Q&A: Women in Hospitality 2020 founder Tea Colaianni on collaboration, culture and diversity



The most recent research carried out by the Hampton-Alexander Review argued that while significant progress has been made toward the target of 33% of women on FTSE 350 boards by the end of 2020, there is still ‘some way to go’. This finding is echoed by analysis from Cranfield University earlier this month that illustrated in their FTSE Women on Boards Report that if anything, diversity on major boards was in fact going backwards.

When the Review first published its target, it was seen as both ambitious and achievable. But leaders, executives and analysts in every industry knew that change would require changemakers. Tea Colaianni is one such changemaker. Her career has spanned the Hospitality, Travel and Leisure (HTL) industry, culminating in executive roles in some of the giants of the sector, including Merlin and Hilton. Today, in addition to her portfolio of NED roles, Tea has taken a lead in addressing gender inequality in the HTL Sector – and is founder and chair of Women in Hospitality 2020 (WiH2020).

Six months on from the publication of the group’s first report, I had the good fortune to sit down with Tea to discuss the unique challenges and opportunities women face in HTL and just as importantly, what Tea, WiH2020 and the industry are doing to tackle them.

One aspect that came back in the research for our previous report was the challenge posed by tradition.

First off, I wanted to ask; what was the impetus behind the creation of WiH2020?

I asked myself the question ‘what more can the industry do to achieve the 33% targets set by the Alexander Hamilton Review?’. You read the papers or BBC News and there’s always talk about gender diversity across a range of different industries, but it’s still quite unusual to read anything about gender diversity across HTL. This is the sector I come from. I’ve been a female executive in the sector at Hilton and Merlin and I’ve always been very passionate about the topic.

I realised that I could help to see what the situation was: are we diverse? Are we encouraging women to progress within organisations? What are the barriers that might be specific to the sector? And how can we shift the dial in terms of diversity and inclusion?

There’s a strong commercial argument for diversity, why has change taken so long?

There’s such a specific business case within HTL – the data shows that in our sector it’s the women who make the decisions about where and when to go on holiday, on how much to spend and which restaurants and hotels to choose. There is a compelling argument to be made that if our customers are predominantly women decision-makers in the family group, why shouldn’t the makeup of the sector reflect the customer base? 

One aspect that came back in the research for our previous report was the challenge posed by tradition. The defining career mindset has been about progressing from within the organisation; you start very junior and end up very senior. There’s been a certain path that’s always been the ‘classic’ career. Not enough has been done in the sector in acknowledging the need for change because of an ingrained culture that says, ‘things have always been done in a certain way, so why alter it?’

Moreover, our research shows that many companies defer the responsibility for diversity to the HR department. Ultimately, this can’t just be a departmental initiative – this is a business-critical issue and should be treated as such with targets, with monitoring, with accountability, and with reporting back to shareholders and to customers.

What has been the response within the industry to WiH2020’s Charter?

When we launched our report in January 150 business leaders attended the event. Since then we’ve engaged with CEOs, chairs and executives and the consistent message has been an emphasis on collaboration – on working together to create practical, tangible actions to improve diversity. We agreed to reconvene in May from that created working groups that will meet again in October to review progress.

Collaboration is key – we’re not going to make massive progress if companies work in isolation, but we will make progress if we pool our effort and resources together.

One fabulous comment from a CEO of a large organisation was ‘this is not an area where we should compete – this is an area where we must collaborate. We must pool resources together and we must find the solutions that work for us as an industry as a whole’. It’s probably the best comment I’ve received since I started this initiative because it really shows that there are people out there who want to take ownership, who see this as an industry issue. Collaboration is key – we’re not going to make massive progress if companies work in isolation, but we will make progress if we pool our effort and resources together.

The response to the charter itself has been positive. Over 15 companies have signed so far including some of the largest businesses in the sector such as Merlin Entertainment, Mitchells & Butlers, The Rank Group, Odeon Cinemas and Bourne Leisure and our most recent signatory was IHG. Obviously, I wish there were more, but there are some big names on my target list!

A theme which comes up a lot in your report is the difficulty women have faced historically in the industry with progressing beyond middle management. Why do you think it has proven so difficult for women to reach executive level, and what can the sector do to change that? 

We actually have an incredible number of women joining the industry, so the challenge we face is different from other sectors. Many HTL companies have 60-70% female representation across the business, so there’s a strong pool of very talented, committed, passionate women. We tend to lose these women at middle-management level – typically when they take a career break.

So, what can be done?

Firstly, providing flexibility. Our industry is uniquely placed to do this because we’ve got so many different jobs that we can work around providing flexible solutions if we put our mind to it. That would make a significant difference.

Secondly, we need to change the culture and the mindset of companies and managers to support women coming back after a career break. A pilot project we’re putting together, Women Returners, aims to focus not just on women and giving them the confidence to come back and teaching them skillsets that they feel they don’t have after a career break, but also on training managers to prepare them to accept that returners might need more flexibility.

It’s a two-way process

Also, as some of the HR leaders that we spoke to as part of the process said, we need to avoid benign discrimination – telling women that they really shouldn’t be doing this or that project because they’ve got other things to worry about.

In one of my previous roles as an HR director we were looking for a marketing director overseas and there was one internal candidate who I thought would have been absolutely suitable for the role and she was on maternity leave. I still remember the director I was working with saying ‘oh you know, she’s just had a baby, she won’t go to the other side of the world now’, and I said ‘don’t make the decision for her – we don’t know. She might want to.’

Guess what – she wanted the job, she applied, she got it and she moved to the other side of the world!

Ultimately, organisations have a responsibility to create an environment where there is a level of support that allows women to feel they can come back, they can contribute, they can progress, and that they can apply for new, bigger jobs.

Once you remove HR from the analysis it shows that women are radically unrepresented at the executive level, particularly in commercial and technical functions. Does the industry need to change how it thinks about how these roles should function in the future to inject some of that flexibility?

Yes, absolutely. The statistics we have are boosted by the presence of female executives in HRD roles. The research found that women make up 25.5% of senior managers across the sector, but if you remove them, those percentages drop to 20.7%. It’s obviously great to have women in HR roles, but we need women in operational roles, commercial roles, and in technical roles too. Those are the functions that still provide that pipeline for future CEOs, so unless we address the issue, we’re still going to struggle with having only 5 female CEOs across the industry. Of the 24 CEO appointments in 2016 and 2017 identified in our report, only one was female.

Ultimately, organisations have a responsibility to create an environment where there is a level of support that allows women to feel they can come back, they can contribute, they can progress, and that they can apply for new, bigger jobs.

There are some positions, which because they’ve historically required a great deal of travel across multiple sites and countries, have always been filled by men. But, is it really true that somebody needs to travel five days a week to do those jobs. Shouldn’t we challenge the assumption that you can only do certain jobs if you are on the road the whole time – is that really the case?

If we are prepared to challenge that and the overarching ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mentality I think real progress can be made.

Merlin Entertainments is a signatory of the charter

Are there any companies within the sector that you would hold up as an example of best practice?

The research for our first report found pockets of excellence – there are a couple of companies across the industry that really stand out. Travel companies, for instance, are doing well, and currently have 29.5% of their senior management positions occupied by women. I hope and believe that in time there will be many more.

There is one in particular that we came across in our research where the CEO has made diversity one of their key objectives and their bonus is based on achieving greater diversity across the organisation. As such they’re treating it as a critical business issue and that approach has cascaded down the organisation. It’s been exceptionally well-received because why would you not do that? You’d do that with achieving revenue growth and profit growth and new openings, whatever it might be – why shouldn’t we do that same in terms of having a more diverse, talented group of people who reflect your customer base?

What’s next for women in hospitality 2020?

Firstly, we’re building a collaboration platform. Now that we know that we’ve got enough credible, sustainable support from so many different organisations, we can really start to put our resources into it. Secondly, we’re working toward creating and publishing our second report in partnership with The MBS Group, looking at what progress has been made over the last twelve months and, with the 2020 deadline looming in the background, asking what else can companies do? Thirdly, we’re looking at having more businesses sign our charter.

Finally, we’re working to launch the Women Returners pilot project. The government recently announced that it was setting aside a £1.5m fund to support initiatives to encourage women to return to work so we put together a proposal focused on HTL. We’re still waiting on approval but in the meantime, Travelodge, EasyJet, Bourne Leisure, Merlin, Odeon, Rank Group and others have all said they want to be part of this project and they want to work together to set up a pilot.

Women in Hospitality 2020 is here to stay, and it’s here to support as many companies as possible. The whole idea is to encourage every organisation we can to contribute and collaborate together to create deep and lasting change across our industry.

Elliott@thembsgroup.co.uk | @TheMBSGroup

For more information on Women in Hospitality 2020 and the Charter, please go here: https://www.pwc.co.uk/industries/hospitality-leisure/women-in-hospitality-and-leisure.html