Emma Soutter, TFE Hotels

Each year, International Women’s Day raises a variety of conversations about gender equity. In 2024, the focus is on inclusivity, with the theme ‘Inspire Inclusion’ looking at ways to combat bias, stereotypes, and discrimination in the quest for a gender equal world.

Here, TFE Hotels Regional General Manager NSW and ACT, Emma Soutter, reveals the conscious and unconscious bias she has faced in her career journey and advancements in inclusivity at home and abroad.

What does inclusivity mean to you?

As a female leader, I believe that leadership should be merit based and not based on gender. It’s vital that everyone has an equal opportunity to earn, learn and lead teams because that’s when the magic happens, and teams thrive.

What I like about TFE Hotels is that they do this organically and don’t rely on quotas to fill leadership roles.

Is the hotel industry inclusive to both guests and employees?

Hospitality is about creating a welcoming environment for both our guests and our team. and I think our industry has really led the way in fostering an environment of inclusion when it comes to LGBTQI+ team members. That wasn’t always the case, but in 2024 you just have to step in a hotel and look around to really appreciate it.

As a traditionally male-dominated industry, I think we’re also seeing a better balance in gender diversity and that’s great because we know that it has a positive impact on a company’s performance. Recent events such as World, Pride, Matildas, Taylor Swift have shown Sydney as a safe city, and it has been great to see females drive demand. Still, we need more female leaders in the business. You can’t be what you can’t see, and we need more representation at CEO, COO, VPO and Board level, to model the way for the future generations.

International Women’s Day is the reminder we need that these conversations need to continue to take place on the gender side and I for one am happy to be part of them.

At TFE Hotels, as an example, we’ve recently undergone listening sessions as we formalise our Vision for Inclusion. As a business we know that our unique differences, skills, perspectives, and personalities are what makes us great collectively, so we asked a diverse group of people across our business what we did well and where we could improve, and we’re working through the ideas that came from those discussions.

Have you had any first-hand experiences of inclusivity/discrimination while staying in hotels or working in the industry?

As leaders in hospitality, we must continue to inspire everyone to value inclusion. I still remember being called into the back office by my General Manager at the time (himself a father of two): “I need to talk to you about your career. When will you have kids? You can’t be promoted if you are going to have children”.

I’ve also been told that I needed to “wear more pink and flowers” because what I wear can be intimidating to men. It’s just crazy! As intelligent beings, we need to recognise that there is an underlying unconscious bias and remember that just because you’re told that’s the way it should be, by someone in a position of power, that doesn’t mean it is the right thing.

For me, providing maternity and paternity leave, flexible working options, providing inclusive options regardless of gender, sexuality, religious belief, age, is a no brainer. And, as a senior leader, I want to ensure no one in my team ever has to hear the phrases above – because they are silly and because you cannot have a balanced viewpoint if you don’t have representation in the leadership team or across the various positions in the business.  Take a look at the number of female five-star GMs in Australia – you can count them on one hand. Australia can do better than that!

Speaking of female GMs, when I was doing my hotel and catering practical, my parents were in Saudi Arabia, and I was lucky enough to be invited into a hotel there to complete the assignment. Being respectful of the beliefs of the time, my dad had to accompany me onsite and I wasn’t allowed in the back office. Fast forward 20 years and Saudi Arabia now has two female GMs working in hotels. That makes my heart sing; that we’ve gone from a female having to be accompanied by her father, to strong, wonderful women working in the industry – I think it is brilliant.

How can the hotel industry can do better to be more inclusive to guests and employees/colleagues?

One word – Training.  As an industry we need to invest not just in women but in the people who will support them and other minorities.

We must remain vigilant on increasing awareness about inclusivity both in the workplace and in our hotels, and we must concentrate on delivering individual service that matches our guests’ expectations, wants, and needs.

Search #IWD2024 on HM for more stories in our 2024 International Women’s Day series.