Carlson Rezidor: answering the female question

Stephanie Aboujaoude explores why women don’t make it to the top as often as men in hospitality

Stephanie Aboujaoude
Stephanie Aboujaoude

Stephanie Aboujaoude, area director of marketing Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Turkey, Carlson Rezidor, talks to Hotelier about why hiring, retaining and cultivating women in hospitality for upper management is more than just a quota game for the operator — it’s simply good business practice

Women in hospitality in the Middle East are not a rare occurrence, but in senior management roles — from general manager to board of director level — the numbers start dwindling.

Many women who start out in the hospitality industry reach a certain level and remain there, or leave to join another industry or start a family.

A common reason attributed to this is the ‘beyond-9-to-5’ lifestyle of the industry, making it difficult to juggle family responsibilities.

Stephanie Aboujaoude, area director of marketing at Carlson Rezidor, says that while the traditional family structure is an issue in the region, this situation is changing: “You see more women in leading positions here having families at the same time. We are starting to close that gap with gender equality.”

Carlson Rezidor realised it could do more to encourage female employees into senior roles, and decided to implement its new Women in Leadership initiative.

“We are working on advancing our people through development plans that are goal-orientated and long-term. We follow up on their development plans, just to make sure they are aware they have our full support,” says Aboujaoude.

“We want to make sure that we do the best we can to show them the tools and the opportunities and raise their confidence levels to a point where they are the ones making the decision whether they don’t want to continue as a leader, or go up the ladder to become a leader.”

Carlson Rezidor has included part-time and flexible working in its strategy to help encourage women to shoot for those top roles.

“We asked the question, ‘what is it that women need in order to succeed and in order to hold leadership positions in the hospitality industry? Is it flexible working conditions? Flexible mobility? Part-time jobs?’ A key focus area for us going forward is to look at an enhanced maternity policy for our female employees. We also wanted to look at a flexible approach to our working conditions.”

One of the things that Aboujaoude finds interesting is that training doesn’t seem to be the only answer to this question. She says: “We have a business school in our company — it’s like a training school — and 60% of the attendees who attend [in middle to upper management positions] are women. However, only 16% of our leaders [general managers and above] in the company are women, globally.”

Hospitality graduates who enter the industry are typically young, single, flexible about scheduling, and happy to relocate. As women with families get older and family pressures grow, this flexibility in location and working hours lessens.

Aboujaoude admits that these pressures are not an issue for her: “I don’t have kids, I don’t have a family. So maybe for me there’s no super story to tell. I’m not juggling kids, a husband and work. I’m so passionate about the Women in Leadership initiative because I’m very much inspired by my father. It was my father who taught me how to believe in myself and, if I want something, to just go after it.

First of all, [the programme] is not just a nice thing to have; it’s not just a PR stunt. There are studies and research that prove that having an equal gender balance in the workplace results in more profitable gains.”

Q&A: Women in Leadership
by Carlson Rezidor

Hotelier: Why has Carlson Rezidor launched the Women in Leadership Initiative?
Aboujaoude: The subject of women came up so often in our diversity and inclusion discussions and touched on so many other topics that we decided to highlight it.

Hotelier: What makes this programme different from other inclusion programmes?
Aboujaoude: Every region has two champions, a male and a female. This is done on purpose. There is a male champion because we’ve realised women need the support of men in this region to make our voices heard, the higher up you get. The hospitality industry is such a male-dominated industry, so if we do not have the support of men believing in women and believing that women make equally good leaders, it’s going to slow down the process of us actually driving this change of mind-set.

Hotelier: You mentioned that globally, 16% of leaders in Carlson Rezidor are female. Is the proportion the same for the Middle East?
Aboujaoude: No. We’re at about 14% or 15%. The main focus in the Middle East is not so much a target; our main focus here is different. First it is to raise awareness, and make sure women in this area know that there are opportunities out there and how to reach their goals. Also, it’s about helping to change the mind-set of the community. We also realised through doing a few presentations to general managers and middle management since we rolled this out last year, that there is a lack of self-confidence with women.

Hotelier: To tackle the confidence issue, is it a case of giving examples of women who have succeeded in leadership positions?
Aboujaoude: Definitely. We’ve established through the lean in network [organised by Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead], our circles where we share best practices. There’s close communication to help facilitate that process and raise awareness.

Hotelier: Which women in the industry have inspired you?
Aboujaoude: Every women who has fought to make it to the top is a good example. Sheryl Sandberg is one of my favourite examples. In the region — I don’t want to get too political —but Queen Rania would be one of them for me.
These are women that juggle millions of things at the same time and have made it to the top, at the same time as having a balance of work and family life.

Hotelier: Was it a struggle to get to where you are today? Did you have to fight harder than male colleagues?
Aboujaoude: It’s always a struggle, somehow. We do live in the Middle East. I wouldn’t say I struggled, but I’m very grateful for all the challenges, because they became very big opportunities, and this is why I am here today.

Hotelier: How many female GMs does Carlson Rezidor have in the Middle East?
Aboujaoude: We have three. Two in Dubai and one in Alexandria.

Lebanese-born Aboujaoude joined Carlson Rezidor in 2006, and has more than 10 years of experience in the hospitality industry. In her current role as area director of marketing Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Turkey, Aboujaoude is the area’s brand and marketing leader, maximising brand awareness through strategic planning. She manages a busy team of marketing and e-commerce professionals. Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @StephanieAjd.

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