Assessing Gender Representation of Speakers at UNWTO’s Events


By Dr Elaine Chiao Ling Yang

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) plays an important leadership role in setting the agenda that drives tourism development. The organisation is the leader in tourism knowledge production and dissemination through research and business events such as industry meetings and conferences. In response to the pronounced and persistent gender gaps in the tourism industry, UNWTO has pledged its commitment to advance gender equality and empower women in tourism (the fifth UNSDG). A cursory investigation into UNWTO’s events, however, suggests the possibility of “femwashing” where the management practices continue to reproduce gender bias despite the pledge for gender equality. Professor Catheryn Khoo, Jess Sanggyeong Je and I conducted a critical audit to examine if the speakers at UNWTOS’s planned events reinforce stereotypes that undermine women’s expertise and intellectual competencies. This blog post summarises the key findings and actionable recommendations from the study, which was published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism.

The study analysed 121 events organised and/or held by UNWTO in 2017. Ethnicity and nationality information were included in the analysis to provide a fuller understanding of whether other social inequalities intersected with gender in shaping speaker representation at these events. A total of 1656 speakers were identified from 64 events where speaker information was publicly available. Among these speakers, 70% were males. Male speakers outnumbered their female counterparts in 59 of the 64 events. For instance, an event held in Papua New Guinea had 13 speakers, none of whom were female. Another event held in China had 41 male speakers compared to 3 females.

The analysis of the speakers’ ethnicity and nationality shows an equal representation between Western and non-Western speakers. However, a deep dive into the number reveals a double marginalisation of non-Western female speakers who only accounted for 14% of the speakers. Male speakers from the West appeared to be the dominant tourism knowledge leaders at these events.

Considering the significant gender gaps identified from the analysis, the research team contacted event organisers for their comments on the predominant male line-up of speakers. Most of the organisers did not reply or declined to comment. One organiser responded that the selection of speakers was based on expertise and recommendations from partners.

The findings of this study reveal that even for UNWTO, a leading organisation advocating for gender equality, there has been a significant underrepresentation of women speakers at their events. This lack of representation indicates limited equal opportunities for women in tourism leadership roles, thereby threatening the fifth UNSDG of gender equality. As an industry, tourism relies heavily on the female workforce, but women face unequal opportunities for vertical career progression, which is known as the ‘sticky floors’ phenomenon. Unfortunately, the incessant images of men on stage as tourism experts diminish the perception that women could be equally powerful actors and dampen the aspiration of upcoming female tourism leaders. Likewise, while the voices of non-Western speakers seemed well represented at UNWTO events, the voices of non-Western women remain marginalised.

Enduring forms of implicit bias such as unconscious sexism and racism could perpetuate the underrepresentation of women and in particular, non-Western women in tourism knowledge production. Five recommendations were provided to address the implicit bias and to bridge the gaps between the gender equality rhetoric and actual practices of UNWTO. These recommendations may benefit any tourism organisations and event organisers alike.

  1. Increase awareness among people behind the decision-making committees about the importance of inclusivity and the influence of implicit bias on the notion of meritocracy.
  2. Introduce formal protocols to ensure equal representations of gender as well as ethnically diverse speakers.
  3. Utilise an inclusion-scoping checklist to facilitate speaker planning and engagement. 
  4. Create a database of qualified, expert speakers and make the information available to the tourism community. 
  5. Monitor the diversity representation of speakers at future events against the findings of this study as one of the measurements for achieving the fifth UNSDG.


Khoo-Lattimore, C., Yang, E.C.L., & Je, S.J. (2019). Assessing gender representation in knowledge production: A critical analysis of UNWTO’s planned events. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 27(7), 920-938.

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