Trailblazing Women in Maldives Tourism

30 mins read
Left to Right: Sara Moosa - Managing Director, Crown Company, Crown & Champa Resorts, Mariya Shareef - Resort Manager, Summer Island Resort, Fathimath Shaazleen - Resort Manager, Naladhu Private Island, Azhoora Ahmed - Inspire Manager, Soneva Namoona

Women account for just 10% of the tourism workforce. Maldivian women make up only half of that number. In the past half-century since the first resorts opened, the proportion of female workers has stayed well below the labour force participation rate of Maldivian women, which stood at 46% before the pandemic. 

Societal norms and gender stereotypes erected longstanding barriers that discouraged women from working in hospitality. Conservative cultural attitudes dissuaded parents from consenting to a career in tourism. And the ‘one-island, one-resort’ concept entailed living away from home and family for long periods.

But these barriers are starting to fall. Or at least seem less formidable. More women are joining the industry, thriving and rising to the top. 

As part of a series of talkshows dubbed ‘Tourism Upbeat’ to celebrate the 50th anniversary of tourism, the tourism ministry gathered together four trailblazing women who succeeded in the male-dominated resort industry and forged a path for others to follow. At a lively and informative discussion, these four role models spoke about overcoming challenges and urged more young women to join the industry. They answered questions from an audience of school children curious to learn about working on a resort island and the prospects for a career in tourism. 

These are their stories and their advice in their words. 

On the Maldives tourism industry

Mariya: We’ve always been innovators. Fifty years ago when the pioneers started in the industry, it was very new. They sacrificed a lot and I’m very proud to say that we have been innovators in the industry. This product can be imitated in other countries, you’ve seen now in Bahamas, Mauritius, Seychelles. You can see the product but the kind of operation we have in the resorts, it’s very different. We are self-sustained. We operate the resort as a small country basically.

So for me, working in the tourism industry is an amazing thing. I am contributing to a luxury product unlike any other. It can look the same, operationally or what we do behind the scenes or at the front can never be imitated because the kind of operation that we have here and the things that we do here are very different. 

That’s how I view this industry. It’s not only a luxury, five-star, award-winning industry for tourists but it’s also right there at our doorstep. Those [resort workers] who are coming in from Europe, Australia and Asian countries, they are also leaving behind their families, friends, and for them to go back, it’s even more challenging. It might take one year before they can go back. 

For us, it’s ours, we live here. We can go there much easily. We have opportunities. It’s much easier for locals. Your island is just next door. Some resorts allow you to go stay overnight. For us, we let them go once a week sometimes, or once a month. It’s easier and it’s more accessible. We have to take pride in it. So for me working in this industry even if it’s one or two years, 10 years, 20 years, gives me so much pride to sit here and say I’ve contributed to this amazing award-winning industry.

On the perks of the job 

Shaazleen: This is a very prestigious industry and the pride and prestige that comes from working in the industry is very important. Meeting people from different cultures and making friends from all over the world. Not just that, working in the industry, we meet people from different parts of the country as well. We make lots of friends. And it’s not just the friends you make at school that counts. When you start working at a resort, you are accepted as a family. The people working with you becomes your family because you’ll be spending a lot of time there. That creates a lot of interesting bonds, new relationships. And opens you up to new interests. 

As mentioned, it’s self-sustained and it’s like a local island. Everything is done at the resort, including accommodation and food. And if there are 200 to 800 staff, there should be some things to keep them entertained as well. It’s not just work. There are recreational activities for those who are interested. I think right now a football pitch is a must, right? Not just any but a nice turf ground. It’s a priority at resorts now to provide recreational facilities and activities. There are earning opportunities as well. For me, any team member I have worked with has been an inspiration. Any GM or department head who has guided me, within the resort or people I haven’t personally met but heard about, has been an inspiration. 

The other thing is because you are working with people from all over the world, you get exposed to the world, and different cultures. And you start picking up on trends. And if you are joining the workforce for the first time, you’d be glad to know that this is an industry where you can save a lot of money. That’s probably one of the reasons that a lot of expats come here, not just the prestige but you attain a very different skillset. Of course when you go back after working for a couple of years, what you get in return in terms of finances is also considerable. And for anyone working in the industry that’s a very good thing. 

In short, it’s a beautiful life. You make friends for life, pursue your interests, you get to play your favourite sports, you get to save money and continue your studies.

On pursuing passions

Azhoora: There are many departments at a resort and a lot of different skills are needed – back of house even IT, engineering, photography, videography. So reflecting on my journey, I would say, always be on the look out for opportunities, you can volunteer in other departments as well. All resorts now have cross-exposure opportunities but you won’t get it by just doing your job and then going back. You have to look for it and ask for it. This way, you’ll be able to find what you are really interested in. 

There are very cool skills you can learn even if you don’t want to build a career on that. For example, horticulture techniques, all resorts have agriculture. Or you can learn pastry arts. Even if I don’t want to work as a chef, I can go and learn those skills. If you want to go take up another career later in life, it’s very easy to learn transferrable skills while working at a resort because you have all these departments and teams who are your friends. They will give you the opportunity to learn. 

On starting a family

Shaazleen: I have a unique story. Twenty years ago, when I joined my first resort, the resort had been running for 15 years, but I was was one of two girls to work there. At that time, even if women joined, they went to work at resorts close to Malé so they can come back home after their workday. 

In my case, I was very fortunate to have people accept me, maybe because of my personality.

Of course I was very hardworking, helpful, and very curious to learn which may have helped in getting opportunities. And then when I became RM, that was the time I was starting a family, so I had to take a break. I worked until I was eight months pregnant. And then I had to take a break. 

When I wanted to come back to the industry after having my son, I wouldn’t say it was easy. I did several interviews and got rejected many times. But there were a couple of companies who said yes, because I just had one condition, I wanted to take my son with me. That became an issue, for some companies, maybe because it wasn’t the norm to have a female resort manager carrying her child around. I think a mom and her one-year-old gives you a different picture. But it could also be that the resort environment wasn’t ready to cater to a young child living there full-time. What if he gets sick, what if something happens, the hiring managers asked me. But I was very fortunate because some companies said yes, and Soneva Jani was the first. 

When Soneva offered me the job, my first question was can I take my son, and they said, ‘of course you can.’ So thankfully, he spent the first five years of his life living in a resort. 

I think that was a defining moment for the whole industry. I truly believe that. It’s because I got this opportunity, now I am able to have that flexibility even at my current role. So I think the opportunities are coming. Yes, the progress is slow. It’s amazing to see a lot of inspiring women working in the industry in high positions, just waiting to break the mould and coming forward and being equal to us, even higher. That’s something we’ve always wanted to see.

A few years ago, I remember we did a video about women working in the industry in 2017 or 2018. At that time women were just four per cent. Given our population, I think that’s a shame. That’s why we wanted to spread the word and make sure it goes up. Right now maybe it’s seven percent. If you compare that to now and the workforce has increased as well. I think it is remarkable to have that progress. There are more opportunities opening up and I think, there’ll be more if we push forward with our agendas, if I may say so. 

Mariya: Right now, we are less than five per cent, local women in the industry. Imagine if five per cent more join, or wishful thinking, 20 per cent more, how easy we’ll be able to break the glass ceiling, right? I think you need to come join us. We are here to guide you, listen to you, this industry is yours. We are looking after this for you for now.

On women who wear the hijab

Mariya: It’s very acceptable now. What you wear is your personal choice. As far as I know, most resorts, most hotels, don’t care about what you wear. We are very accepting. I just want to tell you about this one instance. We had a girl who joined us when she was 18. she wasn’t wearing hijab when she joined. She joined as a waiter. I’m very proud of her. She worked as a waiter for one year. She joined Front Office and then she came to me and asked, Marie I feel like I need to wear hijab, I said why not. I said this is amazing. We need a diverse culture. We need to be accepting. I changed the uniform. Now in Front Office in Summer Island, and I’m sure a lot of others, you have a lot of girls wearing hijab. No problems at all. None whatsoever. 

On increasing women’s participation

Mariya: There are opportunities, regardless of what you are studying. If you are studying science, you can become a marine biologist, an engineer, working in IT. if you are interested in numbers, you can work in accounts, finance, sales, revenue management, reservations, so many options are there. If you are interested in arts, come work with us as a musician, if you can sing, come sing, if you can paint, come paint. We need artists, we need photographers. We need all your skills. 

So there are no barriers to step in. It’s up to you. You have to be curious enough. Experience it. You know, take the time. After school, don’t just jump into it, I know, you need education, I support it. I’ve been studying my entire life as well. But experience it. In other countries, before they start their degrees, students take a gap year, it’s very common, you do something else, you volunteer. Sometimes you don’t even get paid but you get the experience. After you leave school, come join us for one year. Consider it a gap year. We will guide you. Do something. If you don’t know what you are interested in, or what your skills are. We will help you. There are no barriers. As a local, as a girl, as a boy. Doesn’t matter. 

On challenges faced as a woman

Shaazleen: For me, the biggest challenge was leaving behind my family. Being at the age you are now, and starting in a completely new place. I didn’t have anyone, apart from another girl who joined with me. We were the only two friends and there was no one else unfortunately. For us to go into a very male-dominated environment, it was intimidating. 

For me, it wasn’t in a bad way. I don’t want you to feel taken aback, but it took us some time to warm up to the team, find our footing. To be comfortable walking into the staff canteen while people are staring at you. I think that happens when you are on the road too, but this was on a smaller scale, so you are more self-conscious, right? That was the main thing. But once I started working with the team and how they accepted me as part of the team, as part of the family was amazing and that helped me to continue my career. 

Every time you move from one grade to another or one school to another, you just have a few friends following you, you have that feeling, right? For us, it’s still the same even now. When you are moving from one island to the next. A few months back, I changed my job. And for me to start again with a new team, it was a bit hard to break the ice and to get into the groove. 

The best lesson I’ve learned is that working in the industry is that you get the confidence to present yourself, and not being afraid to initiate conversation, making yourself approachable to others, that’s how you create opportunities. So for me, it was challenging in the beginning. And also, even in your career, moving to the next level will be a hurdle. It will be your willingness and hand work and it will be you trying to prove to yourself more than anyone else that you can do it, and for that you need passion. We use this word a lot. To move yourself forward you have to have the willingness to learn and develop yourself and share the knowledge and skills. Make sure that you continue that cycle. And you move unsteadily. Every time you take the next step, that’s a change, and you get adjusted to your new role, and then you start learning. It’s a continuous cycle. But keeping the excitement and making sure that you work towards it, that’s how you overcome it. 

On maternity leave

Shaazleen: There is paid maternity leave in the industry. Right now the extended maternity leave is only mandatory for the civil service. The six-month one, but we have 60 days leave in all the industries. I think, I hope, that this is something the industry will start taking on. When I had a baby, as I mentioned, I worked until I was eight months. I got only three weeks break before I had my baby. When I came home, I had two months maternity, one month paid leave and one month no-pay. I was thinking I would have the baby, get myself organised and go back to work after four months but what I realised is, it’s such a beautiful moment, and when you have a newborn, they become the whole world so even though I was excited for re-starting my career, I wanted to enjoy this time. So for me it wasn’t enough time. I decided to quit the job and stayed with the baby for one year. I started looking for jobs when he was eight or nine months old because I knew the process would take a couple of months. 

At the moment the paid maternity leave is 60 days and there’s a paid annual leave, and there are ways that you can accumulate days off. But I hope the tourism industry will follow the lead from other industries. And I think it takes one company to start doing that and slowly that will become the norm. That’s what we hope. 

On taking the plunge

Azhoora: I would say always look out for opportunities. When I first started working at a resort, I was in the water sports area, a very male-dominated area and actually, I was the only girl there. It was intimidating at first but you know, as we’ve been saying, they start to make you feel like a part of the family, they teach you new skills, so I always tried to find out how and where I can learn new things, that’s the most important thing to become a leader. I was in surfing but I was helping other teams, like snorkelling, helping them guide guests into the water, learning wind surfing for example. Learning new things and helping your team will take you a long way in being a leader.

Shaazleen: The best way would be to look at internship opportunities. That way you are not committing to a specific team. You are committing to a time period. So let’s say, as Azu said, take some time to look through and find interesting brands and look around. If they haven’t got anything, write to them and say I’m interested. A lot of times they won’t be advertising internship opportunities. What I have seen is that we would get an email from someone and we would say this is interesting, let’s go ahead and give this opportunity.

So let’s say you are committing to a year, maybe six months. And during that time, we would ask, which areas interest you. Depending on your areas of interest, we will guide you. If you completely have no clue but want to explore the opportunities, then we will take you through everything.

We’ve had three interns that came and all three wanted to be in the front office and they didn’t want to do anything else. We were taking them for one year so we said let’s not limit yourselves. Let’s send you to different departments and you know, after three months, none of them worked at the front office. Two of them became chefs. And one worked at sales and marketing. 

Mariya: There are lots of training programmes, and as Shazley said, there are annual apprenticeship programmes at some resorts as well. A lot of resorts, when they get individual students coming in with interest, we actually customise it to your needs. So if you say I just want to stay three months, we will do it for you. It’s very ad hoc and depends on the demand as well. It’s very easy. As we’ve been saying, email us, and we can guide you. 

Azhoora: Now there’s going to be a lot of competition. You are all going to write to us. But when you do, remember to bring in your passion. Tell them how keen you are because we can see it. Remember to include your CV. 

Sara: The most important thing is, you need to have the determination and the willingness to work that’s the most important thing to join this industry or any other. You don’t necessarily need to have certain grades or skills but if you have the interest, join; you can learn, be exposed, at least until you figure out which field or department that interests you. And as we have touched upon, we have different departments; it’s not just front office, F&B and kitchen, there’s water sports, engineering etc. And as Marie mentioned, it’s a self-sustainable country so there’s everything. So if you are interested and willing to work, and put in the effort, you will be successful and they will teach you the skills and the knowledge to move forward in your career. There are so many resorts and so many opportunities available so it’s a path forward for you. 

You need to write about what interests you and you have to make yourself attractive so that you can stand out and show your willingness to learn. 

Shaazleen: I would say if you are interested in joining the industry, don’t wait for your dream job. Be willing to start anywhere. From humble beginnings, even if you start with an internship. Even if it’s not a supervisory or managerial levels, be open to start from the bottom. There are opportunities to move up. We are ready to help, advise and mentor you. 

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Hotel Insider magazine.