Covid brings reverse in diversity in hospitality sector

New research shows the number of women and ethnic minorities at direct report level has fallen over the last year.

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The pipeline of women and ethnic minorities in the hospitality, travel and leisure sector has decreased during Covid, according to a new survey.

The survey, announced at Women in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure’s virtual two-day Festival of Inclusion, shows that the number of women on boards in the sector has risen from 28.9% to 29.8% and the number of women on executive committees has gone up from 27.2% to 31.4% in the last year. However, the number of women at direct report level has fallen from 37.7% to 34.5%.

Meanwhile, the figures for ethnic diversity at board level have fallen from 6.4% to 6% and for direct report level they have dropped from 4.8% to 4.7%. However, they have risen at executive committee level from 3.4% to 4%.

The conference heard that Covid’s disproportionate effect on women and ethnic minorities and on diversity and inclusion budgets are partly to blame, with women and ethnic minority employees having been more likely to be furloughed. That has meant that vital role models have been lost to the industry. The freeze on external hiring in many organisations has also exacerbated the situation. Barriers to change include the fact that not many employers in the sector are collecting and analysing data on diversity and inclusion, meaning it is hard to monitor progress. Yet diversity and inclusion is now a commercial imperative as everyone from customers and candidates to non-executive directors and investors champion more inclusive brands.

Speaking on a festival panel on the research results, Denise Wilson, CEO of the Hampton Alexander Review, said: “Employers need to open their eyes and see that some of the hard-won gains on race and gender are being lost and that they need to work to plug those gaps.”

Debbie Hewitt, chair of The Restaurant Group, said she was disappointed to see the reverse trends for direct reports and, given the survey was of listed companies, it was likely the true picture across the sector was worse. Yet she said the survey itself was a positive sign as having the figures improve the quality of discussions and make for more meaningful conversations about what to do about them. She said the sector was at “a pivotal turning point” on diversity and inclusion [D & I] and was moving from tokenism towards inclusion. She added that D & I had only gained traction fairly recently and that many senior managers had never had to deal with it before and were afraid of saying the wrong thing or of making a mistake. She said there was a strength in admitting what you don’t know and seeking expert advice.

Caroline Waters, Vice Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, added that employers could draw on the expertise within their own companies and listen to their experiences. She spoke about the impact of Covid on carers, in particular the sandwich generation who are looking after children and elderly relatives or partners. They are often women in the 40-45 age group and the very people who might be expected to move up to the top level. If employers collected data on this and were more empathetic and offered support, they could be retained, said Waters. Getting better data generally can be used by shareholders, investors and others to hold employers to account, she added.

Wilson said her experience from the Hampton Alexander Review showed things are progressing, but she said she could not understand why there are not more women chairs of FTSE 350 companies, given they often have broader career experience than men and tend to have the skills needed to foster collaboration. She suggested that the boys’ network was part of the barrier and organisations ‘playing it safe’.

When it came to the lack of women at the very top of organisations in the hospitality sector, in the CEO position, she said a combination of gender stereotypes, bias in the selection process and a lack of knowledge at senior leadership level about the value of diversity were critical factors. Leaders are crucial when it comes to creating more inclusive workplaces and boards respond to targets, she said. Targets speak to the language of business and mean that diversity and inclusion gets monitored and regularly discussed at board level. However, everyone has a role to play in promoting equality, fairness and respect, she added: they just need the right tools and language to call out bad behaviour.

Hewitt said her message for the sector was “if you want to succeed you have to be taking diversity and inclusion seriously”. She said sharing of best practice is a sign that things were changing as is people in the sector’s willingness to cooperate in order to move things forward.

Speaking after the panel discussion, Tea Colaianni, Founder and Chair of WiHTL, said: “If we are to ensure that years of progress towards gender equality in the HTL sector are not undone by the pandemic, it’s vital that companies take meaningful action, place women and diversity as a whole at the centre of the industry’s economic recovery and use the opportunities offered by the new ways of working as a catalyst for positive change.  At WiHTL we believe that through industry collaboration, idea sharing and co-creating solutions, we can work towards progressing the diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) agenda in our sector.”

*The second day of the conference, the first of its kind in the sector, will be held tomorrow and you can still register to join here.

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