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The underrated importance of women leaders

Jenny Ang
The head of Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne's (EHL) Singapore Campus speaks about the importance of having more women in leadership positions
An interview with
Managing Director of EHL Campus (Singapore)

Diversity and inclusivity are key elements of a successful business and society. Yet, female representation tends to fall in leadership roles. With the pandemic exacerbating this situation, it will now take 135.6 years to reach gender equality from an already dismal 100 years predicted previously.

Institutions and organisations need to take steps now to achieve a more inclusive society. We speak with Jenny Ang, Managing Director of EHL Campus (Singapore), about the reasons for fewer women in leadership positions, how COVID-19 has slowed progress in this area and the benefits of having more women in leadership roles.

Unravel: Women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions globally, and in Asia. And the hospitality sector trails the rest. Why do you think this is?

Jenny Ang: According to a recent report on Women in Hospitality, female representation falls to 40% at mid-level management and 33% at the senior executive level, showcasing a seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling between senior management and C-suite level roles for women. Despite companies from the travel, hospitality and F&B sectors aiming to hire more women—as like many other industries—leadership roles are still male dominated. Historically, boards were not diverse and in turn created a more homogeneous workforce. However, this is now changing—slowly but surely—as companies are recognising the values of diversity and looking for talent from each gender, every background and with diverse expertise.

Women’s conflict between managing work and family is real, with both aspects often equally important to many women. Many have succeeded in maintaining this balance through hard work. However, companies need to provide more holistic support systems that help women and families achieve this. Women in hospitality bring with them diverse perspectives and expertise, and it is important that institutions nurture them to become the leaders they want to be.

Unravel: How is COVID-19 threatening to slow female leadership in the workplace?

Ms Ang: COVID-19 has impacted all individuals and industries across the board. Across industries, we’ve seen many people furloughed or let go completely, stalling careers, affecting financial standings and morale. Women—not only those in leadership roles—are shouldering much of the burden at home, given school and childcare facility closures. Mckinsey recently featured a study that found more than one in four women are contemplating rethinking their careers or leaving the workforce completely to focus on their families. However, the pandemic has given businesses an opportunity to embed policies that take into account women’s unique needs, responsibilities and perspectives to retain employees who have been most affected by the COVID crisis and nurture a culture in which women have equal opportunity to achieve their potential over the long-term.

To enable female leadership progression, organisations can look to continue flexible working arrangements to enable individuals to balance their work and home commitments. For instance, offering flexible hours allow working parents to optimise their work schedule according to their home needs. Cultivating an environment that is understanding and empathetic to support employees without fear of career penalty must be embedded in businesses amidst and post-pandemic. We’ve seen an increase in focus on diversity, respect and inclusion – and this must continue in all establishments as a priority.

As our lives continue to be disrupted by the ongoing pandemic, it is important for employees to feel empathy, trust and support—both personally and professionally—from the management. Promoting networking and mentorship is also a great way to create an open working environment, as well as assist women to rise through the ranks to ensure equitable opportunities.

Unravel: Why is having female leaders important? Does it improve organisational performance?

Ms Ang: Increasing the presence of women in leadership positions helps influence and create more empathetic workplaces in ways that homogeneous environments seldom do. It ensures there is more transparency and openness, allowing companies to build an inclusive foundation that is better able to hire and retain the most qualified and skilled people.

As with any business imperative, creating a gender inclusive environment takes a whole-of-business approach that involves everyone in the company, from the most senior person in management to the newest person through the door. While it is important for CEOs to own the agenda and lead it, it is also important for every employee in the company to be aligned with the same values and goals. Management needs to sincerely interrogate the end-to-end employee experience to uncover sore or blind spots and find solutions to them as well as new ways to promote inclusion on a daily basis. We need to be deliberate about our actions to enable inclusivity.

Unravel: Is there a link between greater gender equality and innovation?

Ms Ang: Women bring a different set of skills and experiences to the table. There are many successful male and female business leaders, but with even more females at the decision-making level, we have seen them encourage a greater diversity of viewpoints and perspectives, and a wider ranging set of influences that encourage innovation and creativity.

According to a study by the Boston Consulting Group, companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to an increase in innovation, proving that diversity is an integral part of businesses’ profitability. Women leaders help organisations improve performance as they generally tend to be more nurturing, better listeners, multi-taskers and value work-family balance.

Unravel: Can you tell us about EHL’s Women in Leadership Initiative? What does it aim to do, and what have some outcomes been?

Ms Ang: EHL’s Women in Leadership Initiative focuses on projects regarding women, and on a wider scale, the initiative aims to promote leadership, culture and policies that foster diverse, balanced and people-focused environments. It enables students, faculty, staff and alumni to lead fulfilled professional and personal lives. Since its launch in 2018, it has promoted social changes in EHL as well as in the broader hospitality sector by addressing topics such as leadership, inclusion and belonging, entrepreneurship for women, family and work management, as well as provide networking and mentoring opportunities.

Throughout the pandemic, soft skills and notions of female leadership have highlighted the importance of empathy and compassion as critical leadership skills, traits that EHL teaches its students.

EHL has launched a Women in Leadership (WIL) Network comprising students, faculty and alumna. The aim is to raise awareness, disseminate knowledge, exchange experiences, share best practices and initiate innovative women-related projects by bringing together students, academics, industry experts and local political players who are keen to have a positive impact on society at large. There is also the WIL Alumni Award, which celebrates the achievements of female alumni across the world.

Showcasing EHL’s commitment to empower women, its Sexual Harassment Prevention initiative has educated more than 1,400 first-year students on preventing sexual harassment, one of the most damaging barriers to the career success and satisfaction for women. According to Amnesty International, one in five women have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives and while this issue exists in every sector, and concerns males and females, research has shown that the hospitality industry is plagued by it.

With the aim to combat this, in 2019, the Sexual Harassment Prevention initiative was launched alongside the Women in Leadership programme. Our Academic Advisory and HR teams work together to educate, protect and empower students and staff on the topic of sexual harassment. In addition to raising awareness, we work closely with stakeholders and partners, striving to promote empowerment and wellbeing – both internally and externally. We have collaborated with the Non-Violence Project Foundation, which was founded in 1993 by an EHL alumnus and so far, we’ve trained over 2,000 staff and students on this sensitive topic.

Unravel: Can you tell us about your experience becoming a female leader and how you intend to empower future women leaders to strive for their best?

Ms Ang: This year at EHL, the theme of Benevolence is at our core, with a people-first approach which aligns with my leadership style. I’m incredibly proud to be contributing to EHL’s Women in Leadership programme, supporting and mentoring our female staff and students in Singapore and Switzerland to exchange knowledge and experiences.

We wish to empower one another to achieve our life goals and realise our full potential. As a mother of two teenage daughters, being a strong role model to them is important to me. We are able to have very open discussions and I am very happy to see that they too are very passionate about these topics, and I look forward to watching them grow to be confident and kind young women.

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Managing Director of EHL Campus (Singapore)

Jenny Ang is Managing Director of EHL Group’s Singapore campus, the world’s leading hospitality education group. Jenny has been part of the founding team at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore and now Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne’s (EHL) Singapore campus, which is due to welcome its first students to the newly restored Kinloss House at Lady Hill Road. In her role as managing director of EHL Campus (Singapore), Jenny leads all strategic initiatives for the institution’s growth and development across Asia-Pacific. She brings with her over 15 years of management experience in higher education and the arts industry.

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