For Patricia Page-Champion, SVP and global commercial director at hospitality giant Hilton, the concept that idealistic notions of gender equality at work often founder in reality needs little introduction. Earlier in her career, she was offered the role of general manager at a leading London hotel, an unusual appointment for a woman at that point and the “pinnacle” of her career.
The previous day, Page-Champion had discovered she was pregnant. She told the hiring manager who had offered her the role and watched as “the colour drained from his face”. She ended up turning it down, after much agonising: “I didn’t think it was feasible for me to have a child and run a hotel.”
Changing that perception, and making progression a practical reality for women, has been a passion for Page-Champion ever since, but it has equally become a corporate priority for Hilton, where she has worked for the past 18 years. And having dedicated both HR and management attention to the issue, the business believes it is beginning to shift the structural barriers that prevent gender parity.
Hospitality is a relatively meritocratic sector to judge both by anecdotal experience and the available statistics. Hilton’s latest median gender pay gap is 7.8 per cent and 46 per cent of its top quartile roles are filled by women. Its global board of directors is now 50 per cent female.
Those headlines mask ongoing issues, however. “If you look at the industry – and I have in considerable detail– we have a 50-50 mix at entry level but you find that as people have families they tend to drop out,” says Page-Champion. “When they come back, it tends not to be at the same level and in some ways they fail to achieve their potential. Some may choose that, but others might not.”
Hilton has concentrated on improving progression routes for women over the past three years – as part of a dedicated diversity programme – by deploying a range of different interventions. It has introduced coaching for women in the early stages of their careers, with around 400 people benefiting across the EMEA region last year, backed by a Women@Hilton conference for 3,000 employees. A broader focus on mentoring, following suggestions made by the business’s ‘board of future generations’, comprised of millennial employees, has opened up opportunities across the company.
But inevitably, it has been a shift to more flexible forms of working that has done most to hasten change. That hasn’t meant taking a “proscriptive” approach, according to Steve Ryan, Hilton’s vice president HR consulting, but encouraging individuals to speak to their line managers and identify what flexibility might look like in their context.
“It’s somewhat easier in a corporate office because people can work remotely and everyone has a laptop and a mobile phone,” he says. “In a hotel, it’s about a different type of flexibility – ensuring people’s schedules are set in advance so they can build things around that.
“In a front-office environment, there are unsocial hours that have to be covered but you can connect with team members and work out how they can come together collectively to work things out. There’s rarely an easy solution, but the critical point is having a mindset and a leadership team that is open to flexibility and understands the dividend that comes from it.”
Page-Champion gives the example of its revenue management department of 120 people where opportunities for flexible working were relatively rare. Two years ago, employees split into four groups to come up with four different proposals for how flexibility could be introduced without impacting operational efficiency. All were trialled and today anyone in the department who wants to work flexibly has the means to do so.
Already, the stats are starting to shift in the right direction. Over two years, the proportion of female general managers in the UK went from 18 per cent to 31 per cent. But meeting a public pledge to achieve gender parity in leadership and pay equality at senior management levels – and impacting an employee base that spans more than 400,000 people – will require more.
To that end, the company – whose property portfolio includes everything from Park Lane ballrooms in central London to budget destinations – knows it must influence the broader industry and has joined the Women in Hospitality (WiH2020) group to promote and share best practice around diversity and inclusion in the sector.
It’s part of tackling a bigger problem which includes a dramatic lack of representation at CEO and chair level, adds Page-Champion: “We’re not moving generally fast enough [as an industry]. Having no women chairs across hospitality isn’t good enough. There are mountains to climb.
“We need more people to work in hospitality – we have 2,000 hotels in the pipeline at Hilton alone. So we have to be more attractive and we have to offer people opportunities whether they work eight hours or 40 hours a week.”