Women entrepreneurs in tourism

Empowering women through tourism

In many of the world’s poorest countries – and indeed, the poorest regions within richer countries – there is a thriving tourism industry. Tourism has an unmatched ability to boost equality across the world. It is the point where the global north meets the south, where wealthy travelers come into direct contact with shepherds, rickshaw drivers, weavers and tea sellers, and it may be the only opportunity for both sides to have a direct experience of how the “other half” live.
Tourism also has another superpower: the majority of its workforce is female. With such a broad geographical reach, and a huge range of skills required, tourism has the opportunity to pull women out of poverty, equip them with skills and provide dignified, sustainable employment. In struggling nations, it is invariably the women who struggle most, as any semblance of equality falls away. Women and girls are disadvantaged from the outset by a lack of access to education, scant maternity benefits, cultural expectations about the woman’s role in the home, and inherent gender bias in the workplace.

So – the tourism industry holds a huge amount of potential. But as the UN World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) report revealed, the details behind the statistics are not quite so equal. The majority of these women are concentrated in lower level jobs – cooking, cleaning, serving and clerical work, and for these roles they are paid on average 10 to 15 percent less than male staff. In addition, a lot of women undertake unpaid roles within tourism – supporting family businesses as invisible customer service providers, chambermaids, PAs and so on.

Homestays, hikes & pancakes

Changing perceptions thorough tourism

Sophie Pearson, an account manager at Responsible Travel, met an incredible woman while on vacation in northern Vietnam: “A homestay in Sapa was the highlight of our time in Vietnam. We travelled into the mountains in North Vietnam where we were met by our hostess. Adorned with silver jewellery, handmade traditional clothes and carrying her baby wrapped in a blanket on her back, Mumma Mu welcomed us with perfect English and a very wide smile. After collecting some food for dinner from the market we hopped on to a scooter to her house, meeting her four children on the way.
When we arrived, Mumma Mu set about making dinner for us, her children, husband and husband’s parents; she took it all in her stride and handed out rice wine to warm us up. The next day she cooked a huge stack of pancakes for breakfast and then took us out trekking through the clouds for six hours. Although she was exactly my age she was running her homestay, caring for her family and making her own clothes to wear and sell. She couldn’t understand the language of her neighbouring hill tribe but she had taught herself English to communicate with tourists; none of the men could. Her husband was spending his time working on the house – building a shower mainly, which was as a direct result of the money she was receiving from inviting people like us into her home!”

Tourism & the glass ceiling

Why aren't more women in high level roles?

Cultural challenges for women in business

Wealth provides little protection against gender bias in the workplace; in the EU, just 9 percent of CEOs are women – a figure which drops to 5 percent in the USA. And in developing countries – as well as in more conservative regions – these figures are often far worse. Girls from poor backgrounds complete fewer years of education, are expected to help out in the home and with younger siblings or elderly relatives, and will marry and give birth younger than their Western counterparts.

Even women from more affluent families, who have obtained degrees, often come up against institutionalised sexism. Male staff may not want to report to a female boss, and with little representation in boardrooms (in Europe, women comprise less than 10 percent of board members in top companies) the cycle continues.
Female CEOs are kind of like shark attacks — extremely rare, but so well-covered by the media we think they’re pretty common
– Emily Peck in the Huffington Post
Ridhi Patel is the founder of our supplier Volunteering Journeys. Based in India, they offer volunteer placements around the world in fields such as teaching, healthcare and women’s empowerment. She shares her thoughts on why female entrepreneurs can struggle, particularly in India:
“Not just here but I think everywhere it’s a lot harder for women to be entrepreneurs because of commitments with family which eventually come up. But I would say it’s changing, it’s changing a lot in India as there are a lot more women who are independent and are starting up businesses. There’s a big entrepreneurial spirit amongst women, especially in India, but it’s harder in terms of longevity. The women might start something but then there’s a higher failure rate. There’s lot of pressure on women who have to combine work with home commitments which leads to work suffering and them suffering – and eventually they have to choose between one and the other.”
Manisha Pande, from our award-winning supplier of Indian cultural vacations, Village Ways, explains some of the difficulties they have encountered in working with local women: “Most of the areas where we work are villages, and when we go in the beginning we talk about women’s involvement in tourism. It’s something which depends on the level of education and the social side of the villages; trust matters a lot. When you talk about tourists visiting a village, it’s a matter of social taboo; sometimes the people in the villages are very concerned about involving the women or their own girls in tourism.”
Photo credits: [Top box: Annie Young, Ecocircuitos Panama] [Mumma Mu: Sophie Pearson] [High level roles: Vicki Brown] [Ridhi Patel quote: Volunteering Journeys] [Helpdesk box: Volunteering Journeys]
Written by Vicki Brown
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