Is There A Future for Women In Tourism Leadership?

March 07, 2023
Group of diverse women stands in a line smiling and laughing.

While part of me is disappointed that we need an International Women’s Day to shine a light on the contributions of women in the world, I also realize that the day provides a prominent platform to inspire the world’s future leaders. Do I believe there is a future for women in tourism leadership? Let’s start with this – absolutely!

While the UNWTO’s 2019 report showed that a slightly higher percentage of tourism ministers worldwide were female compared to ministers overall, the number still accounted for fewer than a quarter of all tourism ministers at just 23%. More recent studies echo the lack of women in tourism leadership roles, with one group reporting that only 12% of leadership roles are held by women. We still have so much more work to do.

I could think of no better time than International Women’s Day to engage with women that I admire who hold tourism leadership roles – from head roles in communications and marketing to the C-suite – to delineate what work remains, and what advice they’d give other women early in the career about embracing a career in the tourism industry.

1. Showcase and Celebrate the Types of Jobs the Travel Industry Offers
Let’s start with Trish McClean, Chief Marketing Officer at Visit Baltimore, who has an unbeatable passion for the brand and for making the community better by driving the brand.

While Trish finds inspiration in the collaborative practice and diverse voices of the travel industry, she knows it’s not perfect. She believes that highlighting diversity where it does – and can – exist, as well as conveying the upbeat experience of working in travel can bring in more people to the fold.

“I would love to see one of our industry associations take the lead in developing a national campaign to spotlight the types of career paths that exist in hospitality and tourism and create a compelling “brand” for what we have to offer,” she said.

For women who may not yet see themselves in tourism industry leadership, McClean wants them to keep reaching out, network, and take every chance they can get to reach their goals.

2. Activate Networks to Life More Women Into Leadership Roles
I began working with Felicia Mariani back when she was CEO for Tourism Tasmania, the state tourism office. I have admired how she always values the international expertise of experts in their home markets.

Today, Mariani is Chief Executive Officer at Victoria Tourism Industry Council. When you speak with her, her candor is revealing. She is quick to note that getting to the top is all about stumbling along the way. Failure, for her, is part of success and young professionals shouldn’t fear it.

“Through the chaos, the mistakes, the risks and the pain, I learned more about who I am, about the values I hold, and about what I was capable of achieving,” she said.

That said, Mariani does see a need for women to support each other more during these wins and fails. “Over many years I have watched how our male counterparts support the advancement and promotion of their friends and colleagues and use their networks so adeptly,” she said, “but sadly, this is not something that I have seen my female counterparts in the world of tourism master and it’s one thing I’d like to see change. If we collaborated more, we would be unstoppable.”

Still, she remains inspired by the leaders of tomorrow who are growing into their own and she is hopeful about the tourism industry’s future.

3. Hold Ourselves Accountable by Actually Being More Inclusive
Robin McClain is Chief Marketing Officer at Destination DC, but our paths first crossed as we both climbed the ladder in communications roles. I was struck by her passion for storytelling through marketing, which I always look to emulate.

McClain finds the most inspiration in the people she works with. It reminds her daily that destination marketing is about people at the end of the day, and bettering the lives of everyone involved.

To create a more welcoming industry for women and other underrepresented voices, however, she feels that the tourism industry needs to reaffirm, time and again, its commitment to DEI.

“A lot of people talked the talk over the last three years during the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate movements. My question is who is still doing the walk?” she said.

While supporting DEI efforts is obviously the right thing to do, she reminds us that doing the right thing can also be good business. “In essence, not embracing diversity means you’re missing out on diverse voices, ideas and investment by the very groups that will reward your commitment. It’s simply smart business and not up for debate,” she said.

4. Show Diverse Leadership to Inspire Future Leaders
When it comes to creativity and embracing new things quickly, my mind always turns to Kristen Reynolds, President and CEO of Discover Long Island. She’s constantly trying new things and exuding creativity. Above all she understands that branding a place drives investment and talent.

Reynolds thrives knowing she leaves a positive impact on her community and local businesses, and that same impact motivates her each day.

While she never imagined stepping into such a role as a young girl, she believes that seeing others do it is key to achieving more representation at the top.

“Seeing is believing and with more diversity and equal representation in leadership roles today than ever before, hopefully the next generation of leaders will see opportunities for themselves and aspire to achieve their goals,” she said.

5. Have a DEI Plan That Crosses Departments and Has Quantifiable Goals
Deborah Wakefield is Vice President of Media Relations at CityPASS. I have long admired her commitment and longevity in Public Relations, but she’s always embracing evolution within our industry.

She celebrates travel every day in her job, but understands that gaining roles at the top continues to be an arduous task for women and other underrepresented groups.

She believes DEI efforts need to be omnipresent in every department to create real impact. “At the same time that your web team is translating your website into other languages and adding accessibility features, your PR department should be ensuring that your image library has photos of people of different races, ages, sexual orientations, abilities, etc. Your social media reps should be working with influencers from myriad backgrounds and your HR goals must incorporate inclusion training and the recruitment of diverse employment candidates,” she said.

Moreover, Wakefield would tell her younger self – and others like her – that they should know their worth. “Ask for what you want, and if you can’t get it, have a plan to move on,” she said.

As these five female leaders make clear, there will never be enough collaboration and commitment to helping women rise to the top. There’s always more to do, but it’s important to recognize the successes and gains that women have made in tourism leadership. These five women show tomorrow’s leaders what is possible when we support other women and expect equal treatment in our roles. There is no elevator to the top – just a ladder – but we women are making inroads to leadership roles, one rung at a time.

Written by

Karyl Leigh Barnes

President, Tourism Practice