Interview with Tricia Barnett, co-founder of Equality in Tourism International: Gender equality has a long way to go

Farm for the Future workshop, a project from Equality in Tourism
Farmers at a Farm for the Future workshop in Tanzania

Tricia Barnett is the Co-Founder of Equality in Tourism International, the first organisation working to ensure women’s equality throughout the global tourism industry. We find out what the current issues are for women’s rights and empowerment and what organisations can do to ensure the tourist industry is a fair playing field.

What’s the story behind Equality in Tourism International? Why did you start it?

Tourism can create positive change in communities if all members enjoy equal access to the industry and its benefits. The way that the tourism industry operates can magnify the disadvantages and constraints that women face in their lives. Gender inequality also significantly undermines the potential of the industry. We believe that our work helps ensure women enjoy an equal share in the global tourism industry.

Before Equality in Tourism I was the director of Tourism Concern for 20 years, helping to build the organisation into a key player for advocacy and change in sustainable tourism both in the UK and globally. You cannot have a just tourism industry without gender equality. Women are often marginalised globally from every level from the boardroom down to grassroots, and the women who do make it to the top are not necessarily influencing further positive change in gender equality yet. Equality in Tourism began six years ago to try to redress this gender discrimination.

What are the main critical issues around gender in the travel industry and why are they important?

Women are an important component of the industry’s workforce. They make up more than half of the formal sector yet they are far more likely than men to be found in lower-paid, unskilled jobs. They also tend to work exclusively with women: such gender segregation affects pay, access to training and, hence, to better paid work. Women are very under represented  in management jobs, either in the public or private sector. Finally, much of women’s work is unpaid, with women contributing to family businesses. Where women are excluded from fair inclusion in both the formal and informal sectors, they and their societies suffer.

The lack of equal opportunities for women, particularly in decision-making processes, has a negative impact not only on their personal and professional lives, it is detrimental to whole communities. The absence of women at the heart of decision-making in tourism continues to stall the advancement of women, men and their families, whether in rural Africa or urban Europe.

Equality in Tourism believes that without a rigorous gender analysis in the thinking, development, practice and evaluation of tourism, women will continue to be exploited. In the same way as a human rights approach to business is now being recognised by some operators as integral to sustainability, so must a gender approach become part of that same agenda. Without a gender dimension and a reframing of policies, any attempts to build sustainable tourism policies and business will be negated.

Greater equality, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), is an essential component of a sustainable tourism industry. Yet, as a whole, the sector has paid scant attention to the rights and status of women, especially to those in poorer countries, and to the impact that tourism has on their lives and livelihoods. We have a long way to go before gender equality is mainstreamed and embedded and incorporated into policies because the benefits for change are not widely acknowledged. There is currently a huge lack of awareness of how gender equality makes good business practice.

Are there any organisations that are championing gender in their ethos and practices?

Some hotels are doing a lot but unfortunately the majority still have a long way to go. Intrepid are one tour group that are leading the way on gender issues, and they are interested in diversity issues as well as gender too which is fantastic. (You can find out more about Intrepid’s stance on gender here)

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been working with a group of poor, marginalised women farmers in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania for two years on a project called Farm for the Future to see how their livelihoods can be improved through tourism. Tourism in this rural area is currently divorced from the local community.  Farmers, the majority of whom are women, currently sell to hotels through dealers, and receive very low prices for their produce. We are cutting through that with training and supporting them to form a cooperative to work together to supply hotels with the quantity, quality and consistency of produce that they need.  Hotels are very keen to be involved. We’ve already seen women’s lives change dramatically for the better. They now have entrepreneurial skills and know how to farm as a business.

We now need more funding to do further work in the area and replicate and upscale work in other areas.  We’ve achieved miracles with very little funding.  Unfortunately, tourism and gender equality – even when it can be harnessed so positively – has never been attractive to funders. We are constantly fighting an uphill battle to get gender issues taken seriously.

Otherwise, Dr Stroma Cole, one of my co-directors has recently published  ‘Gender Equality and Tourism: Beyond Empowerment’ and we have published our updated report ‘Sun, Sand and Ceilings’, which investigates women in the boardrooms of the tourism and hospitality industries.

What does the future hold for Equality in Tourism?

We’re finalising a report for the hospitality industry called ‘The Pledge’, based on the Sun, Sand and Ceilings work, which summarises what action the industry needs to take to address the lack of women on senior positions and company boards.

We want industry groups to not just read the report, but to engage with this work and have a continued dialogue.  We are more than happy to work with them on this, and look forward to working together to transform the hospitality and tourism industries into businesses that lead others in gender equality.

Find out more about Equality in Tourism

Kate Lewis
Kate Lewis
Kate is a travel writer with a background in conservation and ecotourism. She worked in communications for an international development think tank for 10 years and gained an MA in Tourism, Environment and Development before hopping over to travel journalism.

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