Us, Too

By Britney Hope

Britney Hope

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.

The 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 president.

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 word.

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. 

This 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 terrifying, in-between.

After 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.

While 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 are inexcusable.

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 close by.

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, 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 entirely.

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 and security.

Amidst 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.

But 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.

This 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.

So, 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?

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