GM Roundtable: Female GMs lean in

Hotelier meets four GMs who show that anyone can rise to the top

Chantel Moore, Debrah Dhugga, Anke Glaessing and Eleni Tsolakou
Chantel Moore, Debrah Dhugga, Anke Glaessing and Eleni Tsolakou

Women are still notably underrepresented across a range of industries globally, but being a general manager in a hotel, where the hours are long and there is often a need to relocate, has been notoriously tough for females looking to juggle family life with their careers.

Hotelier meets four general managers who challenge this view, asserting that anyone can rise to the top despite traditional gender roles or cultural boundaries

Meet the experts
Anke Glaessing

General manager, Mövenpick Deira
Anke Glaessing is general manager at 215-room Mövenpick Deira, Dubai. The hotel has two F&B outlets and seven meeting rooms, and is located right at the heart of Mubarak Square. Anke has worked at the hotel for two years, prior to which she was hotel manager at Al Murooj Rotana, Dubai. A German national, Anke has been living and working in the Middle East for seven years.

Chantel Moore
General manager, Burjuman Arjaan by Rotana

Chantel has been heading up Bur Dubai-based deluxe apartments, Burjuman Arjaan by Rotana for two-and-a-half years, and has held GM roles for the past eight, having worked with Habtoor Hotels. She also previously held a business development role with Accor. Her current property has 148 suites, seven meeting rooms, a four-bed penthouse and three duplex townhouses. Chantel has lived in the Middle East for 10 years and hails from Australia.

Eleni Tsolakou
General manager, Centro Barsha, Dubai

A four-star business hotel for price-conscious modern travellers, Centro Barsha has 243 rooms, two meeting rooms and a rooftop pool, and is located near the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai. Eleni has been with Rotana for three years, and a general manager for two years, before which she was a hotel manager. Eleni comes from Greece.

Debrah Dhugga
General manager, Dukes London, UK

At the helm of the prestigious, five-star Deluxe Dukes London, located in Mayfair, is Debrah Dhugga, who operates the hotel herself and reports into owner, Dubai-based luxury property developer, Seven Tides. The hotel feature 90 bedrooms and is recognised as one of the leading boutique hotels in the UK. Debrah has held her role for five years and was previously director of retail and spa at ghd, a leading worldwide beauty brand.

What are the opportunities for females seeking a GM role in Dubai?

Chantel moore: I’ve had the best experiences I’ve ever had in the Middle East. And it’s not because I’m a woman, it’s because of the job I do. Both of the groups I’ve had GM roles with are local companies, which just shows their belief that we can be leaders. I think it’s very dynamic here.

Eleni tsolakou: Definitely for me there have been more opportunities here than in other parts of the world, because things move so fast, it’s so dynamic, hotels are coming up all the time.

Anke glaessing: People move here because there are international chains, they do four or five years and then move somewhere else. They don’t get into the comfort zone so I think here you have more opportunities for progression.

Chantel: I think it’s easier to be a GM here. If you’re put in front of clients or government authorities everyone is super polite here and if you’re a female in business the door is always open. So if you want to be a GM and get to that level I think it gets a lot easier, and you actually get things done and there’s a certain level of respect.

Eleni: I’ve worked in Egypt before, and Africa and Asia. In Africa it’s up to you. At the beginning they think ‘oh you’re female’ but you need to put your point across, and you can do it. And I find that in the Middle East or in Egypt it’s easier. There’s a perception that working in the Middle East as a female is harder but it’s really just a perception, it’s not reality.

So why are there so few female general managers in Dubai?

Chantel: Maybe it’s not for everybody. If you want a career in hospitality the opportunity is there, if you’re looking for it, and if you’re willing to work hard hours, because hotels don’t close.

Eleni: It’s up to the individual. It’s just a personal choice if they want to take that challenge, but no one will stop people getting those jobs.

Chantel: It’s a career choice and whether you’re a man or a woman it just happens. We happen to be in the right place at the right time so it’s a case of whether you want to get the phone call at 3 o’clock in the morning, and whether you are willing to take that phone call. All of us in this room are obviously willing to do that, but I don’t think it’s about male or female.

Anke: I get emails to ‘Mr Anke’ or ‘Mr Glaessing’, and the other day somebody called me and said ‘oh hello can I speak to Mr Glaessing?’ and I said, ‘yes that’s me’. It still is male-dominated, it’s a man’s world (laughs).

Debrah Dhugga: I really don’t think it’s easy; I think a female general manager really has to stretch because it’s still a very male-dominated industry out there, no matter what we say and how much we like to think it isn’t. I’d love to be sitting here and saying we’re the majority, but we’re not. We do have to stretch ourselves an awful lot to go that extra mile, but if you’re strong and confident there’s no reason why you can’t do it.

Does more women in F&B signal a change for the future in terms of GM recruitment?

Eleni: There are more women in F&B but you can have cross training into the F&B department, and GMs can come from other departments too.
Chantel: F&B used to be a real boys’ club but it has changed a lot, so it’s now more upmarket.

Anke: But to be honest, that’s a tough job — I’d prefer to be a GM!

Debrah: If you go back years ago, general managers came up through the F&B sector. Now it’s a switch. People are coming up from front-of-house, and as years go on we will see a change because there are more front-of-house female managers, but where we have to bridge the gap is family. I think if someone chooses to have a family, it’s then the individual that has to make the choice. It’s not the employer, it’s the employee.

So do women have to choose between family and careerwhen pursuing a GM career?

Anke: It’s not because of the hotel industry; it’s because you’re a working mother.

Eleni: It is the individual. How many women stay home to raise kids nowadays? A lot of women just stay at home and choose to have kids.

Debrah: That sector is growing now.

Eleni: Yes so it’s the individual; the passion you have to have for a career. I always had the passion and I wanted to have a career but I have a child too. I have a six-year-old so I’m juggling both. I choose to have a nanny, I have to answer the question: ‘mummy why are you not coming home?’ And I say ‘because I have to work’.

Anke: We’re in a generation where people work more. We choose careers that we enjoy doing and maybe the generation before us had different priorities. I think women in our generation have a different mindset. Maybe in another 20 years it will be different again.

Debrah: I chose my career, but I also chose to have children. I knew that I wanted a career, I didn’t just want to be a stay-at-home mum. And a lot of females wouldn’t want to say that; they wouldn’t want anyone to think that they don’t want to be at home with their kids. And in 25 years I’m sure it will be the same. I think it’s what everyone has said around the table; it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, it’s about career choice.

Eleni: I think here it’s easier to get a nanny.

Debrah: Yes childcare is cheaper here; not even a third of what you pay in the UK.

Chantel: Childcare is easier but what [expats] don’t have in the Middle East is family support. But yes, it’s definitely easier to have a child here if you want to work.

Debrah: If you think about it, around the whole world it’s the perception of the family, the hours of work, the bridge from getting married to having kids. If you look at the female and male gender the male was always the hunter who would go out and get the food. Yes there’s a new generation, but I’ve got female colleagues and friends and there’s no way they would go home after five. They’re successful in their field but they want to have a life outside of work. When you work in a hotel it becomes a lifestyle as well, it’s not just a job. I was very fortunate, my husband travels the world with his job and we agreed that I would do this.

Anke: I think we’re dramatising this a bit because we keep talking about long hours, and I know we all do long hours but there’s no problem if I say: ‘ok I’m going home at 5pm because I have an appointment’. That’s the beauty of our job. We work long hours, but we also have flexibility.

Chantel: I don’t feel that women that want to be a GM can’t be a GM if they’re the right person for the right job, and I’ll stick to that, and I don’t feel it’s to do with gender roles. With the people coming up now it’s different; it’s a generation thing. I think for Pam Wilby and Doris Greif it would have been a lot harder and it would have been like you said. I don’t feel I have to have a husband, have children or anything like that. I just feel it’s unlucky there’s not more women.

Eleni: I was a female and just married with a child, and there was a perception I could not move to the Middle East, Africa or Asia and be a GM from a person I knew in Europe. But I left, I went to Asia, I went to Africa, and then the Middle East. You can always have obstacles but what do you do? You can’t let someone destroy your dream. It’s determination; I’ve wanted to become a GM since I was 19 years old.

Have you ever seen a female candidate being sidelined for a role because of her gender?

Chantel: I don’t think there’s been any gap where a man has been chosen over a woman, I’ve not experienced that in my 10 years of being here.

Anke: I’ve never had this either. I think also with women people think you have to be a nice person. You have to be a strong person to become a GM, because you have to do so many things. If someone had asked me 15 years ago if I wanted to be a GM I would have said no way! It just happened.

Eleni: I have heard people saying ‘oh we need to check with the owner if they want a female GM’.

Anke: Yes that happens. My owners said: ‘ok we have a female GM and we have a male GM candidate’, but in the end they went for the female. It’s not that they wouldn’t consider the person.

Debrah: Certainly not from our family. They would hire the right person for the job. They would go on experience and qualities, but never ever on gender or whether they’re married or single.

Everyone can have an opinion about why there are so few female general managers, but I think it goes down to ‘what is a good general manager?’ I look at GM CVs when they come through and I say: ‘right should we shortlist this?’ ‘What should we do?’ and I never look to see whether they’re female, male, married, or single; I go straight down to what they have achieved.

Chantel: We all have to remember that this is not our country. If you go to a local wedding or anything like that there’s a female section and a male section, so we as mature adults and leaders have to respect that. This is their culture, so deep respect to them that they have taken on female GMs.

There are eight of us in Dubai and maybe in 10 years there will be 50 of us in Dubai. It’s not that they’re saying they don’t want us, but it’s a very new country, a lot of these people have never had hotels before, they’re moving into the hospitality industry. I think they’re getting there in the Middle East.

Anke: I’ve never had any barriers when I’ve been with my owners with Rotana, They’re the nicest people on earth.

Do you take part in any mentoring programmes at your hotels?

Debrah: I’m mentoring someone at the moment. She works for Mandarin Oriental and her dream is to become GM of a five-star deluxe hotel and I’ve been her mentor now for 18 months. Brilliant girl, amazing CV, five-star all the way, beautiful pedigree, but she has always had this fear of putting her CV forward for that five-star deluxe role.

I think there’s one thing a woman should actually accept and move on from and that is rejection — if you get rejected it doesn’t matter, just move on — because a guy would do that and sometimes a woman’s confidence goes. A woman takes it personally.

Anke: We have a mentoring programme but not just for women, for anyone.

What will be your next leadership step?

Eleni: Obviously to continue further. I’m still fresh so I’d still have to take a bigger property and to move on to five-star luxury and later on, group, area — but definitely not to stop here.

Anke: I’m the same; the one reason I left Rotana was because I wanted a smaller property. I’ve been there a year-and-a-half. I want to be a good GM, it was never the title, I wanted to be a good GM so I’d like to learn more, progress more. I’m sure there are lots of openings and opportunities. I’m not worried, I enjoy what I do.

Chantel: I think the hospitality industry is always changing. I’ve been a general manager for a bit longer than these guys so I’d hate to say I want to do this and close doors on other stuff. But I’ve always loved hospitality and I wouldn’t want to do anything else but what I do, and where I move to I don’t know. Before I used to say ‘I’ll do it for five years’ but if the opportunity arises tomorrow and I want to do it, I’ll do it!

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