April 13, 2021

Bridging the divide

The gender gap is still too wide in business travel, says Abby Penston, CEO of Focus Travel Partnership

We have come a long way in achieving gender equality in our sector but it can still often seem like an old-boy network. Our industry is full of female talent and we secure gifted women at entry level, but the ratio of male to female business owners within the industry is still skewed towards men.

Abby Penston

A recent report by PWC shows 29% of women sit in senior roles within travel companies and only 20% within airlines (the lowest sector). If you strip out HR roles, the overall average in travel drops to 20.7%. So how can we change this? The last 12 months reassures us that looking at things differently and doing things different works, so let’s look again at what we can do to bridge the gap.

We need to look at career paths and reassess the skillset pipeline needed to get to C-level. Studies show a large percentage of women at executive level tend to reside in HR. However, if women want to secure a CEO or Chair position, they need to develop skills and gain experience in more commercial, financial and strategic roles. There is so much more to our industry than the obvious travel perks, so let’s look at enticing people from graduate level into these roles, as well as technology and business management.

I was brought in from outside the sector in 2012 as my employers wanted a specific management skillset to help implement efficiencies into a rapidly growing business. I already had these skills when I came into the sector, which led to my career being fast-tracked and to my current CEO role.

Central to many women’s careers is the break taken to raise a family or provide care. Much has progressed and we are all more aware that everyone needs to have a healthy work life balance, but in practice we still fall short. Cultural practices in our industry, with long hours and overseas travel, can put up barriers. We need to ensure that jobs are kept open and flexible work practices such as job shares are considered.

After I had my second child my employer asked how I wanted to manage my return to work, keen to find a workable solution to getting me back on my career path. In return he got my loyalty, commitment and determination to make it work.

When it comes to salaries, the gender gap is improving – 15.5% in 2020, better than 17.4% in 2019 – but we can’t afford to take our foot off the pedal. Any pay gap is unacceptable. In the past I had to fight to earn close to that of my male counterparts. When I had my daughter 24 years ago I experienced awful prejudice just before my maternity leave which made me determined to ensure fair practices are in play within my own shared environment.

It’s worth it. Research by McKinsey & Partners found that when companies commit to a diverse leadership team they are more successful. Different perspectives are key to understanding the needs of clients and growing a business outside of your own demographic. Education for business leaders is key and I have introduced a training series with multiple business coaches and sessions from Cranfield Business School for own SME partnership companies.

See this feature and more in the latest issue of The Business Travel Magazine

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