Q&A: Naureen Ahmed, founder, Inspiring Women In Hospitality

by: Felicity Cousins | November 23, 2023

Naureen Ahmed is the founder of Inspiring Women in Hospitality, an organisation set up to create a platform for women in hospitality to share their stories. Ahmed’s mission is to achieve equity in hospitality and for women to feel confident there is a community around them helping them to achieve their goals. Sustainable Hotel News talked to Ahmed about her podcast, giving women in the sector a voice, and how to reach her vision of a balanced hotel industry.

Why did you set up Inspiring Women in Hospitality?

NA: I think gender is still one of those things which is universal no matter where you go in the world. I’ve chosen to focus on gender and my mission is gender balance – it’s not necessarily one more than the other, we need to get to a place where we see more of an equilibrium and so every gender needs to be part of the conversation in that case. In order to do that we do need to uplift the women in our industry.  My background is in hotels and hospitality, which is why I focus on this area. This is my network from the last 17/18 years.

It’s amazing to think that all that history in hospitality has come to this point and created this moment. 

NA: Precisely and through my career I’ve been fortunate enough to look at the industry from a very macro level and get to meet some incredible people and incredibly women and men. I noticed women were not getting as much of a voice we were not seeing them on panels and at conferences and we were not seeing them in a leadership position, so I thought I know there are incredible women out there so how do we make sure they get their voices across. And that was how I started my podcast and my storytelling.

How has the podcast been received?

NA: I did the podcast because I was meeting women at a networking event and there wasn’t time to hear their story in five minutes, so the podcast gave me an opportunity to spend a little bit of time with them and understand how they started and talk to them about their career journey. I’ve interviewed about 170 women over the last three years from every part of the world. My objective also was to have people with two years’ experience or 20 years’ experience – everyone has a story to tell and everyone has the capacity to be inspirational – you just need someone to believe in you to get the stories out there. I wanted women to get used to talking about themselves and get comfortable speaking and that was the first step to start creating visibility and giving a platform for the voices to be heard.

Last year I took some time off from my corporate career and went travelling and while I was travelling I was networking and connecting with some in person events. I called them Inspire Round Tables. I did them in six different countries and it was an opportunity for a group of women to come together and share their stories and experience in hospitality. I realised it was the first time women were coming together to talk and have a structured conversation about their careers.

What sort of experiences were people bringing to you in those round tables?

NA: It was a mixed bag – in many parts of the world some challenges are still the same but I will say from the podcast alone more than 170 women about 51 per cent of the women I’ve interviewed have gone on to start their own businesses because they were looking for flexibility [in hospitality] and they couldn’t find it in the job. For me that’s kind of raising a bit of a concern because we allowing these amazing individuals to leave an organisations. I’m all for female entrepreneurs and they’ve all gone on to be very successful but I think there is an opportunity here. 

Some of the issues raised within the discussions varied from country to country – what kind of child care is available really varies from location to location. Sometimes it’s about what kind of support they may have at home – if you are in hospitality you often aren’t living in the country you were born in, so you may not have family around to support you.  

I think what was missing was that sense of community solidarity and knowing that you have support group that you can  go to and find help. Mentoring also doesn’t seem to happen as naturally with women, so how do we normalise that? I’ve taken those two aspects and put it together into the Inspire Community to have a peer-to-peer networking and mentoring. And why peer-to-peer? Because we don’t have enough senior women to mentor everyone else! But we all bring our own experiences to the table, and we can all learn from one another so let’s also normalise that relationship too.

The feedback I got was it was a safe space to talk about their careers and they felt like they are not the only ones. And no one should have to feel alone.

What sort of hotels are these women in hospitality coming from? Is it every level, every tier?

NA: It’s a pretty mixed bag – I’m at the early stages but it’s mostly women in a corporate role and mostly at director level, so middle career bracket and then a few starting to get into their careers as well.

What about the gender pay gap in hospitality? 

NA: I know in the UK they have to release the gender pay gap across every single sector annually, and I don’t think there is one specifically for hospitality. Historically why did it even happen in the first place? Your gender should really not dictate your capabilities if you are applying for the same job or hired for the same position. Why is there a difference in pay? And there is a lot of data showcasing difference in pay depending on our ethnicity too. 

People also say women don’t ask for it – I spoke to one former chief people officer for a major hotel group and she said every time she made an offer the men always negotiated and the women didn’t. She said just because the men negotiated it didn’t mean they got more, but it was just the fact of the action being taken by one gender and not the other.

So is this the sort of thing you will address in your community – to say come on let’s change the way women present themselves?

NA: I think there are various elements at play here. The community is laying the foundation to bring the stronger bonds within the community and we need to as women individually we need to look at things doing us a disservice for ourselves.

But it is also looking at the companies and the culture and what kind of actions and activities are taking place to ensure it is an inclusive environment to encourage women, or to be honest, any gender, to speak up for their needs. If they want flexibility is not necessarily just working from home or remotely; it’s flexi hours, it’s part time and job sharing. There are a variety of different things from a company to company basis and on an individual basis as well. 

Have you found different issues in different regions?

NA: My brother lived in Spain and when he had his child he got three months of paternity leave which is incredible. As a country they are doing so much to support people. On the other hand where I am based now (Switzerland) they went from one day, to two weeks, only recently.

Australia was one country that really surprised me – there is already quite a lot of advancements in terms of women in senior leadership roles within different industries – Macquarie bank, one of largest in Australia has a female CEO (Shemara Wikramanayake) and Qantas has Vanessa Hudson as CEO. Accor’s pacific CEO is Sarah Derry.

When we were in Singapore we didn’t find a single female general manager in a hotel, but in Thailand we found a lot of female general managers of different nationalities. It really varies and there is not going to be one size that fits all, it’s about identifying those organisations which want to make a changes and make a difference, and those individuals who also want to make that change. We need both women and men to be part of the conversation to start making an impact.

Do you talk to hotel schools to start that process at the beginning?

NA: It’s on my list to do. I’m a graduate of Lausanne myself. I think for the students the podcast can become a source of inspiration – when I was there I never aspired to be a female general manager because there were no other role models around me that I could look up that looked like me. Twenty years ago when I was a student myself I came across only one female guest speaker, Susan Hemsworth from ESPA, but this will have hopefully have changed for current students.

As part of what you are doing would you take on organisations and start conversations to help women into leadership roles? 

NA: I want to work with companies all over the world who are planning to make a change and have those conversations. Sometimes it just needs tweaking and sometimes it’s something else. It really needs to be on a case by case basis and the desire needs to be there.

Where do you see Inspiring Women in Hospitality in five years?

NA: In five years hopefully I will be working with a couple of companies in hospitality directly who are trying to see a change. I’m in it for the long term and my goal in 10 years is to see more women in C-Suite positions across the industry and how can we get them ready for next position. This is laying the foundation, building the community, working with women and working with companies and making it a completely normal career path for anyone who wants it – for those who do have that ambition and feel like they are not getting the support they need and the resources that they need – they know that there is an organisation like mine to help them get there.

Read more about Naureen’s work and listen to her podcast here.