“The Future of Tourism” Interview Series
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or views of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) or any of its employees. The aim of the interviews is to assist with the rapid, robust and responsible rebuilding of the Asia Pacific travel industry.
Tourism presents both opportunities and challenges for bridging the gender gap. As a sector with a majority female workforce worldwide (54%) and most women in low paid or informal work, the economic shock to tourism caused by COVID-19 has hit women the hardest. When we talk about designing tourism recovery plans, sustainability cannot be achieved if any of the vulnerable groups are left out of the new scheme.
So, why are women mainly concentrated in low-skilled jobs in tourism? What prevents women from progressing to higher level positions? How can we empower women to increase their representation in decision making within tourism businesses?
PATA SSR spoked to Sophie Hartman, the Regional Platform Coordinator at the Association of Southeast Asian Social Enterprises for Training in Hospitality & Catering (ASSET-H&C) to examine the impact of COVID-19 on women workforce in tourism, particularly those from marginalized communities and how to leverage women skills and empower them to pursue sustainable professions in tourism.
Q: Good morning Sophie! Thank you so much for your time today. We are very excited to have you with us in this interview series about key sustainability issues in tourism during the time of COVID-19. For the benefits of our audience, would you please introduce a bit about yourself and the work you are doing at ASSET-H&C?
Sophie: First of all, thank you for inviting me to be part of this great initiative. My name is Sophie Hartman and I am the Coordinator of the Association of Southeast Asian Social Enterprises for Training in Hospitality and Catering, in short ASSET-H&C. In a nutshell, ASSET-H&C is a unique network of tourism and hospitality vocational training centers that target students coming from vulnerable backgrounds. The network currently gathers 15 schools across Southeast Asia, where our members distinguish themselves by the quality of the trainings that they offer for free to disadvantaged young people, as well as by the fact that they operate income generating businesses like a hotel, a restaurant, a cafe or maybe a bakery shop that first enable the students to practice their skills in real life settings, but also allow the school to generate revenues to finance part of the trainings.
Q: Why has COVID-19 affected the woman workforce in tourism so severely in your opinion?
Sophie: Women represent half of the world’s population. And yet, as we unfortunately all know, there’s still a long way to go in order to fully reach equality in terms of rights and opportunities. So, when it comes to their professional life, women still face a number of barriers that prevent them from thriving in the workplace. These barriers are multiple and often interlinked. They include unequal opportunities, gender stereotypes, conflict between their professional duties and their family duties as well as gender-based violence. In the case of the tourism industry, the nature and the dynamics of the sector further exacerbates the barriers due to different factors such as demanding working hours, seasonal variability, or the distance between the tourist area and the residential areas. And this has been further highlighted by COVID-19.
When a crisis like COVID-19 strikes, usually those who are at the bottom of the pyramid suffer the most. And if you look at the tourism workforce, you will realize that women are overrepresented in low skills, and therefore, more dispensable jobs. As a result, compared to men, they suffer greater job loss. Another factor is that women are more vulnerable to informal work; the instability and lack of protection that characterize informal employment leave them further exposed to the downturn in tourism. Finally, a certain number of women working in this industry are actually migrant workers. These women will face a double layer of discrimination because of their lack of recognition in the country where they are working. So, as you can see, there are still many challenges. Yet, despite these difficulties, tourism can offer a strong level for social and economic inclusion of women because this industry offers greater opportunities for women participation in the workforce. And compared to other industries, there is a narrower wage gap, yet for this, women need to be offered sustainable job opportunities.
Q: Do you see any opportunities from the COVID-19 crisis for the tourism industry to actually build up the momentum for women empowerment?
Sophie: As you said, we are currently experiencing a very difficult moment for all tourism stakeholders, but at the same time, this offers opportunities to build back better. The COVID-19 crisis is really questioning the sustainability of the industry. And at the same time, it’s putting to the test its capacity to preserve its most important asset, which is its people. So obviously, putting people first is a matter of ethics. But at the same time, customers are increasingly calling the industry to find ways to better distribute the benefits of tourism with the communities in the countries where they are traveling, especially the most vulnerable segments. So yes, COVID-19 could offer an opportunity to further advance the gender agenda.
Q: With all the possible opportunities that the crisis can bring, what needs to be done to ensure that the female workforce will be included in the decision-making process of the crisis response and recovery planning, considering that many women are working in tourism as informal and seasonal workers?
Sophie: For me, one of the difficulties to implement measures to empower women is that there is still a knowledge gap. And by that, I mean that data that are segregated by gender are still scarce, especially if you’re talking about people working in the informal sector. And when data do exist, they usually focus on the quantitative side and not on the qualitative aspects of women employment, yet this kind of information is key in order to inform measures to help women improve their situation in the industry. And I’d like to take examples of what we do at ASSET-H&C, all of our members are committed to promote women’s access to education by paying special attention to gender during student recruitment, and as a result, 54% of our students are women. But actually, there are some members who push much further the principles of inclusive education, and usually their efforts to mainstream gender in all activities started with data collection. Indeed, if you are the management team of a school, and if you are asking yourself how we make sure that this ideal of offering the same opportunities to men and women can be materialized in our operations, there is a very simple answer, which is start looking at numbers. Look, for example, at dropout rates, is it the same for men and women? And if not, why? Same applies to job integration, do female graduates find a job as easily as male graduates? And again, why? So, this kind of approach should apply to the industry. And that’s the reason why it’s important to have tourism stakeholders or authorities who are there to promote or even facilitate the collection of this kind of data. This kind of information for educational actors like us is also very precious as it can help us to constantly adjust our training, and also to better prepare the tourism professionals of tomorrow to address gender issues in the workplace.
Q: As you mentioned the knowledge gap of the women workforce, how can we actually bridge this knowledge gap and upgrade women’s skill sets during the time of the COVID-19 crisis so that women can be more resilient and adapt better with the next normal in the tourism industry?
Sophie: When you’re talking about women employment, education is really a critical area, because gaining more knowledge will empower women to take better care of their health, to fight for their rights, to protect themselves from harmful practices, and also to challenge gender stereotypes. But actually, if you compare men and women, you will realize that women tend to have less access to education. The COVID-19 crisis, which has actually disrupted the education of more than 90% of the world’s student population, has raised again a very long debated question: how do we leverage the opportunities brought by new technologies to improve access to and to improve the quality of education, especially in developing countries? And this could clearly help to promote women’s education.
Of course, some people will say that new technology will not solve all problems and there are still barriers in terms of internet access. But during the crisis, some schools have been able to come up with smart and creative ideas to overcome these barriers. The COVID-19 has made self-learning a reality and a necessity for many learners across the world, and this trend will probably continue over time. So, this is the how, now an interesting question is also what, what kind of training should we give to these women to help them make a successful and rewarding career in the industry? If you look a little bit closer at the situation, you will realize that many companies in the tourism industry still under-utilize the abilities of their female workers, and this is partially due to gender stereotypes. The role of women in this industry is still too often perceived as an extension of their prescribed household duties such as cleaning, or serving people. And young female workers, who lack female role models around themselves will internalize these stereotypes and actually underestimate their own capacity to become successful leaders.
So, on top of technical skills, young women who want to enter the industry should also learn to believe more in themselves and to take care of themselves, their rights and their career. At ASSET-H&C level, these competencies are actually taught in the frame of what we call life skills. And life skills training does not exclusively target women because gender sensitive education is also supposed to encourage men to prevent harmful practices in the workplace, and also advocate for more gender equality.
Another topic could also be entrepreneurship. Indeed, the tourism industry offers options to women for entrepreneurship that does not necessarily require heavy start-up investment. However, some women who might have a lower level of education may have limited understanding of what is required to create and manage their own little business. And they can make very basic mistakes such as not conducting any market research at the launch of the business or confusing their own resources with those of their business and so on. This can actually compromise the sustainability and the success of their business and, in turn, also put at risk their own financial situation. Helping these women to gain a deeper understanding of how business can run and be successful would be another lead to explore in order to increase their resilience.
Q: If you can say one sentence about the future of tourism in a post COVID-19 world, what would that be?
Sophie: I will actually quote one of the slogans of UNWTO: “People First”. The tourism industry is a people industry and the COVID-19 has shown how important it is to take care of its people.