Women in hospitality: The next line of leaders

Hotelier Middle East speaks with four influential women leaders of the hospitality industry in the Middle East. Are there possible CEOs among them?

Executive interviews, Operators, Accorhotels, Alma au-yeung, Candice d’cruz, Debbie simister, Emaar hospitality group, Hilton worldwide, Marriott international, Nisrine karazi

Currently responsible for leading a luxury portfolio of eight hospitality brands, Marriott International vice president Candice D’Cruz is one of the few women who are leading the hospitality industry in the Middle East.

At the hospitality giant’s Dubai outpost, D’Cruz effectively looks after The Ritz-Carlton, The Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Bulgari Hotels & Resorts, St. Regis Hotels & Resorts, Edition, The Luxury Collection, JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts and W Hotels Worldwide in the Middle East and Africa region.

However, D’Cruz’s 20-year career changed dramatically after the birth of her daughter.

“My drive and motivation has allowed me to on occasion to be both the youngest department head and the only woman. At 27 years old, I was heading marketing and communication for Burj Khalifa which was an amazing accomplishment in itself.”

However, having a child, she believes can shine a new perspective and give the same situation a different meaning.

“I truly learnt not to sweat the small stuff and became more flexible and resilient. These are some of the most valuable leadership skills in the workplace. I discovered that life is as meaningful as you want it to be and the people you share it with. Having a daughter has helped me find moments in that fast-paced journey to just breathe and appreciate simplicity and the blessings I am grateful for,” she adds.

Walking into the Hotelier office along with D’Cruz is Hilton’s senior director, development Nisrine Karazi, who stepped off a red-eye flight from Egypt just a few hours before.

Part of a small specialist team (who Karazi says all work closely together without defined reporting lines), she has personally driven the signing of 34 new hotels and powered the growth of Hilton’s mid-market and upscale brands for the company.

“I am a strong believer in the importance of continuing to educate yourself throughout your career and seeking out extra knowledge to make you better able to do your job and relate to other colleagues,” Karazi says.

“I’ve been lucky to take on some very valuable cross-trainings in several other departments such as in legal, pre-openings and architecture, and design and construction.  All of these areas are crucial when signing a new project so by knowing what they do, I can help explain the process better to our owners and ensure their priorities are met,” she adds.

All over the globe, the lack of women in top management roles has lagged not only the hospitality industry but also much of the business world. It's definitely an issue that many hospitality companies still don’t like to talk about. Hotelier’s Women in Hospitality survey 2018 showed that almost 80% of the women do not believe there is a gender disparity in the leadership of hospitality companies in the Middle East.

However, the last female CEO in the top 10 hotel companies (based on revenue, according to Bloomberg data) was Kathleen Taylor who resigned in 2013. Since there has been no woman CEO in the hospitality industry in the Middle East.

D’Cruz believes one of the reasons is the current maternity laws.

“I think the disparity of senior women in leadership roles in the industry is very clearly due to the needs of the family versus the 24-hour, non-stop nature of the hospitality industry. To state the obvious, women are the only ones who can bear children and propagate the human race and yet within many workplaces, this is still perceived as an inconvenience to the company and a decision women that have made lightly,” she said in an interview with Hotelier Middle East.

However, D’Cruz strongly believes Marriott International is one company that is ahead of the curve.

“Several major functions in Marriott International’s headquarters in the US and even here in the Dubai-based office are solely led by women. A current focus area of critical importance to Marriott International is female general managers on property,” D’Cruz adds.

Marriott has won multiple awards in this area of supporting women, including ranking in the 2018 Top 100 Best Workplaces for Women by Fortune and Great Place to Work, and in the 2017 Top Company for Executive Women by the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE).

Work- life  balance

According to D’Cruz, because a hotel never sleeps, being a general manager requires round-the-clock commitment and in the past, an individual’s ability to offer that commitment might have been questioned.

However, she adds, “We are now seeing a deeper and more balanced understanding from the male counterparts.

“It is especially valuable because I believe women make outstanding general managers due to their multi-tasking abilities and high emotional intelligence when dealing with both their team and customers,” she says.

Agreeing with D’Cruz is Debbie Simister, AccorHotels’ vice president, learning & development, Middle East & Africa.

Recently promoted to her role, Simister has spent the last 13 years with the company in locations all over the world.

“Within AccorHotels, we have strong representation of women in entry level, supervisory and many management positions. However, at the executive levels of our structure, including hotel general management, is where we need to amplify our efforts for more gender parity,” Simister believes.

According to her, this can be attributed to several factors: support infrastructure in general is one of the essential elements to enable women to lead a fulfilling career.

“In many cases, there are limited childcare options, domestic (nanny, helper) support is unattainable due to the expense, and workplace policies are inflexible to account for school hours and other caring responsibilities,” she adds.

However Accor’s return to work policies have greatly helped her keep her career on track.

“I have always been a working mother, and have two children aged 8 and 10 years. I’m a passionate advocate that maintaining a career footing and caring for a family should not be detrimental to long term wealth of a women,” Simister says.

AccorHotels’ flexible return to work policies in Australia ensured that she was able to continue her career development with momentum.

“The organisation made it easy for me to take maternity leave, and return on both occasions to the same or similar role. Upon returning to the workplace, my salary was adjusted to take into account annual increments granted during my maternity leave, this being a critical policy, as many women on average are worse off financially than men, and even more so after periods of maternity leave,” she adds.

However, one of the big factors why there’s a disparity of women in leadership positions, Simister adds, is self-promotion and executive presence.

“Women don’t tend to negotiate on their own behalf as much as men for fear of being deemed as too aggressive or too self-promoting. Women often need to develop heightened levels of both self and situational awareness to know how to position their body language, tone and overall approach, which many women don’t know how to do, or have the confidence to do,” she says.

Simister also believes that guilt that women places on themselves is another factor. “Being successful in a senior role often means travel, and long hours, which can heavily play on women’s minds if they feel that their caring responsibilities, whether that be children or ageing parents, are impacted.  In the hospitality industry specifically, the nature of the work and its requirements place a strain on women trying to balance a career and a family. It is not uncommon for hospitality professionals to be required to be physically onsite at a hotel property late at night or early in the morning, which can be difficult for women who have families. Irregular work hours and frequent requirements for travel or relocation add to the stress of women who are often expected to be the primary caregivers in their families,” she adds.

Alma Au Yeung, corporate director – strategic projects and partnerships, was appointed to her role in September 2018, to help Emaar Hospitality Group deliver as Expo 2020 Dubai’s official hotel and hospitality partner, and was tasked with planning, managing, and implementing private clubs, food and beverage outlets, and catering hubs within the expo site.

Currently spearheading an initiative called Hiya – which means ‘she’ in Arabic, Yeung is hoping the leadership programme will develop and prepare more women to take on senior roles within the organisation. Besides the personal development of women, the other pillars of the programme are creating an inclusive workplace and diversity management.

According to her, the lack of women in senior roles comes from a lack of opportunity. “In my experience, I have too often seen that opportunities have been given repeatedly to men. Perhaps this is due to a perceived male dominance in the workplace. We usually associate roles with a particular gender, and when one conjures the image of a 'CEO', it is usually a male in a luxury suit.  I believe that we can all play an instrumental role in making sure that these myths are busted,” she says.

Company policies

However, all four women, who are the next generation of hospitality leaders, believe that their company policies have helped them get where they are today.

“Marriott International has a multitude of policies, programmes, awards and recognitions that provide a wonderful framework for accelerated and fully supported career development,” D’Cruz says. Marriott also offers a myriad of training programmes and mentorship opportunities offered by the company, which have helped D’Cruz and other women in the organisation grow exponentially.

Agreeing with her, Kazari says, “At Hilton, we have an agreement with e-Cornell to enroll in courses to help you grow in your career. Training programmes in addition to leadership programmes are also available.

“Working closely with all other departments and the interactions we have on a daily basis, related to project development opportunities, adds to my knowledge and career growth.”

However Simister, who is only one of two female VPs in Accor’s regional executive team, says it’s slowly changing. “I hope we get to a point where we are longer talking about inequality and witness a far greater presence of female leaders — this will have the effect of attracting a larger proportion of women applications, thus creating a trickle-down effect at lower levels.

“I’m very proud to see that the most senior leadership team in Paris has three women, one of which has a very expansive role to drive digital transformation for AccorHotels.”

Yeung believes her current role provides the same opportunity as a man. “I am a firm believer in equal rights and opportunities, and the offering of this role to me is based completely on merit. I have worked hard for nine years at Emaar and was recently promoted to corporate director – strategic projects & partnerships, after spearheading and winning the Expo 2020 bid. As a woman, I operate in many meetings which are dominated by men, but I do not falter in these situations.

“As the region continues to develop and diversify further, it is clear that every colleague of mine, whether a man or woman, treats me with respect and assesses my professionalism due to my skill sets, and not my gender.”


Name: Candice D’Cruz

Job title: Marriott International, Vice President, Luxury Brands

Number of years in the role: 1

Number of years in the company: 6

Name: Alma Au-Yeung

Job title: Emaar Hospitality Group Corporate Director – Strategic Projects and Partnerships

Number of years in the role: 1 month

Number of years in the company: 9

Name: Nisrine Karazi

Job title: Hilton Worldwide, Senior Director, Development, MENA

Number of years in the role: 2

Number of years in the company: 9

Name: Debbie Simister

Job title: AccorHotels Vice President, Learning & Development, Middle East & Africa

Number of years in the role: 2 months

Number of years in the company: 13

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