With Saudi Arabia’s tourism and hospitality experiencing unprecedented growth and evolution, women have a crucial role to play in the sector’s success. It’s time to shed new light on what women bring to the sector, how females account for an increasing share of the workforce, and how the industry can seize the opportunity to turn Saudi’s young women of today into the hospitality leaders of tomorrow

The role of women in leadership is frequently overlooked and underestimated, not only in the hospitality and tourism sector, but across all industries. One only has to look at the list of Fortune 500 companies to realise this: just 10 per cent of companies listed have a female at the helm and, while more companies are acknowledging and embracing the concept of female leadership, there is still a long way to go.

Research consistently shows that diverse leadership teams lead to better decision-making and innovation,   and enhances the overall success of any business.  It’s therefore vital to break down these barriers and foster an inclusive environment in hospitality where everyone, regardless of gender or background, can thrive and contribute their best.

At the moment, nearly 80 per cent of people working in the Saudi hospitality sector are male. The proportion of women in the industry – currently at 22 per cent – is set to grow considerably as more businesses and hospitality brands recognise the pivotal role that women play, and embark on female-focused recruitment and retention schemes to build female headcount.

I’ve recently been talking to several leading female industry experts about their views on women in the sector, what the hospitality sector is doing to bring more women on board and the opportunities – and potential challenges – presented with the rise of female forces in hospitality.

Marie-Louise Ek, Hilton’s vice president of human resources for the Middle East and Africa, says that as gender diversity is a key objective for Hilton, significant steps have been taken to recruit and upskill more female team members. The company has its own Women in Leadership programme across the kingdom to help train and nurture the next generation of female leaders and hotel GMs. In addition, 200 of the 250 trainees who joined Hilton in the last two years are female, and the number of women in heads of department roles has tripled since 2021.

Empowering women is also a priority for Rotana. According to Shaikha Al Nowais, corporate vice president of owner relationship management, Rotana is committed to advancing gender diversity across all departments and levels of operation. Several females are currently participating in the company’s TAROT (The Accelerated Refinement of Talent) programme, which offers a fast-track career development path.

Women leaders in hospitality all agree that females bring an array of qualities and skills to the sector, enriching the industry and enhancing guests experiences.

Aseel Bondagjy, hotel talent development manager at NEOM, believes that women bring a unique perspective on the warmth of Saudi culture to the table, having played, among other roles, a crucial part in welcoming and hosting pilgrims during Hajj and Umrah. Meanwhile, Saudi Icon architect Eng. Orobah Filfilan feels that women have the acumen and capability to view all issues and concerns with thorough lenses and from various perspectives, in turn providing insight and feedback to tackle important aspects of given situations.

I also asked female industry peers about potential challenges associated with working women, such as motherhood and cultural dynamics. All agree that flexibility, open dialogue, and post-natal support are fundamental to tackling these challenges. Marloes Knippenberg, CEO of Kerten Hospitality, says Kerten employees are encouraged to openly communicate their needs, and that agile, adaptable solutions empower the workforce to balance their professional responsibilities with their personal obligations, in turn enabling them to thrive at work and in their personal life.

One thing is certain when it comes to the future of women in hospitality: With over 60 per cent of the KSA population under 30 years old, the industry has a golden opportunity to bring young Saudi females into their business and turn them into future leaders.

As Norah Al Tamimi, chief executive officer at Baheej Company, says, the kingdom’s hospitality sector has hit 21.7 per cent Saudization, with more than 11 per cent being female. Recognising hospitality as an emerging field for both talented young men and women and leveraging the ongoing hospitality projects in Saudi Arabia creates pathways for female leadership by breaking down cultural barriers and providing equal opportunities for professional growth and advancement.

Words by Tanja Millner, production director at The Bench and organiser of Future Hospitality Summit