With proper planning and integration of strong gender perspectives tourism can help promote equality on a local, national and global scale.

This article looks at the challenges to women’s participation in the tourism sector and how we could increase their contribution.

Over the past few decades, due to consistent expansion and diversification, tourism has become one of the largest and fastest growing economic sectors in the world. Investment by an ever-increasing number of destinations has turned this industry into an engine for socio-economic development, through influxes of foreign revenue, as well as the creation of complex value chains resulting in direct and indirect employment. Women’s participation in such a field of work can have a monumental impact on both their personal lives and their local communities.

As a mainly labour intensive industry, tourism paves the way for a wide range of income-generation opportunities for female workers worldwide. According to the Global Report on Women in Tourism published by the World Tourism Organisaion (UNWTO) in 2010, a large proportion of the formal tourism workforce consist of women. Despite regional disparity, women are generally well-represented in the accommodation and food service sectors, with a global average of 48.62% female hotel/restaurant employees. However, when taken a closer look at, these levels of involvement range broadly between countries. For example, in a certain conservative Middle Eastern country where laws exclude women from participating in the economic sphere, only 2% of hospitality industry employees are female, while in the comparatively more liberal region of Thailand this figure is at 65%. This indicates  that the ratio of male to female tourism workers can vary based on contrasts in economic factors, as well as societal norms of that particular country in question. In the Maldives, females make up only a tenth of the accommodation and food service workforce.

In addition to regional differences, critical examination of occupational status may be important.  Statistics from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) show that women’s employment in the hospitality industry is concentrated in the clerical and service sectors, where occupations are often low skilled and low paid. The majority of professional, higher management positions are held by men. As a result, the average earnings of female tourism employees tend to be around 10% to 15% lower than that of male employees. This widens the wage gap between them, thus contributing to global gender inequality. This issue could be solved by improving access to education in the area of hospitality. There is little information about the educational backgrounds of female workers in this specific industry, but current international trends show that more and more women are graduating and gaining tertiary level qualifications. Training in business skills is also crucial; it ensures that female workers are equipped with the necessary knowledge and information to survive and to thrive in tourism. Furthermore, it allows them to reach higher ranks in their professional careers alongside men, thus narrowing the earnings gap between the two genders.

For business minded women, tourism offers significant opportunities to pursue their own entrepreneurial initiatives. It is twice as likely for employers to be female in this specific sector than in

any other economic sector. Latin American countries have the highest proportion of female tourism employers in the world, with over half in the region.

Not only does this empower women by giving them freedom and independence in their line of work, but it also leads to an overall improvement to the quality of both the local life as well as the

tourist experience. These benefits are amplified in rural, poverty-stricken communities where women face relatively more hardship and inequality. Programs and projects that solely focus on uplifting women entrepreneurs can now be seen in various developing countries all over the world. An example of this is Empowering Women Nepal (EWN), a non-governmental organisation set up in 1999 to encourage and train Nepali women to enter the country’s tourism industry. Despite local resistance in the highly patriarchal society, over 800 participants have joined in the past decade.

It should be noted that in countries like Iran and even the Maldives, the number of women running their own hospitality-related businesses is not very significant. Nevertheless, this does not account for informal, home-based businesses, where women may comparatively have a leg up over their male counterparts.

Self-employed activity in tourism is high, as women across all regions in this industry are typically more likely to engage in own-account work. It was found that women make up a large proportion of unpaid labour as “contributing family workers”. In the Maldives, more than three fifths of contributing family workers in the economy are female. Due to the fact that they do not earn any income, such workers are vulnerable to exploitation by corporate interests. In such a scenario, legal protection of women’s rights and monitoring of informal tourism activities by relevant governmental bodies is imperative.

One of the main barriers of entry into the formal tourism industry for women is perpetuating gender roles and responsibilities. We can look at the Maldives as a familiar case. Often described as a “tropical paradise” with its lavish beaches and pristine underwater topography, the Maldives has destination seekers. As a result, tourism has flourished over the past few decades, accounting for a large proportion of the country’s export revenues. However, the combined influence of the country’s traditional South Asian heritage as well as its recent shift into a more conservative interpretation of Islam has substantially conditioned social behaviour of the Maldivian locals. However, it must be noted that more women are working in tourism than ever before.

Men occupy the upper echelons of the societal hierarchy and are seen as the bread-winners of the family unit, while women are typically seen as more submissive, away from the public domain, either taking care of household duties or looking after their children. This deeply embedded stereotype acts as a deterrent for potential female tourism workers, who may be forced to turn towards more stay-at-home roles instead. Questioning of this restrictive mindset by both male and female community members can support women’s freedom to partake in this highly profitable industry. It can greatly bolster their confidence and ability to succeed. Moreover, improved maternity leave requirements, flexible hours and appropriate childcare services would lead to much more comfortable work lives, encouraging more women to join the field without having to forgo time with their families.

For women that are already employed in the tourism sector, sexual objectification is a derogatory experience many of them have to face. Studies have shown that women are often expected to dress in an “attractive” women are often expected to dress in an “attractive” manner in certain front-line tourism occupations, such as hotel receptionists or customer relations staff. Stereotypical images of women may also be a part of marketing and promotion tactics, further propagating the idea of female subservience.

Links have been found between some tourist destinations and the sex industry, and so, women run the risk of being sexually exploited against their will.

On the whole, the tourism and hospitality industry has immense potential as a catalyst for female empowerment. It offers countless opportunities in the form of employment, entrepreneurship and income generation. Despite the discrimination that women may currently be subjected to, awareness must be created in order to challenge existing traditional gender roles and bridge the gap between male and female workers. With proper planning and integration of strong gender perspectives, this field of work can truly help promote equality on a local, national and global scale.