel brands, which is no longer the case.”

So what measures can be taken to tackle the current disparity? Studies have shown that the gender gap is often the result of a lack of proper support for women to advance in the workplace, and that companies need to put policies in place to combat this. Women’s ambition can fade in the middle of their careers simply because they don’t benefit from the same backing as men to move forward to leadership positions.


To rectify this, employers need to promote women now to create a fairer future, even if it involves the ever-unpopular quotas. Currently, only 9.7 per cent of boardroom seats or top-paying travel executive positions in California are held by women, and 34 per cent of all companies have no women at all on their executive board. There is no global data on gender discrimination in the boardroom – but it is a topic that should be researched, because until more women shatter the glass ceiling, those below them will feel less confident in applying to these roles as they feel it is not their ‘place’. Thus the need for quotas.

Onsite childcare, maternity benefits, women’s networking groups, mentoring and development are also important to women, as are flexible work hours when they start a family. Finally, transparency about the corporate wage gap can make a profound difference. The UK government recently forced all companies with over 250 employees to reveal their gender pay gap; the data revealed that almost eight in 10 companies and public-sector bodies pay men more than women, with women paid a median hourly rate on average 9.7 per cent lower than their male colleagues. The hope is that this transparency will force companies in the UK to address the gap – a move that the worldwide travel industry could certainly benefit from.

Women can do anything, they just need to believe in that – and it is our role as employers to help them get to where they want to be”

Lucy Jackson – Director at Lightfoot Travel

“With the evolution of the travel industry and the new curators we see today, it is undoubtedly becoming less male dominated”, says Jackson. “At times, I’ve certainly sensed people being surprised at my role, but it’s never held me back from asking for what I want. Women can do anything, they just need to believe in that – and it is our role as employers to help them get to where they want to be.”

[Illustrations are by Gajan Panchalingam.]

[This article was published in Beyond: Human, LE Miami’s print magazine, in June 2018.]


Melissa Twigg
Melissa Twigg is a freelance journalist writing about art, fashion, people, travel and the environment, specialising in Africa and Asia. She previously worked for Hong Kong Tatler as features editor and then as managing editor for regional titles, and currently freelances for publications such as The South China Morning Post, The Sunday Times and The Business of Fashion.

We use cookies to improve your experience, by browsing this site you are agreeing to this. For more information, including how to disable these cookies, please see our privacy policy