Events

“I was told I wouldn’t make it”: IHG managing director talks women in travel

Ali Coulton

Ali Coulton

With voting for the Women in Travel Power List now well and truly open, Travel Weekly is calling on the industry to celebrate great women in all forms.

That’s what our Power List is about, after all, celebrating great women from all walks of life whether they be our friends, colleagues, mentors or even yourself!

So what are you waiting for? Get nominating right here!

Entries close on Friday 10 May, so get cracking and we’ll pass on your entry to our esteemed judges, who will have the difficult task of whittling the nominations down to a Power List of 20 female trailblazers.

If you missed out seeing who made last year’s Power List, you can get up to speed by clicking here.

In the meantime, in case you need a little inspiration, we sat down with the regional managing director for IHG, Leanne Harwood, to pick her brain about her journey to the top spot.

Here’s what she had to say.


Travel Weekly: You’ve been working with IHG for 14 years now! Have you noticed any changes in opportunities for women in the industry over that time?

Leanne Harwood: The world of hospitality has changed dramatically over my more than 20 years in hospitality, and gender diversity has been one of the most profound changes.

When I first started out in hotels, there was no doubt that operational leadership was still an area of inequality – it was the domain of the middle-aged man.

In fact, twenty years ago I was told I wouldn’t make it because I would probably leave to have children. It really was disheartening to look up at people who inspired you, but don’t see people who are like you.

I’ve worked hard to make change from the inside, taking on increasingly senior operational leadership roles, and along the way I hope I’ve made it easier for future female leaders.

Fast forward today, and our diversity story has accelerated dramatically. We have so many great female general managers in our hotels and IHG’s Sydney corporate workforce is almost 70 per cent female, with 50 per cent representation at director level and above. That’s a far cry from where we were a couple of decades back!

Yes, at the hotel general manager level we do have more work to do to properly balance the scales, and we have been taking steps to do so, including the rollout of RISE, our mentoring initiative for female colleagues who aspire to be a GM.

There are still echoes of the boy’s club from time to time, but it’s a different world and it is up to everyone to step up and continue to make change from within the industry.

TW: What changes would you like to see in the industry to make it more inclusive for women and other minority groups?

We have come such a long way – ‘glass ceiling thinking’ is a relic of the past and inequality is no longer an acceptable norm. But they are still areas we can improve to make the journey easier.

My current crusade is around dress code. It came to my attention recently that some hotel brand standards still had some outdated inclusions, such as requiring women to wear skirts and high heel shoes – and men weren’t allowed to do either!

A hotel team is a rainbow of nationalities, cultures, ages, qualifications, sexualities and creeds, so we can’t take a cookie-cutter approach. We need to reposition the industry for the next generation and recognise that the leader of 5 years’ time is possibly not someone we may have traditionally had on our radar.

The good news is we’re changing things for the better! We’re making it easy for everyone to be themselves when they work for an IHG hotel by rethinking brand standards around dress code – we know that this generation demands this from their employer and will make their voices heard.

TW: Does IHG have any policies in place to promote diversity?

LH: At IHG we are absolutely focused on creating an inclusive culture. We do this in various ways, such as promoting more flexible expectations of working hours, shifting the culture to be more inclusive, and bringing a more balanced approach and expectations around the traditional hospitality culture.

We recognise that people thrive when they can connect, share and learn from others’ experiences. There are some challenges that only another colleague on a similar journey can relate to, and it makes such a huge difference to have a safe and comfortable environment in which to share.

RISE, IHG’s Australian mentoring initiative for female colleagues who aspire to be a hotel General Manager, has been an important initiative for us, ensuring that our high potential female talent stay on track with their leadership journey. While the premise of RISE is that it’s a mentoring initiative and doesn’t guarantee a leadership role as an outcome, we are proud to say that 3 of the 11 participants have gone on to take up hotel General Manager roles, two of them in Australia and one in Asia. We also appointed our first female Area General Manager, who looks after hotels in NSW and QLD.

TW: Why do you think events like Women in Travel need to be occurring?

LH: Events like Women in Travel are a great opportunity to drive action around diversity and inclusion. This is something that matters to us at IHG, and it matters to me.

I do look forward to a day when this conversation has become unnecessary and these events aren’t needed. I honestly don’t think that day is far off but, for now, it’s valuable to take time out to focus on ‘righting the ship’ together.WIT_SponsorBlock

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