Female Hospitality Leaders: Climbing the Ladder in a #MeToo World

By Miranda Kitterlin, Ph.D. Assoc. Professor, Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, FIU | April 28, 2019

This article was co-authored by Lisa Cain, Assistant Professor, Florida International University

I recently ran into a former hospitality student who was working at a cell phone store. This was surprising to me, as she had been an exceptional student, and I knew from conversations that she had previously worked in a luxury lodging property, with aspirations for eventual promotion into management. What really stood out was the level of passion she had for her job, and for the industry, so finding her in this workplace setting left me eager to inquire as to the reason for the change.

I wish I could say that her story was novel, or surprising.

My former student, we'll call her Jane, was excelling in her position, and was on track to achieve all of her career goals. This was until she began being harassed by a male co-worker. I will not provide details, but the male co-worker's behavior made Jane so uncomfortable that she went to her direct supervisor three times to discuss it.

The supervisor responded by attempting to schedule them on opposite shifts, telling Jane to ignore the behavior, and asking Jane if she would prefer to transfer to a different department or property. None of these options appealed to Jane, who just wanted to come to work and do well at a job she loved.

At this point you may be asking yourself: Why didn't she go to human resources?

This is what I asked Jane. Her reply was that she feared retaliation from her supervisor, who had made it clear that he was not going to pursue the issue in a formal manner. Her concern was that he would make her work life even more uncomfortable, or that he may even deny that she had come to him with her complaints.

In a time where giants such as Wynn Resorts is being fined up to $20 million for failure to investigate sexual misconduct claims, I was floored that a supervisor would put themselves in such a blatantly liable situation. Ethics aside, it stands to reason that any manager would take action when presented with a sexual harassment complaint, if only just to protect themselves.

While I cannot speak to the reasons behind this particular supervisor's failure to take action, I have heard other common excuses:

  • "I don't want to deal with the paperwork."
  • "Things like this make me uncomfortable."
  • "Situations like this will work themselves out."
  • "So-and-so is a good guy, he's probably just being friendly."
  • "We don't know who is really telling the truth."

The list could go on.

When dissected, all of these excuses serve to further normalize the harassment behavior. For the manager who does not want to be burdened with the extra paperwork, he is telling the employee that his time and energy is more important than her comfort in the workplace. For the manager who espouses that this situation makes him uncomfortable, he is failing to recognize the discomfort of the employee who came forward to report it.

For the manager who is advocating that the situation will rectify itself, he is helping to create an environment that accepts this behavior with the false notion that feelings of discomfort will subside and that unpunished bad behavior will simply stop. For the manager who advocates for the benevolent nature of the employee being highlighted as a perpetrator of harassment, he is failing to recognize the bad behavior for what it is.

While it is true that sometimes good people do bad things, if the individual is truly a good person, notifying him of the infraction and taking steps to ensure that the unwanted advances or behavior will cease will simply result in the desired outcome. Finally, and perhaps the most egregious excuse in a list of egregious excuses, is the manager who tells the victim of harassment that he does not believe her story.

Ample research has demonstrated that it is often extremely emotionally taxing and difficult for a victim of sexual harassment to report the incident, particularly in an environment that accepts and normalizes the behavior. What this does it tells the victim that reporting the incident will only result in management being skeptical of their emotional and physical safety and well-being.

Here are some facts from the literature (references available upon request):

  • The hospitality industry is dominated by female employees, yet representation of women at the higher levels of the industry are not commensurate. There is a plethora of evidence that women are grossly underrepresented in upper management roles. There are certainly many reasons for this phenomenon, but the prevalence of sexual harassment certainly adds to the challenge that female workers already face in terms of navigating the road to advancement.
  • Women workers suffer pay and job status discrepancies, stereotypes, less training opportunities, and a host of other workplace inequality issues despite their positive contributions to the industry. Because women are not typically in a place of authority in the workplace, they do not often have the ability to influence strategic plans to facilitate their promotion, thus perpetuating their inability to rise to a higher level within their organizations.
  • Social perceptions also prohibit women from obtaining management positions. In a male dominated society, female leadership styles are often viewed as inadequate and ineffective. It has also been suggested that leadership roles are traditionally designed for men; this makes sense, given that males have dominated authoritative positions for centuries, and some are unwilling to relinquish their old paradigm of a male-dominated society. It is challenging to remove perceptions when women remain the minority in executive management positions, as their voices are in effect silenced by the lack of leadership representation.

All of these obstacles, and yet we haven't even touched upon the initial issue!

Sexual harassment is so pervasive in the hospitality industry that one could call it a 'social norm' or a part of the work culture. Defined, sexual harassment includes any undesired verbal or non-verbal sexual advances and any other behaviors or occurrences that lead to an uncomfortable or even hostile work environment. From unwanted touching to towel snapping, lewd jokes to cat calls and myriad other behaviors, the hospitality industry sees sexual harassment among its employees often.

There are many reasons that this occurs, particularly in this industry. The family-like relationships that are formed in a close-knit working environment, the accepting climate of these behaviors due to past precedents that have been set, the physical close proximity of the workspaces (e.g. behind the bar, in the kitchen), and an unwillingness on the part of management or leadership to report and discipline those who have committed these grievances are all factors that contribute to this issue. And then there are the unwanted advances that occur on the customer-side of the equation when individuals are working for tips.

The ramifications of these behaviors can be serious on both the personal and professional level. Putting aside the obvious emotional damage that transpires over time for the individual who is on the receiving end of these unwanted advances, businesses many incur legal fees in order to compensate the victims, damage to the image or reputation of the organization, and a decrease in the satisfaction of the employees who still work for the organization, which in turn may lead to greater instances of productivity, morale, and absenteeism. Ultimately, as we saw in Jane's case, this may lead to turnover, which ample research has shown to be incredibly costly to the organization.

Per the official website, "The 'me too.' movement was founded in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence…find pathways to healing. Our vision from the beginning was to address both the dearth in resources for survivors of sexual violence and to build a community of advocates, driven by survivors, who will be at the forefront of creating solutions to interrupt sexual violence in their communities.

In less than six months, because of the viral #metoo hashtag, a vital conversation about sexual violence has been thrust into the national dialogue. Our work continues to focus on helping those who need it to find entry points for individual healing and galvanizing a broad base of survivors to disrupt the systems that allow for the global proliferation of sexual violence… We want perpetrators to be held accountable and we want strategies implemented to sustain long term, systemic change." (Me Too, 2018). This movement has served to open avenues for discussion that may have been previously closed, and has brought the issue of sexual harassment, accused harassers, and their employers into the spotlight.

So what is the solution? I wish I had the full answer. What I do believe is that there is a need for acknowledgement, awareness, and action. Only by acknowledging the problem can we begin to find a solution. Next, management (be they male or female), must be aware of what is going on in their departments/properties. This could entail observation, one-on-one conversations, and opportunities for anonymous tips.

Now for the hard part: action. Time and time again we see properties with legitimate and airtight sexual harassment policies and procedures…yet they are not being put into action. This could be for the reasons acknowledged at the start of this article, or perhaps because the victim did not come forward to make management aware of the harassment; whereupon we circle back to awareness.

Let me close with this: Not all men are harassers, and not all women are being harassed. Men can be victims, and women can be perpetrators. The focus of this article, however, was on female employees and the challenges they face rising to upper management positions in a workplace riddled with sexual harassment. Let's work together to make our industry better.

Dr. Cain This article was co-authored by Lisa Cain. Dr. Cain is an assistant professor in Florida International University's Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. She earned her PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in Hospitality Administration, her Master's degree from Florida International University in Hospitality Management and her Bachelor's degree from Smith College in English Language and Literature. She also spent a year studying at Oxford University in England. She currently teaches marketing management, and globalization and competitive methods in the hospitality industry and has previously taught organizational behavior, and leadership, management and ethics. Dr. Cain's research interests fall within the broad topics of organizational behavior and marketing with an emphasis on understanding internal and external customer behavior. Specifically, she has studied work life balance for executive chefs, substance abuse among hospitality workers, and loyalty in the hospitality industry. She continues to develop research in these topics as well as in the emerging area of healthcare and hospitality and how to merge those two practices.    

Dr. Kitterlin, Ph.D. Dr. Miranda Kitterlin is an Associate Professor in the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Florida International University She teaches graduate level Hospitality Management courses. She received her doctoral degree in Hospitality Administration from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She holds a Master's degree in Human Resources and a Bachelor's degree in Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management from the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Prior to academia, Dr. Kitterlin worked in the lodging and food and beverage industries. What began as an entry-level front-of-house position quickly developed into operational management, sales, and human resources management roles, and a lifelong passion for Hospitality Management. Miranda Kitterlin, Ph.D. can be contacted at 305-919-4424 or miranda.kitterlin@fiu.edu Please visit http://www.fiu.edu for more information. Extended Biography

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