Cover Amanda Hyndman (Photo: Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong)

Women, more than ever, are taking top jobs in Hong Kong’s hospitality industry. But why are they still yet to catch up in the traditionally male-dominated career?

Tourism experts and local female hotel general managers reveal how Hong Kong's hospitality industry has come so far from being dominated by men and why it is a bright career path for women.

Amanda Hyndman became the general manager (GM) at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong last December, the first woman to do so in the brand’s 59 years of history. She still remembers the first time she took on a GM role: “There was a rather upset guest in the lobby demanding to see the GM. I asked, ‘How can I help you?’,” Hyndman recalls. Instead of telling her the problem, he looked at her and repeated, “I want to see the GM.”

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Hyndman isn’t the only one who has been taken lightly because she’s a woman. Rainy Chan, GM at The Peninsula Hong Kong until 2017, has experienced her share of being assumed to be a secretary. “The question I’d hear most often was ‘Where is your boss?’” Chan said at the Web in Travel (WIT) Future Leaders Forum at The Murray hotel in 2018. When she transferred to Bangkok in 2004, her male colleagues constantly threw sexist remarks at her about her appearance. “What was hard for me was the industry was not really ready for women to take leadership roles.”

Despite challenges like these, Hong Kong’s hospitality industry today doesn’t lack female talent. Dorsett Hong Kong says that 58 per cent of its executive committee members are female; one-third of The Upper House’s executive committee team are female; one in six GMs of all the Marriott hotels in the Asia-Pacific region is a woman; and four out of seven executive committee members at K11 Artus are women. According to Rebecca Kwan, the chairman of the Hong Kong Hotels Association until 2020, out of its 140-plus member hotels in Hong Kong, roughly 15 per cent have female GMs.

“That is a stark difference from two decades ago,” says Professor Kaye Chon, the dean of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Chon first arrived in Hong Kong from the US in 2000. “I was shocked. All the GMs here were men and expatriates: Germans, Austrians, occasionally French, British or Americans, mostly Swiss.” So what exactly has turned the tide for women in Hong Kong’s hospitality industry in the last 20 years? Does the surge in the number of female GMs mean that women have finally caught up in the game?

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For many decades, most tourists visiting Hong Kong were from Europe or North America. Chon explains, “It was much easier to bring in managers from the same regions, who shared a common language and lifestyle, to cater for their needs.” For example, many Asians would not have been familiar with wine, or able to recommend a bottle, something European guests would expect of a GM.

He says that because more expats were hired to manage local hotels, Asian hotel owners were under the illusion that GMs must be “tall, good-looking European men, because the hotel would look more international and prestigious. It’s a catch-22 problem. Many young Asians who joined the industry didn’t aspire to rise higher. If you were a woman, it was a double glass ceiling: being local and female.”

Chon realised the status quo didn’t have to remain. “Hiring expats entails paying for their travel packages, vacation allowances and their children’s education,” he says. “We have competent locals here who can do the same job, and even communicate with the local community and [partner] industries better.” He came up with what was then an astounding idea in Hong Kong: building a teaching and research hotel to be owned by the university, where his school could gain first-hand data for research, and train talents—both men and women, local and international—to join the hospitality workforce.

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Hotel Icon opened in September 2011. It serves as the academic building and laboratory for wine appreciation, culinary classes, service and many other types of training that prepare local students to run hotels to an international standard. According to Chon’s latest statistics, 68 per cent of the students who were admitted to his hotel management programme in 2021 and 76 per cent of the graduates in 2020 were female, which indicates that Hong Kong these days has more locally educated female graduates than male who are ready to enter the industry.

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In 2007, Chan’s appointment at The Peninsula Hong Kong was another big step forward for women in the industry. “It was groundbreaking: Hong Kong’s most historic five-star hotel appointed a local Chinese woman as the GM,” Chon says. “Many other hotels began to think: if The Peninsula did it, why not us? It also sent a strong message to young local hoteliers that they could aspire to be managers.” Since then, Chon has seen two major changes in the industry: first, the localisation of GMs; second, more promotions for women.

One such case was Cecilia Lo, the GM of K11 Artus. New World Development’s CEO Adrian Cheng trusted Lo to oversee the operation of his five-star private residence. “I don’t think Adrian considered that he was speaking to a woman in particular when we first met and he was speaking about his company values and his vision of an artisanal home,” Lo recalls with a laugh. “K11 Artus chooses candidates based on their competence, passion and team work, which have nothing to do with a person’s gender.”

Lo, who started working in the marketing and sales department of the Grand Hyatt in 1997, observes that leadership style has changed more than a decade ago. “The old-school decision-making style of ‘my way or the highway’ was no longer working,” she says. Now, as a GM, she finds the communication skills she acquired from her sales days invaluable for her modern leadership style when interacting with guests, business partners and especially her staff. “In general, women tend to have a more acute observation of body language and know how to euphemise their communication to make people more comfortable,” she says.

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The digital age also calls for the industry to shift its focus more to qualities that women share equally with men: tech savviness, financial skills and business acumen. According to Chon, in the past, one had to be proficient in all aspects of a hotel’s operation in order to be a GM: food and beverage, security, engineering and even the mechanism of pumping water to a rooftop swimming pool. “Some of these spheres are traditionally dominated by men [due to their physical demands],” he says. “Today, what is more important is your proficiency in technology, such as how to sell your rooms using online travel agencies.”

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But Jennifer Cheung, East Hong Kong’s GM, says the long working hours still deter women from applying for the position. A hotel is a 24/7 organisation, and a GM has to be on duty even during festive occasions, which can prove difficult or even impossible for mothers of young children. Kristina Snaith-Lense, the GM of The Upper House, agrees. “The negative stereotyping associated with being a working mother is unfortunately still very prevalent in our industry. When I tell people of plans for more children, the automatic [assumption] is that I would quit my job. In Hong Kong, the current labour law offers minimal maternity and paternity leave compared to other countries, which may also be a factor to consider.” She believes it is crucial that current female leaders nurture and prioritise mentorship for the next generation.

Some female GMs have already initiated ways to tackle these issues. When Chan was at The Peninsula, she implemented a policy that provided paternity leave and allowed female staff to bring their children in to breastfeed once a day. She said in the WIT forum, “That support will encourage women to grow their career without needing to give up something that’s important to them, like their family.” Similarly, Anita Chan, Dorsett’s GM and a mother, ran the “Dorsett Family” initiative in 2017 and 2018, whereby staff could bring their young children into the office during the summer holiday. Female industry leaders like Lo and Hyndman have been sharing career prospects for women in the industry in school talks. Marriott International’s Women Ambassador Network hosted a virtual webinar on International Women’s Day to train staff and celebrate female leaders in the company.

Will this finally help Hong Kong’s hospitality industry reach a 50/50 gender ratio? Lo says she couldn’t care less about chasing those numbers blindly. “We’re not trying to force the balance of men and women, or people of colour or the LGBT community for that matter, because the figure would then be artificial,” she says. “If the company values a diverse working culture and the employees’ competence, attitude and team spirit, the ratio will naturally be reflected in the gender demographics.”

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