How can we aspire to what can’t be seen?

There are similarities between the hospitality and legal industries, but what changes need to happen for women to progress in both asks Hayley Cross, Associate Corporate/Commercial at Joelson.

International Women’s Day was a couple of months ago now, but I don’t think that should preclude us from continuing to speak about gender equality. Someone told me this year that they thought that IWD was “boring”, she compared it to Valentine’s Day and said that she did not see a need for it. My response – “Lucky you!” I whole-heartedly disagreed with her and was disappointed that she didn’t see the need for a day from which we can leverage change and start new discussions around the steps that still need to be taken to force that change.

As a lawyer who works with many clients within the hospitality industry, I can clearly spot the similarities between the legal profession and the hospitality sector – an abundance of women entering, with few reaching the top. For many years there have been more women than men graduating with law degrees; more women being offered training contracts; and, more women qualifying as solicitors. This year, for the first time, we are expecting there to be more women than men registered as qualified solicitors. It will be a small margin, but it signifies a further shift in gender balance within law firms.

Unfortunately, it also highlights the gap we have between female representation at entry level and that at the top. For the hospitality industry, you will know, this is not something new. The hospitality industry has been heavily dominated by women for many years (currently around 60%) but it is finding it as difficult as the legal profession to balance out those top jobs, with less than 10% of board positions taken up by women.

There is now evidence that shows that companies with a fair representation of women on their boards benefit greatly from such diversity. There have been some high- profile female appointments in the hospitality industry over the past few years, which is a positive step; but with recent news that the level of female appointments to boards (across all sectors) has slowed down to a rate below that which we saw between 2012 and 2014, companies need to continue to make changes to maintain women at a senior level.

The moral arguments for such changes are self-explanatory; it is obviously just and fair that women have the same rights as men in the workplace, but possibly of more significance, is the strong commercial case for promoting women to the top. Law firms and hospitality businesses alike spend a lot of money and resources training women, and will continue to do so as more women join the ranks.

At some point between entry and board/ partnership level these women disappear and with them goes all of their training, skills and experience. The barriers are often too high and difficult to manoeuvre and women take their skills and experience and go elsewhere leaving a gap in the offering to clients and customers and a lack of senior female representation for junior members of staff. For the hospitality industry, changes within business generally have a knock-on effect on the industry’s offering – now, not only do women often make the decisions around leisure-time activities with their families but, the same women are now also running their own businesses, dining out with business contacts and travelling for business. So, as the customer base continues to change, management needs to be prepared to respond to their requirements and a business with a diverse management is going to be far better placed to respond. 

There are still many barriers to women reaching the top of the hospitality industry, as with the legal profession, including role stereotypes and cultural expectations (the most obvious for both sectors being the expectation of working long and unsociable hours) which often breed direct and indirect discrimination.

The journey to the top is made tougher still when there is a lack of female representation making it difficult for junior employees to aspire to be what “they can see”. I, personally, do not agree with quotas but I do believe that to choose from the biggest and best pool of talent we need to take away as many of the barriers for as many people as possible