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“Unconscious bias needs to be addressed”: Intrepid CEO James Thornton on gender equality in the industry

Intrepid Group has been a proud supporter of the Women in Travel Awards for the last four years. Here, Travel Weekly chats to CEO James Thornton about the challenges the industry still needs to overcome in regard to gender equality and how the tour operator is doing its part to make this happen. 

Why has Intrepid decided to come on board as principal sponsor for the Women in Travel Awards for the fourth consecutive year?

The idea for the first Women in Travel Awards started with a conversation over a drink at Travel DAZE in 2016. It was before the US election and the #MeToo movement had put gender equality in the global spotlight, but within Intrepid, we’d been discussing what we could do to improve gender equality within our business. We recognised that we had a problem, but that the problem was bigger than us.

We’ve long been committed to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles and we had already identified where we needed to make improvements. However, things weren’t changing fast enough.

Sponsoring these awards has not only put the spotlight on the amazing women at Intrepid and within our industry, but it has also provided a platform to discuss the issues. It has spurred a conversation within all parts of the company about how we can do better.

In four years, we have seen some really positive changes. One of our first and best-known gender equality goals was to double our female tour leaders around the world. This was a tremendous effort on the part of our on the ground operators in traditionally male-dominated societies such as India, Morocco and Turkey.

Last year, our general manager for Morocco, Zina Bencheihk, told the Women in Travel audience about the work she’d done to lobby the government to introduce new guide testing. The Ministry has now issued new tour guide licences for the first time in 10 years.

Increasing the number of female tour leaders seems like a small thing to us in Australia, but it really does make me proud to hear our female tour leaders attest to the financial freedom this work has had on their lives – and it inspires us to do more.

James Thornton and Sana Jinah [1]
Thornton with one of Intrepid’s first female tour leaders in India, Sana Jinah.

I’m proud to say that we’ve now doubled the number of female tour leaders we have globally, but we’re not going to stop there.

We continue to sponsor the Women in Travel Awards because the tourism industry, like many other industries, needs to level the playing field, to help women into senior positions, to close the pay gap.

 

What are some of the challenges women face in today’s travel industry? How can they be overcome?

We know that women are held back for a variety of reasons.

Unconscious bias needs to be addressed. One of the ways we have addressed this is to have unconscious bias training, and we now also require one representative from each gender on each interview panel to counter bias.

Gender equity is not just for women. Men need to be part of this change. I was proud to see our general manager of customer experience, Drew Martinez, win Male Champion of Change last year at the Women in Travel Awards for fostering diversity and inclusion within his team.

 

Do you think there needs to be more of an industry-wide push to get more females into senior roles?

Every company should have a policy and program to retain and promote female career progression.

One of the outcomes of our partnership with the Women in Travel Awards was to institute our own Women’s Leadership Forum, an initiative entirely run by our female staff and iterating since its inaugural year. Applications are received from staff across the world, from Kenya to London and the Melbourne HQ. Each applicant must outline how they have been an agent of change, what they see as a pressing concern for females as well as answering business critical questions. Twelve are chosen to undergo a three-day intensive workshop, ranging from commercial acumen to individual projects. Most recently, this forum has included males in the business, who are also spearheading change.

 

How is Intrepid attracting and fostering female talent? 

I believe we attract both male and female talent by having a greater goal: that of purpose and profit. The work we do in the purpose and responsible business space makes our employees both engaged and proud to work for Intrepid, and that trickles down to attracting the very best talent.

 

We have a Flexible Working Policy at Intrepid, and fatherhood changed my view on the commitment and output of staff who do work flexible hours. My wife and I juggle pick-ups and drop-offs. I leave work at 4:30pm to pick up my son and spend a few hours with him. It doesn’t make me less productive – it just changes where and when I work.

Our goal is that every staff member will have a development plan. We have clear ways talent can progress, through mentoring, shadowing and a significant budget toward training. Travel companies must invest in their people. We have two training programs – often international –  geared toward enhancing staff skills in people management as well as business management.


The Women in Travel Awards 2019 are on tonight at Doltone House – Hype Park in Sydney. We’ve only got a few tickets left to the event, so if you haven’t already got your hands on one, then it’s time to get a move on! Click here to secure your spot.

WIT Awards 2019 sponsor block

 

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