HEI Hotels & Resorts sets out to close GM gender gap

NORWALK, CT—Gender parity is an issue that traverses all industries. In hospitality, however, more companies are making the effort to bridge this gap and widen opportunities for employees.

“In many areas of hospitality—specifically, in sales and human resources—women dominate. But, women are underrepresented in hotel operations, specifically at the highest level, the GM level,” said Rachel Moniz, EVP, operations, HEI Hotels & Resorts, who co-founded the Women in Leadership (WIL) program in 2018, with the goal of moving more women into GM roles.

Previously a GM with HEI, Moniz was one of four out of more than 40 hotels.

“When I surveyed where we were all these years later, we had nearly doubled in size, yet we still had just four female GMs. Something needed to change, and as I moved up through the organization into a corporate role, I felt I had a responsibility to start that conversation,” she added.

Moniz is doing just that. WIL consists of 25 women in operations roles, working alongside property GMs and regional VPs to select female leaders and help move them into these positions.

“In hotels, the GM is the most influential person and once one becomes a GM, it opens up the possibility of moving into a VP role, etc.,” Moniz said. “We found that women were entering hotel operations at equal numbers to men for mid-level hotel management; however, as they advanced into director roles, we saw fewer and fewer women. We are trying to address this fall off at the core before they make a decision to leave operations.”

According to Moniz, WIL’s intimate size allows the leaders to give the proper time and attention to each prospective individual and curate personal development plans.

“Many are in key operational roles and need exposure to other areas in order to be considered for a GM position. It’s my job to find the missing pieces and fill them in with the understanding that the GM at the hotel is going to support the WIL council member in ‘working the plan,’” she said.

This could be attending more revenue meetings, getting involved in hotel forecasting, attending hotel owner meetings and attending the WIL conference each year and any subsequent calls.

According to Moniz, a common assumption is that GMs need to work weekends, nights and holidays without a work/life balance, but this is not necessarily the case. 

“A great GM needs to be able to step away from her operation and still have it function at a high level without her presence,” she said. “I encourage GMs to say, ‘I’m leaving to attend my daughter’s ball game’ and not say they have an off-site meeting. The people who work for the GM need to understand that balance is possible.”

For WIL, it begins with recruiting, sourcing female candidates for these roles, followed by development plans and tied together with sponsorship from GMs and regional VPs.

HEI now has 12 female GMs, compared to four in 2018, with half of its growth being internal promotions, and room for that number to increase.

“Start small, but start,” Moniz said, recommending that GMs identify talented women within their hotels and begin career conversations with them.

“If there is an opportunity outside of their hotel, then recommend that person for the role, truly be a sponsor and network with other GMs to try to advance this person,” Moniz said.

According to Julie Yeung, VP, talent, rewards and performance, HEI Hotels & Resorts, they aim to achieve 25% gender parity by 2021.

“My biggest piece of advice for other groups looking to close the gender gap at the GM level would be to not delay,” Yeung said. “One of my most important learnings from our experience was taught to me by Rachel, who is a believer that perfection is the enemy of progress. We started our initiative with small, actionable goals and grew it into a fully developed program over time.”

Both agreed that gender bias is not only integrated in hospitality but more broadly, culturally integrated, making it difficult at times to even detect.

“One [male]GM asked me if I had considered that women are the problem; he went on to say that women underestimate themselves,” Moniz recalled. “I asked him to consider why that is. I asked if it could have something to do with Disney princesses or, on the other spectrum, things like G.I. Jane, which screams, ‘Look at me! I am a woman and I can do it too!’—awful message to send. I asked about what happens at home: Is dad suggesting Sally go to the ball game and Steven should stay with mom to bake cookies? The other side of education that must happen as part of this initiative is addressing gender bias head-on. There are so many examples of how women feel gender bias in the workplace that men and women need to understand.”

Education is part of the solution.

“Young women need to see successful female GMs to know that it is possible,” Yeung said. “Women need to feel safe in expressing their ambition and articulate their desire to be GMs. Many women are long-range planners and will leave the operations/GM track for fear of difficulties integrating their work and personal life. I want women to not hold back due to fear, to raise their hands and articulate their desires. We must also know that promotions are given on results, so be open with your supervisor about what your goals are. Together, you can both win.”

A mistake that industry leaders make, Moniz said, is not talking about gender gaps enough. Because it’s so ingrained, sometimes it’s difficult to even recognize where it exists. Once the conversation addresses it, however—and although possibly an uncomfortable conversation to have—that’s when the real change begins.

“Once one person does well, you see more people believe in the program, and momentum takes hold,” Moniz said. “It’s important to have alignment from the most senior people within the organization so when you need to implement a policy and mandate sponsorship, as an example, there is support because they believe this is the right thing to do.” HB

To see content in magazine format, click here.