Comment: The next (female) Conrad Hilton

The future is bright for women leaders in the Middle East

Crystal Chesters, deputy editor, Hotelier Middle East
Crystal Chesters, deputy editor, Hotelier Middle East

Recently at the Hotelier Middle East Great GM Debate, Margaret Paul, resort general manager at Madinat Jumeirah, spoke about female leadership to an audience of almost 200 GMs.

Just one person in the audience put her hand up when Paul asked: “Are there any female GMs out there?” Paul admitted that when she first came to Dubai in 1999 her employer took her on by default when the preferred male candidate dropped out.

“I was repeatedly asked: ‘how are you going to manage in a man’s role?’” she said, adding this made her more determined to succeed.

In response to Paul’s speech, a man from the audience asked, “who will be the next female Conrad Hilton?” — and he later told me he had expected Paul to say “I will be”.

Does Paul lack ambition for not claiming she’ll be the next Conrad Hilton? And if the same question had been put to any of the male panellists, would they have said: “I will be the next Conrad Hilton!” Probably not, because it’s an incredibly bold claim for anyone to make, female or male.

It seemed the audience member was making the point that, had Paul harboured this ambition, she wouldn’t have had the confidence to voice it anyway, particularly in front of 200 men. And especially given that if she were to become the next international business pioneer in the global hotel industry, she would certainly be the first female to do so. The underlying question, I felt, was whether a female can rise to such heights of leadership and entrepreneurial success in an industry that has been so heavily dominated by men for so many years.

I recently conducted a roundtable on the subject of female leadership with three Dubai female general managers and Debrah Dhugga, general manager of Dukes London, a Seven Tides-owned hotel in the UK capital. (See p.32 for the full roundtable).

While Dhugga belongs to the generation of Paul and the likes of Pam Wilby of Grosvenor House and Doris Greif, who made her mark as GM of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, the other participants, Anke Glaessing of Mövenpick Deira and Chantel Moore and Elina Tsolakou from Rotana properties, are of the new wave of female GMs.

While Glaessing admitted to frequently being referred to in emails as “Mr Glaessing” and Tsolakou said she had previously been rejected from jobs simply for being female, the group conceded that whether a woman can become a GM is down to the individual, and has nothing to do with gender.

They claimed there is no such thing as the glass ceiling, and rejected the notion that traditional family roles can get in the way. Tsolakou said juggling children as a GM is particularly achievable in Dubai, where childcare is more affordable than elsewhere, and Glaessing added that long hours apply to many leadership roles and actually hospitality offers a lot of flexibility.

Moore said that she doesn’t believe traditional female roles have any bearing on the modern female GM saying: “I don’t feel I have to have a husband or children or anything like that.” Offering an explanation for why there aren’t more female GMs, she said: “I just think it’s unlucky there aren’t more.”

However, Dhugga highlighted that while she would love to say that female general managers are the norm, women have to “stretch an awful lot to go that extra mile,” echoing Paul’s sentiment that females have to be even more determined to succeed.

Dhugga currently mentors a younger female leader of a five-star hotel in the UK, who despite having an immaculate CV, lacks the confidence to apply for her dream job as general manager of a five-star deluxe hotel. This is something Dhugga is working with her mentee to overcome.

With leaders such as Dhugga, Wilby, Greif and Paul in place, it seems there is now a generation of female hospitality leaders acting as role models to the upcoming female GMs of tomorrow. The only barriers, according to the women I interviewed, are self-perceived.

And while female mentorship such as that delivered by Dhugga is fantastic for boosting confidence, I think it’s also important that females can take inspiration from males too, and fully believe they can achieve what men can. After all if true equality exists, why wouldn't they? Why shouldn't females aspire to the greatness of history’s iconic hoteliers — just because in the past they have always been men?

I feel if Dubai continues to produce proactive female leaders such as Moore, Glaessing, Tsolakou, Wilby, Paul and Greif, then there really is no reason why the next Conrad Hilton won’t be a woman.

Crystal Chesters, deputy editor

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