Britney Hope is a freelance journalist and editor of Ensemble Travel Group's Ultimate Family Vacations magazine. Open Jaw is running this piece to bring attention to a topic of importance to this industry that is rarely discussed in public, in hope of spurring a progressive dialogue. We invite your comments and discussion.
exposure of Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood executive who once wielded incredible
power, has inspired many stories about the inappropriate behaviour routinely experienced
by women in the entertainment industry. I belonged to that industry once, and
while a lot of the stories resonate with me, I didn’t actually experience any Weinstein-esque
abuses of power or sexual aggression – until I starting working in tourism.
My worst moment, the one that bruised deepest and that I
still think about often, occurred on one of our industry’s favourite gathering
places: the golf course.
You’re probably familiar with them: they’re a chance for travel
professionals to get out of the office and catch up with colleagues while
working on their backhand. There is also a lot of goofing around. When I was
covering these events as media, my job consisted of driving a golf cart around
to take silly photos of the player teams. I’d pull up with my camera and my box
of feather boas and oversized sunglasses, and rarely needed to coach anyone on
how to take a funny team photo; members of our industry are characteristically
good-natured and fun-loving.
I always looked forward to these tournaments; it was one of
many ways the travel industry made work seem fun. But there were also moments
on the green where this casual, pal-around atmosphere toed a strange and
sometimes disturbing line.
I was setting up a team picture of four men, three prominent
airline executives I knew well, and an agency president I’d never met. Someone
from the airline asked how they should pose. I suggested a few funny things
that other teams had done, and added that if they wanted, they could use a prop.
“Can we use you as a prop?” asked the agency
It came out of nowhere and hung there, an intensely
uncomfortable moment. The agency owner grinned at his own joke, clearly pleased
of his quick thinking in front of his colleagues. None of them said a
I want to say I made a quick and snappy response suited to
the disrespectful nature of the situation. But as with anyone who has ever been
involuntarily and unexpectedly cast into the spotlight, made to feel small, panicky,
embarrassed and wholly responsible for the outcome of a moment all at once, I was
unprepared for such a challenge. I laughed it off and escaped quickly in my
cart, face hot, heart pounding.
While it’s true I revisit this memory often, imagining all
the ways I wish I had defended myself, the worst part for me was the silence
that followed the agency president’s comment. Not one of the well-respected
executives present had anything to say in response to such a blatantly
aggressive and inappropriate remark. Because although it was awkward, in
reality, it wasn’t really out of the ordinary.
month, Hollywood has been cast into the spotlight as a breeding ground for
predators in positions of power, but the gut-wrenching reality is that sexual
harassment and disrespectful, unprofessional behaviour is a problem for women
everywhere. With Weinstein, it seems the world has finally begun to acknowledge
that harassment and intimidation of women is normalized within many industries.
Unfortunately, ours, as fun-loving as it may be, is far from immune. In fact,
the treatment of our industry’s women is one of its biggest problems.
Ever since my first day on the job as a writer in Canada’s travel
industry, I’ve experienced countless instances of shockingly disrespectful
behaviour from its men – typically executives, business owners, and leaders
with incredible influence – only to realize that within this community, said
behaviour is considered neither shocking nor disrespectful, and therefore, a
silly thing to get up in arms about.
I’ve been told by businessmen – often within moments of
meeting them for the first time – that I’m “cute as a button,” have a beautiful
smile, and have been asked, point blank and in front of others, why I
"look so hot." I’ve been groped for the benefit of funny photographs, had my
clothing and hair and racial background made the primary topic of a group
discussion over multiple dinners – and all by men in leadership positions
within their respective organizations.
A few of you reading this will find
yourselves thinking that while some of this behaviour was clearly wrong, there
are a few comments that seem relatively well-meaning – more like compliments. This
is a pretty typical reaction to behaviour of this kind; the wide-spanning
spectrum of sexism and harassment in professional environments is still –
horrifyingly – a relatively new concept to many. In fact, that’s the problem. In
the workplace, the existence of grey areas is what allows inappropriate
attention and gender-based jokes to be classified as seemingly innocent, and
those who have a problem with them as “too sensitive.”
The point, and it’s one that seems to
get missed all the time, is that none of these experiences, or “compliments,” were
invited. All took place in a workplace environment, one where I was attempting
to simply to do my job; to belong as a professional. What’s more, unfortunately,
behaviour like what I’ve described above is rarely limited to crude comments or
“accidental” slips of the hand, and too often crosses into a blurrier, sometime
asking me if he could use me as a prop on the golf course, the agency owner later approached me in the club gift shop, took my face in
his hands, and told me he “had better” find me in the resort hot tub that
night. Another time, while at a conference for travel agents, I gave
a smartass response to the remarks of a prominent business owner. Next thing I
knew, his hands were on my throat and he was inches from my face, calling me a
bitch. This was all in jest, of course. Except we were alone in a hallway, and
it went on for a bit too long, and although I hid my true feelings at the time,
I was afraid.
some of these experiences may be upsetting to read, they won’t be surprising to
many of the women in travel – for us, such encounters are the norm; interactions
to be expected, endured and deflected, but almost always unsuccessfully
prevented. They are the product of what industry veterans like to call
"the boys club,” a mentality which apathetically classifies disgraceful, degrading
conduct under the excuse of "boys will be boys.” The acceptance of this excuse sets the stage for all kinds
of barbaric attitudes that separate men from women, the accused from accusers,
and creates a toxic environment in our revered industry for everyone.
It allows us all to tiptoe around our disturbing reality,
which is quite simply: There are men in our industry who do and say things that
I’ve had a vice-president point out a female acquaintance at
an event and divulge that while she had “a fantastic body,” she was also “bat
shit crazy.” One day, I was told by a business owner that a successful, respected
female executive I’d recently interviewed was “a disgusting bitch.” He also
offered a full explanation as to why the term, which he agreed was offensive,
was appropriate in her case. There are a number of stories circulating in our
community about tourism leaders who are recognized as predators, who have been
disciplined by their companies for sexual harassment before fading into a
dignified obscurity – or worse, taking another leadership position elsewhere
I’ve listened to the devastating truths of other female
colleagues, confided in rare, stolen moments of camaraderie that leave us all
feeling furious, powerless, and utterly exhausted. Most of the time though, we
don’t talk about it. Instead, we encourage each other to focus on our
professional identities and accomplishments, to not let such belittlement
define us. As if we have a choice in the matter.
of course, there are men in
our community who don't use women as punch lines for winning brownie points
with the guys, or who see what they can get away with in a moment when they
think no one else is watching. There are men who manage to interact with and
refer to their female colleagues in ways which have nothing to do with gender, that
have everything to do with professionalism and respect. But these men are few and
far between, and often, passively complicit in the actions of their peers.
I’ve avoided naming any offenders in this story, not to
protect them, but because frankly, it doesn’t matter who they are. The
degradation of the women in our industry is deeply rooted, to a point where
friends and employers can cross lines with impunity, victimize a person
horribly, and then shrug it all off as a joke. It’s everywhere, it’s been this
way for decades, and to call out specific men would be to miss the point
Instead, I’ve given explicit examples of my own experiences
in the hopes that future behaviour will be addressed – that the next time it’s
suggested that a young woman be used as a prop by an industry leader, those
present will choose to call out the comment, and not remain silent. Because
when it comes to changing the status quo of how women are treated in our
industry, the onus is, as always, on those who enjoy the most power, privilege
all of this, I still say with a full heart that travel is an incredible
industry to work within. It’s glamorous and fulfilling; always growing, always
exciting. We share a sense of community among business people, creatives, visionaries
and dreamers, and that is beautiful. We send people on unforgettable adventures
and create global unity by expertly showcasing our planet to others.
while this industry is comprised of a lot of excellent things, it’s also home
to some terrible realities. Many influential members of our industry routinely manipulate,
mistreat and disrespect the female members of our community, put them in
circumstances they never asked to be part of, and make it extremely difficult
for them to feel empowered to succeed in their careers on their own terms.
is not news: it’s a reality that’s been conveniently labelled as trivial. But
the rest of the world is waking up, and now our industry has a choice. We can
continue to whisper stories, turn a blind eye and laugh away the behaviour
which belittles us all, or we can enact some actual change.
travel industry, you worldly professionals who are always saying how travel
makes us all better people, I ask you: what on earth are we waiting for?