Female employees in the North American tourism and hospitality industry far outstrip males in terms of numbers. However, they remain vastly underrepresented in the most senior levels of management: in 2016, only 5% of CEOs and 9% of presidents in the US hotel industry were female.
Government policy provides a partial explanation of this gender gap, as currently only 8% of employees in the sector can access paid family leave, whilst work-family support policies within businesses are discretionary. Perceptions about mothers as bad leaders may also drive their suppressed representation in management. In light of this, research by Ma et al. in Tourism Management (Volume 83, 2021) investigates how mothers negotiate the challenges they encounter during the important milestone of giving birth and transitioning back to employment post-partum.
Researchers interviewed women working front-of-house and behind the scenes, from across a range of levels of seniority. Several women identified a key challenge as the inadequate length of maternity leave, as most were offered a maximum of 12 weeks by hotels, of which only 4-6 were fully paid. This presented a range of obstacles. The 12-week cut-off resulted that many women returned to work whilst still breastfeeding. The financial need to return to work caused tension between women’s competing responsibilities as mothers and employees. 12 weeks was also stated commonly to be insufficient to recover from the physical stresses of giving birth, all the while women simultaneously had to adapt to a new set of responsibilities in caring for a new-born.
Many respondents stated that due to these challenges, the post-transition back to work was for them characterized by stress, worry and burn out. However, other women had contrasting experiences. They emphasized that the challenges of this intense period- yet importantly their ability to overcome them– unlocked their potential. These women described their capabilities as enhanced through the experience, referencing increased efficiency as well as more effective multi-tasking and perspective-taking. These types of responses importantly resist dominant prejudices about women’s capabilities as workers.
The study concludes by offering some practical implications for managers about how to better support mothers working in hotels. Longer maternity leave, with better benefits, is a key recommendation. Indeed, this would also be economically advantageous for businesses. The hospitality industry suffers with the costly effects of high staff turnover rates. Women interviewed considered quitting due to being unable to juggle their competing responsibilities across home and work. In this way, supporting mothers more- during maternity and beyond- holds the possibility to diminish turnover rates, and therefore save businesses money.
Equality in Tourism supports these conclusions, and hopes that the recommendations demonstrate how better maternity rights can be good for both families and businesses’ bottom line.
Ma, E. Wu, L. Yang, W. and Xu, Shi. 2021. Hotel work-family support policies and employees’ needs, concerns, and challenges- The case of Working Mothers’ maternity leave experience. Tourism Management. (83). 1-12. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tourman.2020.104216.