More women steadily reaching greater heights in hospitality and tourism

Over the past five years, more than 77pc of the yearly intake of undergraduate programmes in hotel and tourism management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University were women

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 May, 2017, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 May, 2017, 4:59pm

Getting into Hong Kong’s hospitality industry doesn’t seem to have any gender-based obstacles nowadays. But move up the career ladder, and it becomes a lot more male dominated.

The industry’s vacancy rate still tops other sectors at 4.5 per cent (at the end of December) against 2.3 per cent for all industries, but it’s of paramount importance that management and human resources departments work harder to ensure more females are giving equal opportunities to advance as males, and on developing and retaining employees.

Over the past five years, more than 77 per cent of the yearly intake of undergraduate programmes in hotel and tourism management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University were women.

The figure has remained above 70 per cent for the past decade, indicating a lot more women than men are interested in careers in the industry.

However, the proportion of women in managerial positions, and above, is out of kilter with those numbers.

According to government statistics, at the end of last year 282,900 people were employed in Hong Kong’s hospitality industry, specifically in accommodation and food services, of whom 54 per cent were women.

However, the latest data (from 2015) shows only 39 per cent of the 58,300 managers and administrators were women, albeit a vast improvement from 1993 when just 16 per cent managerial positions in the city’s service industry, a figures which had jumped to 33.5 per cent in 2010.

A study conducted by the PolyU’s research team in 2016 looked into the career and life choices, as well as self-perception of character strengths, of 24 women executives working in the hospitality industry in Hong Kong. Eleven were Hongkongers and 13 originally from abroad.

Family pressure remains a recurrent theme, with many of the young women still encouraged to prioritise getting married and having children over professional development.

The pressure on the Hong Kong respondents was found to be stronger than those from Western countries, although not as strong as in Japan or mainland China.

In many countries, it is common for women to permanently drop out of the workforce to start a family or take long career breaks for child caring.

In Hong Kong, affordable domestic help and accessible child-care assistance from parents and in-laws living nearby, provides women with a wider range of options.

Despite the traditional perception and demand for women being homemakers, regardless of their employment status, the unique conditions in Hong Kong appear to have become crucial factors in local women’s career choices.

Half of the Hong Kong respondents said they still think there is preference given to Westerners, particularly white males, for higher positions especially by international corporations, and that has clearly affected their career prospects.

Although more local talent is being given more chances of career development, many agreed such deep-rooted bias – together with typical gender-based profiling – is still undermining the authority of female executives.

Even with legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of gender, race and family status, our respondents still said they faced doubt as a women about where their priorities lie when it comes to raising a family.

Some even suggested their employers clearly consider them less able than their male counterparts, regardless of their leadership or teamwork skills. Being ethnically Chinese, or Asian, further aggravates the doubters, they said.

Undeterred, more than half of the respondents identified persistence, love of learning and integrity, as the three most important character strengths supporting women executives in their pursuit of a career.

Persistence, too, came high on their lists, not only in completing tasks, but also in striving to be the best possible professional.

The respondents also said they believe that integrity helped them gain the trust of their superiors, partners and clients, making them stand out as role models within their companies.

And that self-efficacy – an underlying “I can do it” attitude – made them confident in their own ability to learn, perform and ultimately live up to the challenge.

Looking back at those figures showing 39 per cent of the 58,300 managers and administrators in Hong Kong hospitality were women, the participants said they were positive about the evolving trend, which is also happening globally, for women to fill more higher positions of responsibility.

Despite the male domination of top management jobs, they still believed that career progression opportunities for women will continue to trend positive, but gender-based expectations and profiling remain significant challenges.

They did, however, point out that there were increasingly more role models that young women could look up to, but that they accept deeply rooted commonplaces cannot be changed by one single woman executive in a hotel. It just “takes more people doing it”, said one.

The study findings offer insights for decision makers in the hospitality industry for implementing schemes that not only attract young people to enter the industry.

But more importantly, concrete plans are needed to develop their potential and to retain them in the industry, against the keen competition for talent in various other professions.

Basak Denizci Guillet is an associate professor and Anna Pavesi is a research associate of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University