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Stephanie Aboujaoude Stephanie Aboujaoude

Q & A With Stephanie Aboujaoude, Senior Area Director, Marketing Middle East and Turkey, The Rezidor Hotel Group



TRAVEL TRADE MENA: Regarding gender equality, how has the Middle East and its tourism industry progressed in recent years?

STEPHANIE ABOUJAOUDE: I believe there has been progress in recent years, not so much in terms of actual numbers but more in the context of raising awareness.

In the past three years in the Middle East, we have seen gender equality come to the top of agendas, both in the hospitality industry and outside.

So overall the topic of gender quality has come to the fore and is much more visible than ever before.

This was a necessary step ahead of actually moving the needle and making in-roads in terms of numbers. We needed to change the mindset of people before we can realistically expect to see a greater balance.

There is much more to do in order to promote balanced leadership and diversity in the workplace, no matter what the industry happens to be.

Within the MENA region, women in CEO roles acount for just 13 percent of the total, compared to 21 percent in other developing countries. And, according to the International Labour Organization, no more than seven percent of companies surveyed in the MENA region have women serving as board presidents.

The evidence is abundantly clear: diversity is good for business. At Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, creating and maintaining a balanced workforce at every level is a top priority.

As Sheryl Sandberg, [chief operating officer, Facebook], said, in the future there will be no female leaders, there will just be leaders. What we are doing today will get us there, and this is what we need to aim for.

TRAVEL TRADE MENA: Gender equality in the workplace is becoming an increasingly talked about issue. What initiatives has Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group undertaken to promote the important role of women and overcome gender inequality?

STEPHANIE ABOUJAOUDE: The Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group strongly advocates balanced leadership in the hospitality industry. The group’s Balanced Leadership initiative promotes diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

We celebrate our diversity and respect what is unique about each and every one of us. We believe in creating working environments where the things that make us different are always valued. We recognise that those differences reflect not only visible differences such as age and gender, but those less visible such as beliefs and sexuality.

We want to challenge existing thinking and increase the representation of women in senior positions across the entire company. We want to harness the individual strengths of our female leaders and we actively encourage their collective participation at every level of our business.

The Balanced Leadership programme encompasses three main work streams. [The first being] official programmes, dedicated to helping our talent remain with the company and transition into leadership positions.

[Secondly,] policy changes [to recognise] that people have different needs during their career. [Finally,] behavioural change, which recognises the biases and stereotypes that exist in humans.

[In terms of] official programmes, we have several fully developed or piloted programmes dedicated to helping our talent remain with us and transition into leadership positions.

STEPS is the organisation’s official leadership programme that focusses solely on high potential women, encouraging them to recognise their potential and empowering them to progress to the level of general manager and beyond.

The STEPS programme, organised in partnership with the Center for Balanced Leadership, comprises a series of workshops designed to empower female staff with new skills and awareness of their talents, passions and capabilities.

[It] consists of training and coaching, and covers subjects that emphasise the growth paths and opportunities for participants, and gives clear guidance on how to communicate with the greatest impact, in addition to helping them better manage their careers and achieve a work, life balance.

In Saudi Arabia, Rezidor has made great progress, from six female employees in 2014 to 84 today, with 12 in leadership positions. Now, the first Saudi female general manager has been appointed.

[As for] policy changes, when it comes to the development and retention of our female leaders we believe in sustainable and lasting change with a focus on long-term career planning for all.

In return we ask those women working in senior positions to lead by example and be positive role models for the future, helping us evolve a culture covering more flexible approach to working conditions, along with active, personalised and meaningful development plans, and more flexible approach to mobility.

[Concerning] behavioural change, in order to address these biases that exist in society, our Balanced Leadership toolkit asks every employee to recognise their own biases and gives ideas on how to combat biases in all contexts.

The toolkit is available to all managers and supervisors. We are encouraging managers to update the toolkit with local examples to ensure we depict a wide range of cultural differences.

TRAVEL TRADE MENA: Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group recently announced Maram Kokandi as the first female Saudi general manager. How important are appointments like this in changing attitudes towards women?

STEPHANIE ABOUJAOUDE: Yes, we were very proud to announce Maram as the first Saudi female general manager in hospitality.

It was a landmark announcement that was very positively received both regionally and internationally.

As mentioned, gender equality and women in leadership have been at the top of organisation’s agendas over the past few years but I believe this announcement in the context of the hospitality industry will prove to be a catalyst for more women taking up leadership positions in hospitality.

In Saudi Arabia, there is already huge potential for growth thanks to the Saudi Vision 2030 and the government’s emphasis on economic diversification.

Part of the emphasis of Vision 2030 is to develop tourism in Saudi Arabia and also emphasises the significance of Saudi women and their role in leading the development of both social and professional growth of the Kingdom.

I do believe Saudi women will continue to provide more leaders either in the industry or outside. Saudi women have so far shown a great success in leadership positions and have proved there are able to not only meet the challenges before them but exceed expectations.

TRAVEL TRADE MENA: Have there been any other notable landmarks East make to increase gender equality in the tourism industry?

STEPHANIE ABOUJAOUDE: One of the most important aspects is to recognise that this is not a women issue. Men play a hugely important part in creating the right culture and environment to support women in a company.

At Rezidor there is a really strong culture for supporting women through the Balanced Leadership programme, and men play such a vital role in the coaching, development and overall support.

As mentioned, at Rezidor we do not look at this as a women issue rather it is about gender balance. Every region has male and female Balanced Leadership champions and their role is to drive the Balanced Leadership programme within their respective regions and support all their male and female colleagues.

Furthermore, companies must recognise that the barriers to women reaching leadership positions are not just business related but are also related to cultural stereotypes and tradition.

One of the biggest reasons for more women not achieving leadership positions is maternity.

This is often the time in a women’s life where you see their career progression stall. Companies need to do more in improving maternity policies, creating more flexible working conditions so that more women can continue their professional lives as a working mother.

However, in this region there are also cultural barriers to overcome and these are arguable more challenging for women to address but equally important for organisations to recognise and address.