Tackling gender inequality in the tourism industry

Thursday, March 10th, 2022 03:09 | By

The tourism industry has experienced continued expansion and diversification over the last decades making it one of the fastest and most dynamic growing sector of the economy in the country.

The truth is, there has been significant improvement in women engagement in tourism development both in the public and private sector. Women are employees, entrepreneurs, are engaged in policy making, as well as in advocacy.

“When it comes to sustainable tourism, women dominate this field in terms of the number of organisations and initiatives that are women led. A lot of organisations of this nature are led by women, which is a plus,” notes Judy Kepha-Gona, Founder of Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda.

Having been a thought leader in tourism for more than 25 years, Judy says while there has been remarkable presence of women in the sector, there have been challenges too.

Few women leaders

“As much as women occupy advocacy seats, the power to effect change still belongs to the men who dominate the industry in terms of business ownership and key positions held at policy making level or in general management. For instance, in Nairobi, there are quite a number of good hotels, but less than one per cent of the general managers are women,” she says.

A recent global report by the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) on Women in Tourism shows that a majority of the tourism workforce worldwide is female at 54 per cent, however, very few are in key leadership positions. 

Only a few investors, such as Asilia Africa Safaris and Tours company which has camps  in Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar has an all-women camp, Dunia Camp in Tanzania and Segera Retreat in Laikipia County that has an all-women rangers team, have implemented policies that ensure inclusivity when it comes to the workforce.

Majority of women are mainly found in positions that are stereotypically ascribed to their gender, such as sales, housekeeping, and marketing. “Women are lagging far behind men in managerial jobs. There is also lack of fairness in wages and promotions. Kenyan women also lack role models and mentors or support systems at the workplace,” notes Mariana Kathini, manager at Mahali Mzuri, a luxury safari camp.

When she began working in the industry 20 years ago, Mariana recalls the industry had old men who were at the helm of camps and hotels leadership and who couldn’t take instructions from any woman. “They never believed they would take instructions from a woman. But the advantage of being a woman leader is that they are being more empathetic than male colleagues. You find that empathy plays an important role in understanding and recognising employees’ emotions and needs. I also believe emotional intelligence is a critical factor that drives women’s overall performance,” she says.

Unfavourable working conditions

“Some women also may not be able to withstand long or irregular working hours, or compete with the strong male dominated culture, especially if they have a family. Lack of family support is another challenge women face when they want to join the industry,” she continues.

Grace Leonard, General Manager Elewana Collection’s Elsa Kopje camp, who has worked in the industry for 10 years agrees with Mariana. “There are very few of us in leadership, and some of the reasons, include having to stay away from our families. On average, we stay up to two or three months away from our families, however, the fact that we are women makes it easy to lead, because we have the motherly instinct,” she says, adding that women in the industry need to have a supportive system, be it their mothers, fathers, spouses or nannies to help them feel secure.

When it comes to the chef world, the same issues face women as there are more male chefs than female due to the challenging nature of the career. “When you are working in a bush, you have to wake up very early and some camps don’t provide for their staff to be escorted to the kitchen in the wee hours of the morning. We are lucky that our camp organises for that, so we dont have to worry about being attacked by wild animals, making getting to work a safe endeavour,” says Jacqueline Ndeke, head chef at Elsa’s Kopje Camp in Meru County. 

The aviation industry has made progress in this front as it employs quite a good number of female employees. For instance, Kenya Airways currently has 30 women pilots, which is a major improvement. However, Captain Koki Muli, Africa’s first female Dreamliner captain, feels that there is need for inclusivity and incentives to attract women to the career. “Incentives, such as subsidised training should be implemented to encourage women to join the industry from the government and airlines. There should also be awareness drives in schools where actual female pilots go and speak about their career would also help,” she recommends.

Koki notes that she has received accolades and awards for being a pioneer in the industry, which has been crucial in inspiring young women to follow her footsteps. Another challenge that women face in the airline industry is stereotypes. “People assume you can’t be able to perform before giving you a chance. At first, I had to keep proving myself alongside the men being that I was the first female pilot at the airline. With time and with female pilot numbers going up worldwide, it is now not a big deal being flown by a woman,” says Koki.

Since not many women are investors, Judy argues that it creates a challenge since they don’t get to participate in decision-making. “I have not seen a strong voice or women friendly policies come to force because there are more men in these key decision-making positions and who arent able to identify with the challenges women face. For instance, I haven’t heard any voice regarding work conditions, such as equal pay for equal work. We have seen sometimes elements of objectification of women in the tourism industry where women are expected to dress in a particular way to serve in restaurants or work in front office,” she observes.

Left out in decision-making

So far, the Kenya Association of Women in Tourism ( KAWT) has partnered with institutions for mentorship and soft skills training in order to prepare femalestudents for the workforce. Members also offer internship and jobs to female students once they graduate.  “KAWT also trains members on different skills to improve productivity at their work place. We have gone a step further to train women in various segments of the sector, for example, we partnered with Google to train beach operators on basic computer skills, which opened up new markets for them to sell their merchandise. We also donated computers to a girls school to further develop their skills,” says Jane Adams, KAWT National Chairperson.

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