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Benefits may attract women back to hospitality jobs

Katie Tabeling
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Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman, left, Morning Consult Food and Beverage Analysis Director Emily Moquin and Women’s FoodService Forum President and CEO Therese Gearhart discuss what the future holds for women in the hospitality workforce. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

WILMINGTON The pandemic changed the world of work overnight, but top national and regional hospitality leaders believe it may bring a groundswell of support to solve long-standing issues that prevent women from returning to work.

Led by the Delaware Restaurant Association, scores of women spent Wednesday at the Women of Hospitality Conference to network and learn about market trends and best practices at the Queen in Wilmington.

“This industry is going through a big cultural shift. First with a generational change and what employees want in their careers, but also looking for benefits and programs that were not historically offered,” DRA President and CEO Carrie Leishman said during a panel discussion. “There’s momentum and I don’t think we’re going back. It’s time to talk to other people who are not in the room and who can back up that momentum.”

Between February 2020 and May 2021, women lost nearly 1.4 million leisure and hospitality jobs more than half of all hospitality jobs in the entire sector. In Delaware there are 4,000 jobs open now. Labor economists say it’s hard to name one single reason why millions of women have left the workforce since the pandemic started.

But during the “Navigating a Future that Works for Everyone,” panel, the ladies hinted that it’s more about the benefits offered than the job itself. Remote and hybrid work is here to stay, but for restaurant workers who can’t work remotely, they may be looking for more flexible environments.

That could include paid time off, emergency child care options, wellness programs and flexible schedules.

Women’s Foodservice Forum President and CEO Therese Gearhart tell Delawareans that companies are trying to figure out how to adapt in terms of benefits for employees. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

“Women are looking for that flexibility, and what’s key to that is trusting that people are going to allow it,” Women’s FoodService Forum President and CEO Therese Gearhart said. “It’s one thing to offer it, but it’s another thing to not be judged for jumping on it. You have to have trust in the organization, and managers play a key role in that.”

Burnout may also be pushing women to the limits, while women may feel more pressure  both on the home front and at work. The Morning Consult, leading data and marketing research firm, reports that 67% women felt more stressed while 47% men felt stressed. Fifty-seven percent of women surveyed felt overwhelmed compared to 44% of their male counterparts.

Men also feel more comfortable working in person, as nearly 70% said they would like to return to the office compared to the 47% of women who agreed.

“The pandemic’s impact on women’s career paths and work-life balance cannot be overstated,” Morning Consult Food and Beverage Analysis Director Emily Moquin. “We have a lot of data, and it shows that women are not a monolith. There’s a lot of unique needs. We’ve also seen that public opinion has changed on family leave and flexibility for their family since pre-pandemic.”

Women will return to the hospitality sector, panelists agreed, but it will be a slow return. Restaurants and hotels were the first to close during the pandemic and the recovery has been uneven due to shutdowns and other regulations.

Complicating matters is that millions of Americans are resigning from their jobs, either to start a new job, pursue a new degree or follow a new passion. In Delaware, it may trigger a new wave of women entrepreneurs. In 2008 many women quit to start their own restaurants, Leishman said.

“I do think these women-owned businesses are going to have an edge in some cases compared to their counterparts,” she said. “But when it comes to people returning to work, the work we do will define the next generation of workers. We need to be prepared.”

How management meets this new world will shape the new workforce, but panelists also told the audience that they also have the power to guide the next steps by advocating for their needs.

From a top-level point of view, Gearhart noted that paying attention to small details to each situation can help set positive outcomes in the workplace and adjust quickly.

“Make sure we’re listening to what we need and not what we think we need,” Gearhart said. “It’s a new world and organizations are still trying things and finding what works. We’re still in that adjustment period now.”

Women are more visible in upper management positions in the hospitality sector, but there is little growth in the number of leadership positions filled. Gearhart, a 20-year veteran of the food and beverage industry, also cautioned that the data she’s seen show that women still face the “broken rung” as they climb the company ladder.

“The business case has been there. But we need to recognize that women are a big voice in terms of communicating what needs to happen out there,” Gearhart added. “The numbers are improving, but we’re at this critical point with the she-session.”

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