Where are all the women in travel technology?

As the PhoCusWright Conference came to a close last week and attendees began the trek home, I had a chance to reflect on my experiences, including participating in the inaugural Class of 35.

While the Class of 35 is meant to represent the future of our industry by connecting and developing young leaders in travel, one thoughtful question posted to attendees via Twitter shifted my attention for a moment to a sobering, depressing truth.

Where are all of the women?

women crowd

While women were extremely well-represented in the Class of 35, this may also have been true for those who came before us as the supposed bright young things of the industry. In other words: has it always been this way?

Only two of the 34 innovators at the third annual Travel Innovation Summit were female – which doubled the total of one participant from 2009, if I put on my rose-colored Positive Patty glasses.

Otherwise, females were noticeably absent from the keynote roster, with only a small number on conference panels. Even as PhoCusWright showcased some of its female talent front and center to moderate many of the sessions, the real story of the industry behind the balance PhoCusWright tried to represent is much different.

And what are we to expect. You can’t exactly invite big name female CEOs of industry-leading global travel companies to give keynote addresses if they don’t exist.

These are the testosterone-heavy cards our industry has been dealt… well, maybe that’s too generous… that our industry has chosen.

Simply put, we have an embarrassingly small number of top female leaders across the board, and the trickle down of that trend into the conference attendee demographics reflects the same.

So once again, where are all of the women?

Research continues to show that putting women in leadership is good for any large company’s bottom line.

Specifically, Fortune 500 companies with the largest representation of women in senior management had a 35% higher return on equity and total return to shareholders than those that did not. (Catalyst 2010)


Still doesn’t explain why I never once had to wait in line for a bathroom stall at a conference attended by over a 1,100 people, and this only makes me curious if this is the silent killer of our industry’s future talent pool.

What is the tipping point in a woman’s career when she gives up the fight in a particular industry – is there a “final straw” or range of experience one reaches when it becomes evident her progress is no longer equal to that of her male counterparts?

Have those with the ability to break the cycle simply all just jumped ship too soon?

And to be clear, it’s not just about equality in general. There are big benefits long-term for those industries and companies that can build a reputation for aggressively promoting women into senior leadership positions.

Those companies that make a concerted effort to do so are the ones who will snag the cream of the future talent crop, as 6 of 10 college graduates are now women. And today, consumer goods and media are the pacesetting industries to whom many talented women flee, while technology and engineering – including travel technology – lag behind.

So, why haven’t we caught up?

Do we secretly enjoy stale conference panels and mediocre customer experiences? I’m not proposing that adding estrogen necessarily improves those things. What I am proposing – or asking – is are we too comfortable, too afraid to change the formula made up of 97% testosterone that has “worked” for decades?

If no one steps out to intentionally break the cycle, as many other industries have had to do over the years, then none of the women with the potential to help us do so will ever see that what they aspire to achieve is possible.

Travelocity was one of the first, crowning Michelle Peluso, one of the youngest CEOs in travel ever – male or female – at a company of that size. And while Travelocity today is in her predecessor’s capable hands, her example that females across the industry aspired to emulate is greatly missed.

The magnitude of this issue hit me while watching the revenue management gurus from three of the top airlines on a panel Thursday afternoon.

Each of these individuals comes from the traditional world of the airline industry, where women were historically, at best, stewardesses with a pretty smile and high-potential talent was defined by a great set of legs.

While females have fervently progressed into highly-influential management, strategy, technology, engineering and marketing roles over the years, it seems as though the Don Drapers of travel are stuck on the same stage, having the same argument, reciting the same stale talking points decade after decade.

As an industry, the result is a talent pool with weaknesses in skill sets inherent to women – such as key soft skills that research has proven make women a key asset in negotiations.

So this leads me to ask… what might happen if you added a woman into male-dominated issues in our industry today to go toe-to-toe… whether doing so now or 30 years ago, how different might things be with females in the C-level mix from the start?

  • Would airlines be gasping for as much ancillary-supported air as they are today?
  • Would the direct connect battle be as ego-influenced?
  • Would our industry be experiencing such overwhelming customer dissatisfaction?
  • Would the startups truly showcasing what we define as a truly innovative solution be as few and far between?
  • Would Steve Hafner be as irreverent?

The answer to the last one is probably…

But as for the rest, we simply can’t know. And until something changes, until our industry catches up with the others who have paved the way for women in senior leadership positions decades ago, we’ll be asking the same questions again to each other one decade from now.

So, batter up. What company will pave the next path for female leaders in travel? And will that company inspire the rest into action to break the cycle once and for all?

For the sake of the strong female talent we all are lucky enough to still have staking their much-deserved claim for the industry’s respect – the Carolyn McCalls (EasyJet), Barrie Seidenbergs (Viator), Victoria Sanderses (Teletext Holidays), Valyn Perinis (OpenTravel Alliance), Krista Pappases (Bing Travel) and Flo Luglis (Wyndham), to name a few.

And for the sake of the younger women, and men, who look up to each of those listed with hope for what our future holds, I sure as heck hope so.

NB: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Sabre Holdings, its partners, customers or subsidiaries.

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Sarah Kennedy Ellis

About the Writer :: Sarah Kennedy Ellis

Sarah Kennedy Ellis is VP of Marketing for Sabre Hospitality Solutions.

At Sabre since 2007, Sarah has spent time working in a variety of divisions including everything from strategy and product development to social media marketing and R&D.

She was selected as one of the first members of PhoCusWright's inaugural "Class of 35" in 2009, recognizing the top 35 young leaders under the age of 35 in travel.

She also is invited to speak at a variety of technology conferences & industry events each year on topics including emerging technology and innovation management.

The views expressed by Sarah on Tnooz are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Sabre Holdings, its partners, customers or subsidiaries.



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  1. Peggy Lee

    Thank you for this post, Sarah. So true.

  2. Top Tnooz this Week - Social spies, women, and Google | Tnooz

    […] Where are all the women in travel technology? […]

  3. RobertKCole

    Read an interesting article on a related topic: 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics – http://j.mp/ePa1GO

    As I have had the pleasure of working for, with and managing many exceptional women in the travel industry, and with two daughters of my own, I can’t agree more with the author – “Women who are more confident in their own identity do better.”

    Ladies, rest assured there is no capability gap. You don’t need to be told this – you do need to innately believe it. Have confidence in your abilities, support your top performing colleagues – regardless of gender, and always select the best person for a given job.

    Those individuals that fail to follow those guidelines, like those intent on hiring all male teams, will be doomed to underachievement.

    Market forces dictate that the business world won’t tolerate suboptimal performance over time, so the prospects should be good to have travel industry executive leadership achieve better gender balance.

  4. Valyn Perini

    Sarah, thanks very much for mentioning me; I’m honored to be included in such august company, and by such an up-and-comer!

    If I’m going to segregate myself, I want to be aligned with others who are smart, who want to contribute and make a difference, and who care about me and whom I care about. If that group turns out to be all women, great, but I’m not going to force it.

    As the female leader of an organization (and a graduate of a women’s college), what I have found most useful is my own informal women’s network of current and ex-colleagues and peers whom I can talk to about challenges I might face in my career. I find these informal conversations to be much more helpful than organized women’s events, although I know some of my friends find groups like Chicke’s very useful and fulfilling.

    In my direct experience, I report to a board of directors where women hold two of the twelve seats (the board is subject to election by members, not by appointment). When we have a vacancy, I do look around for women who would be viable candidates, but I find that women tend to not understand the value of a board position. I make my case but it’s not often I win the argument.

    Coincidentally, every staffer I’ve hired at OpenTravel is a woman, but I didn’t go looking for them. They were all the strongest candidates for their positions. I looked at merit, not gender, which is how I want the industry to look at me.

  5. Rachel Buckle

    I agree and it is an issue that needs to be addressed ASAP. I have worked in travel and may experience was of a male dominated industry at the top level, even in SME company’s.

    I think a recent press release from the Gail Kenny Group highlights this issue but more importantly how it can change – http://bit.ly/huttKL

    The main theme is that executive recruiters and headhunters need to play a part and am pleased that some top FTSE 100 companies are formalising this and putting it into an actionable plan with realistic targets. Fingers crossed it makes a real difference.

  6. Andreas Schuerrle

    Well, maybe that’s out of the box thinking (the Anglosaxon box that is) but for example one of the leading German travel-technology providers, Hitchhiker, is led by a woman. Nicole Hoeckle has been managing director of this company for almost 20 years or so.

    Then the director of e-commerce Central-Europe in TUI Deutschland is Ms. Stefanie Lüdecke.

    And then Ms. Gudrun Schön is head of IT at DERtour and in Rewe Travel, Germany’s 2nd largest tour operator.

    By the way: The German travel market is larger than the US one… http://www.donnellyspire.com/research/german-market-statistics/index.php

    • Chicke Fitzgerald

      Andreas – that is great to know about these German companies being led by women.

      I am surprised and impressed at the size of the German market and certainly per capita and for the physical size of the country it is bigger, but in sheer numbers, the last numbers I remember from PhoCusWright for core travel product sales says that the US still has over $129b sold through travel agencies and over $137b sold online.

  7. steve sherlock

    there was a similar discussion over @anthill headline:

    “Among the CEOs of the nation’s top 200 companies, only six are women. Pathetic or ‘Just the way it is’?” http://bit.ly/dVm5av

    I commented that the divorce rates may expose one cause.

    i.e. that men know they can’t talk to women very well, divorce rates expose that. unfortunately the “dudes” don’t have the people tools. “why risk being exposed in the board room too” they think.

    dictators don’t want to change the status quo. just ask the Burmese junta, a woman was elected to that board and they locked her up for 20 years.

    so perhaps its gotta start in the board room, get more female representation there, to influence ceo appointments.

    • Chicke Fitzgerald

      I agree that the board room is a good place to start. One of the things that we are doing with the Executive Girlfriends’ Group in 2011 is launching board training for those that have a desire to be considered as board members. We have a number of women that have been on company boards and are willing to share that experience. We are also reaching out to women VCs to get plugged in to opportunities on the boards of early stage entrepreneurial ventures that are venture backed.

      Stay tuned.

      • steve sherlock

        i can see for “positioning” purposes it’s a shortcut to use the word “girlfriend” in the name.

        to some extent I agree with @glenn.

        i’ve been to a few womens branded networking events, but i sort of baulk when the name is so overtly targeted at women.

        coz i get the feeling i have to ask permission to come along, given im a bloke.

        and if men are excluded from such an event, then i reckon thats just ironic. to me the cause is to encourage “equal representation” by championing “equal representation” not through exclusion.

        but then again, from a branding perspective, this might be too wishy washy.

        so i guess something to think about…

        • Chicke Fitzgerald

          Curious that men find the word girlfriend weak.

          One of the strongest relationships in existence (next to family and spouses) is the relationship between girlfriends. Women don’t use this term lightly.

          EGG opens up the recorded interview portion of our calls to anyone that wants to listen – member/non-member, male or female. We post them on our BlogTalkRadio channel and on iTunes, but on the networking portion, what is said on the EGG call, stays on the EGG call.


          • Chicke Fitzgerald

            But in the end, what Sarah is talking about in her article isn’t whether women should have separate networking events, but how to integrate women into business in the travel industry in a meaningful way that is more proportionate to the country’s demographics.

            Clearly we have some women that have elected not to enter the workforce, so we won’t ever achieve a true balance, but there is definitely room for improvement.

  8. Stephan ekbergh

    All the strong women are at travelstart. Current set up up is five of eight in mgmt is women and growing. I can’t find good enough men. So women reading this, apply within!

  9. Chicke Fitzgerald

    Sarah – I heard many comments about the boys club at PhoCusWright. Philip has always maintained that the keynotes would be CEOs and that in itself has been the limiter. He has included female “talk backers” to provide some balance.

    At TravelCom for the last 9 years (and 10 if you count eTravelWorld) the Executive Womens’ Forum has been one of the most successful events of the year for women in travel. It is by invitation only and limited to the top tier of management in travel companies and those that service the industry (technology, media, content, consulting). By definition, that means that in some companies, the top woman may be a director or a VP, versus a CEO, but we have still included that type of individual on the invitation list. We know from experience they have much to say.

    Thanks to Susan Black who initiated this highly successful, unique event at eTravelWorld and saw it through the sale of TravelCom from the US Travel Association to Vantage Strategies this past year.

    This year the Executive Girlfriends’ Group will be hosting the Executive Womens’ Forum and the companion event, NextGEN™ Leaders, for up and coming executive women. You have been unanimously nominated as our first official member. Cecilia Dahl, of Smart Destinations is co-moderating the event with Cary Broussard, author of From Cinderella to CEO. We look forward to having you as our guest!

    Keep up the honest blogging! Courage is a foundational trait for executive women!

    • Glenn Gruber


      I’m just wondering, are group names like “Executive Girlfiends’ Group” helping? It sounds more like a reality show I’d see on Bravo than what it probably is — serious businesswomen getting together to talk about serious topics.

      I do believe this is a serious issue as my wife deals with this all the time in her position, often as the sole woman on an executive team.

      • Chicke Fitzgerald

        Glenn – It is a funny thing about the name Executive Girlfriends’ Group (EGG). The women don’t seem to mind. We have over 600 members across multiple industries outside of travel. The men just want to be invited…..

        At the Executive Womens’ Forum at TravelCom we are serious businesswomen, getting together to talk about serious topics. The Executive Girlfriends’ Group is the host.

        EGG is a much broader group that talks about our whole lives, not just the business side and we think of one another as girlfriends, not mere “professional colleagues”.

        Our tag line is extraordinary women | uncommon bonds and that is precisely what we have. We get together on the phone weekly with an author/expert interviewed each week, hold face to face get togethers in EGG Local groups in major cities around the country and generally have a private dinner at industry events. The moniker has not held us back.

        We will be taken seriously as women in business when we demonstrate our ability to get the job done and also to have the vision needed to bring this industry back to profitability.

        I know tons of talented women that are ready, willing and more than able to step up to the plate.

      • Gina Baillie

        Maybe I’m just being British here but I agree with you Glenn. I wouldn’t know how to interpret what ‘Executive Girlfriend Group’ meant. I’m not sure if it’s something you plan to expand internationally or to those who do business in the travel industry in the States but I just thought I’d share my view as I’m sure many British/international women might feel the same.
        Also, if we flipped it over to the guys I doubt that they would call it an ‘Executive Boyfriends’ Group’! Just a thought 🙂

        • Kevin May

          Kevin May

          @gina @glenn @chicke – Let’s face it, any club known as Executive Girlfriends/Boyfriends over this side of the Atlantic Ocean is probably going to be something rather different.



    • Saykay

      Thanks so much, Chicke, for the kind words – what an honor to be nominated! And great to hear about the work Susan, you and others have done to jump-start initiatives and events like this for women in travel.

      I hoped that posting something like this, if nothing else, would bring to light a few exceptional women that aren’t necessarily in the bright CEO spotlight of the mega-companies in travel, but who have just as much talent and experience from which we can all learn… I just needed to know you are all out there! 🙂

      Thanks again – can’t wait for 2011.

  10. Glenn Gruber


    As you know this isn’t limited to travel, but is also prevalent in the tech industry in general. There were several good articles in TechCrunch on the topic over the summer, which you may have already read. But just in case, and to add to the dialogue, here are the links:

    Why Women Don’t Want to Be on “Women in Tech” Panel (Tsotsis) – http://techcrunch.com/2010/09/28/girls-in-blech/

    Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men (Arrington) – http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/28/women-in-tech-stop-blaming-me/

  11. Jonathan Alford

    Good article, Sarah. I wonder what we might see looking more closely look at various segments. It’s interesting 3 of the 5 bulleted questions you ask are centered directly on the airline/GDS segment. Not sure what Steve Hafner has to do with this, though.

    The hotel industry seems to be doing relatively well – what would hospitality be without women in key positions? Probably inhospitable. Four Seasons comes to mind, and the Cornell Hotel School (among other strong hospitality schools) turns out scores of women that have done and are doing great things in the hotel and F&B industries. Many top travel agencies, and I would guess tour operators, have been run by women as well.

    Now, back to airlines and GDS cos…where Kathy Misunas from AA/Sabre itself might be one of the few historical examples worth noting…but it would great to hear of more…

    • Chicke Fitzgerald

      Yes Kathy was one of the earliest leaders of a Fortune 500 company in travel.

      And you are right Jonathan, when you look at just the air/GDS sector, it is a pretty small number, but then, air travel only makes up 15% of all trips in the US. The other 85% are by car, motorcycle, RV and truck/van.

      I think I’ll take this challenge on and put together the current list! Perhaps TNooz will post a survey for us!

  12. Jools Stone

    There’s a few I can think of from the smaller trav companies: Lauren from Globetrooper, Sally and Liz of Tripbod, Katie of Tripbase, Sophia of SomaFusion, Allegra from the Exploratuer and loads in travel blogging arena as Guido said. Mostly in their 20s too.

    • Saykay

      Agreed there are many more women I didn’t mention who are deserving of accolades for what they have accomplished in travel – no doubt. I couldn’t list them all, but even if I rattled off 100 names, that still represents a single digit percentage of the whole interms of top executive leadership in travel.

  13. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne


    Since I was the one who asked the question about the boys club at PCW, I think I have an obligation to comment. For fun – I just went back and looked at the stats for my Twitter followers. 25% female 10% I could not identify the rest are male. For who I follow its about the same. Admittedly VERY unscientific.

    I have worked for more women bosses than male bosses in my life. And my preference/experience is that they make better bosses but not necessarily leaders. And this is not their fault. It is a perception issue. Sadly for I can never fathom out why women seem to command less respect than their male colleagues in this space. Legacy?

    In my observation – again unscientific – I work in many geographies and I cannot clearly say if there is any more bias for or against in any specific area.

    The only thing that can be done is to bring more women in at ALL levels of the business. We have to grow more talent at all levels. If there is some hope here at the recent WIT conference in Singapore last month – in the innovators section there were more females presenting and doing a generally better job.

    Let’s hope that we can do more to mentor and bring more young people through so that they can compete irrespective of gender, race, creed etc. ie purely on talent and intellect. I remain hopeful. In the US I am encouraged by how many Gen Y and Millenials I see coming through who are colour and gender blind.

    If there is anything that I can do to help this cause. Sign me up.

    Cheers! – and please pass the cigars 😉

    • Chicke Fitzgerald

      You forgot to mention the joys of having a female partner Timothy……. Those were the days!! We did some amazing things together. 😉

      Good to see you at PhoCusWright. Have a good holiday.

    • Saykay

      Completely agree, Timothy, regarding tackling it from all levels of the business versus just the top… I think the issue just becomes more visible as females are the ones falling off as the road narrows closer to the top.

      And I too think its great to see so many of my Gen Y peers, male and female, passionately tackling issues that this industry has faced since its birth. I think the bigger challenge there ensuring we continue to seek knowledge & learn from those who have been doing this for longer than some of us have been alive.

      I think Jeff Boyd said it nicely in that the two key characteristics he has found in good leaders are humility and a sense of humor. Whether as a 30 year veteran of travel, a Gen Yer just getting started or a female aspiring to executive ranks, his point is equally valid.

      And so it goes – your cigars are en route. 🙂

  14. Gina Baillie

    Hi Sarah,
    Interesting article. As a conference director this made me think. I’m dealing with C level executives every day and I agree it is a shame that it is a predominantly male environment in the travel technology space. We overcome this somewhat in the States as many of our events are moderated by a female Chairman – Susan Black. I think it’s very refreshing to have a female Chairman who’s not afraid to stir things up!
    At our upcoming social media event, a third of the speakers will be female. Interesting to see the variance in terms of topic area and the male/female ratio. Maybe through social media women are proving themselves as great communicators!

  15. Jessika

    Sarah – all great points and research that you have brought up! Indeed our industry lacks female leaders as do many, unfortunately. At a recent networking event I attended, one of the discussion topics covered the fact that women often want more flexibility out of their careers, and sometimes need to choose less advancement in favor of more flexibility. Structures need to change to accommodate those flexibility needs in order to enable more advancement – home-based working, job sharing, etc are all practices being used for female leaders in some companies to great success (http://www.henkeldiversity.com/2010/04/30/job-sharing-in-leadership-positions-job-sharing-in-fuhrungspositionen.html). I hope to see it more in travel tech too! Thanks.

    • Saykay

      Thanks Jessika! And great points you make as well – flexibility is key for women trying to do it all. We need more companies that help facilitate that.

  16. Happy Hotelier

    Uhm at least in Travel Bloggistan I note scores of women….

  17. Tweets that mention Where are all the women in travel technology? | Tnooz -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dennis Schaal, Nihal Salahi, rf4travel, BTCNewsFeed, Turisdata and others. Turisdata said: Where are all the women in travel technology?: As the PhoCusWright Conference came to a close last week and… http://dlvr.it/95hNw […]


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