The travel, hospitality and leisure sector today stands accused of holding back gender diversity and female progression.

There is a limited focus on diversity, lack of flexible working and inadequate support for women returning from career breaks, a detailed review reveals.

The research finds that women currently make up just 26% of senior management positions in the hospitality, travel and leisure sector, but that falls to only 20% when human resources roles are excluded.

Travel companies and technology-led businesses are the best performers in terms of gender diversity with 30% and 28% of women in senior management roles respectively, compared to airlines with just 21%.

Women are well represented in junior and middle management roles. However, a gap begins to emerge in the gender balance of middle management roles upwards.

The report says this is due in part, to unconscious bias, a “blokey” culture within the sector, a poor record in managing the talent pipeline and a lack of confidence amongst women to ask for promotion.

Operational roles that require management of multiple sites were identified as being particularly challenging for women with family responsibilities.

Companies are being urged to support the progression of women into senior roles by setting themselves targets to improve diversity and to publish their progress annually.

The Women in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure 2020 report identifies a number of steps leaders can take to enable hospitality, travel and leisure companies to enhance the industry’s reputation and become more attractive for diverse talent.

These include:

• Offering more support for women returning from career breaks
• Promoting and advocating shared parental leave
• Setting up and establishing mentoring programmes
• Making better use of technology to improve flexible working

The review is led by Tea Colaianni, chair of the Woman in Hospitality 2020 working group, an independent cross-industry body that includes consultancy firms PwC, executive search firm Korn Ferry, People 1st and Oxford Brookes University.

The study is based on interviews with more than 100 hospitality, travel and leisure company chairs, chief executives, HR directors, recruiters and recent graduate recruits.

It includes an in-depth assessment of the diversity and inclusion and leadership of 26 industry organisations, which includes their HR processes and progress towards 33% female representation on boards and executive committees by 2020.

Analysis of the representative sample of companies in the sector explores how firms’ performance on diversity and inclusion is likely to be perceived by employees and key stakeholders.

The analysis reveals that progress on the issue issignificantly lower on average than some other industries.

A common weakness across the industry was a lack of ownership or sponsorship of diversity strategies from the board, with the strategy, development and execution largely left to HR instead.

Jon Terry, diversity and inclusion consulting leader at PwC, said: “A poor reputation on diversity has a negative effect on recruiting new staff, retaining existing staff and attracting customers – all of whom increasingly value and expect diversity. But a positive perception can help organisations stand out.

“In such a competitive market, encouraging real change on diversity could be the differentiator that helps to attract and retain the best people and keep customers and shareholders happy.

“Our research shows that 80% of millennials believe an employer’s policy on diversity and inclusion is an important factor when deciding to work for the company.

“Diversity and inclusion strategies need to be led from the very top of organisations to inspire and attract prospective employees – this is not simply an issue for HR, it’s an important business and reputational consideration.”

Colaianni said: “While there are good examples of hospitality, travel and leisure organisations making progress to balance gender diversity, there is a real opportunity for the industry as a whole to rise to the challenge and lead the way.

“Given the diversity of customers and staff, ensuring that all levels of an organisation are representative is mission-critical for the continued success of the industry.

“There is clear and compelling evidence that creating a strong gender balance across an executive team delivers benefits by reducing stale thinking and opening up new growth opportunities. This is why we have drawn up the diversity in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure (HTL) Charter to build accountability and transparency to create effective change in the sector.”

Sarah Lim, managing director and head of UK consumer at Korn Ferry, added: “There is a critical need for the industry to build an effective talent pipeline of senior female executives.

“With only one female chairperson and five female CEOs across the entire UK travel, hospitality and leisure industry today, there is significant work to be done to create the culture, career pathways and working environment to enable our most talented women to progress to become chairs and CEOs of the industry over the next five years.”

MoreEasyJet among employers revealed to have gender pay gap

Egypt names first female tourism minister in cabinet reshuffle

Barrhead Travel’s Sharon Munro collects Scottish Women’s Award