When quizzed about International Women’s Day and the changes she would like to see occur for women in business, Julie Baker, vice president for operations at Hilton Hotels admits that she would “like to not be having this conversation”.
It’s certainly not a comment made out of apathy towards feminism or awareness holidays: but instead: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could be sat here in five years discussing something else?” She wants to see the day that both genders are truly equal in the workplace, when it is seen as a societal norm for women to be in a senior level role, and not just a novelty.
A varied journey to success
However, for those in the hospitality space looking for a source of inspiration this IWD, you need not look further than Baker. Joining the Hilton just three years ago as a senior director for the wider UK and Ireland – later being promoted to also oversee operations in London – the now-VP reveals that her journey into the industry was “quite a varied one”. After graduating from university, Baker got her start in marketing before moving to an outsourcing company. She explains it wasn’t until she was faced with unemployment – she was made redundant from the role – that she began to consider a serious career in the hotel industry.
“When I was made redundant a few years ago I took a step back and thought, well what do I want to do next? I loved industries that were guest-facing and consumer-facing so I thought hospitality looked good. I liked the culture of Hilton, and I actually wanted to prove the recruitment consultants wrong who said it wasn’t possible to change industry and change career.”
Baker moved up the ranks quickly – she was promoted to her new role in 2020 running 53 hotels across the UK- but confesses that the past year has not been free from obstacles, mainly brought on by Covid-19 restrictions. “The biggest challenge I have been through in the last year would definitely have to be the pandemic. There is no rule book with this sort of thing and you have to act so quickly in this ever changing environment”.
Responsible for thousands of Hilton employees, Baker says that one of the most vital things she learned from the past year was the “importance of communication and being transparent”. “It was actually really tough to close all the hotels,” she says, “to then eventually reopen them and have new processes in place. We had to accommodate social distancing and new hygiene and cleaning processes. You are also focusing on the cash flow of the business as well, because while you are closing the business you still have costs going out. Above all you have to give people hope and celebrate successes and keep people positive.”
How did she keep on top of staff while implementing those changes? “We recently did some huddles with our team members, just to learn about how we handled everything and understand what we could do better in the future,” she explains. “I was really humbled by the feedback – my team was really appreciative of the openness and transparency and how we kept them informed all the way through.”
Navigating a ‘24/7 industry’
A report published by PwC last year revealed that women make up only 25.5% of senior executive roles in the hotel sector, however Baker is quick to reveal that in the Hilton this is not always the case.
“Some 40% of the board at Hilton are female,” she reveals, adding that in the UK’s Great Place to Work index Hilton ranked as the second best place for women to work in 2019. Evidently the company is working hard on improving gender imbalances, with the hotel chain also offering mentoring programmes for women navigating what Baker describes as a “24/7 industry”.
Readers will know that regardless of sex, paving your way in the hospitality sector can be difficult: but what are some of the issues specifically troubling women the most at the moment? “A lot of women feel guilty about going back to work when they’ve had children, and they think they are giving their children a poor offering if they’re not the ones staying at home looking after them,” she says. “The thing I always advise women is that your child doesn’t know any different, there is no normal way of doing things anymore. So do what is right for you.”
Currently, the Hilton offers flexible working options and job-sharing roles to accommodate parents and other employees. In addition, the company has also launched ‘Thrive at Hilton’, a philosophy around “making sure that every individual within the organisation has the opportunity to thrive in their role”.
According to Baker, the programme has created a healthy company culture not just for women but all workers. “Having worked at a few organisations now I have found that the culture of an organisation is really tested in difficult times”, she says. “It is a highly supportive culture for women. We have got loads of great examples of senior female leaders and Hilton has put a lot of focus on sharing those stories with younger women coming up through the organisation, so they can understand how other female leaders did it.”
It is clear from speaking to Baker that systems are in place at Hilton to ensure women are given the opportunity to grow. However, looking at the hotel sector as a whole, Baker explains that she would like to see a shift in the UK towards people’s attitudes when choosing hospitality as a career. “When I talk to my colleagues in Europe, there is a difference between how hospitality is perceived here versus there,” she reveals. “So in Europe people are very proud that they go to hotel schools, and hospitality is really seen as a fantastic profession. It’s not always portrayed in the same light here.
“I think what I’d like to see is us come together as an industry and start to raise the profile of this fantastic industry we work in, there are very few industries that you can join from school, as an apprentice, and end up being a general manager of a multimillion pound hotel.”
She adds: “I’ve got general managers in my team that have been general managers from their mid to late 20s, and there are very few industries where you can do that. And I just think it’s such a fantastic industry, I really do think there’s an opportunity to portray it in much more of a positive light.”