Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Top women call for service.

One in every five business travellers is a woman, yet, if the evidence is to be believed, they are treated not just as the second sex but as the invisible sex.

Margaret Lloyd lives in New York and runs a business handling educational books worldwide. She frequently flies to Portugal and with monotonous regularity finds herself singled out when she joins the queue for the Business Class. 'Invariably,' she says, 'one of the ground hostesses will come up to me and say, "May I look at your ticket?'" The implication, of course, is that, being in a queue of businessmen, she must have made a mistake.

'It's a Latin country - what can you expect?' says Lloyd. But the chances are that if she is travelling in almost any country except the US she will be subjected to this, or any number of other minor humiliations. Many women travellers are.

'We don't want to be treated differently,' says Ros Martin, general manager of the Businesswoman's Travel Club (BWTC), a pressure group set up in 1987 to get women travellers a better deal from the travel industry. 'We just want to be treated equally.' Martin says women travellers' problems break down into three main areas. First there are outdated attitudes - staff who assume that women are travelling in some kind of subservient role. Among the worst offenders here, ironically, are air hostesses who, even after many years' experience, seem reluctant to recognise the species 'businesswoman'. The second set of problems concerns security - there just is not enough of it. Finally there are what Martin calls 'irrelevant facilities' - items designed for men's needs with no thought given to women.

Liz Bowen-Jones, a training manager with Employment Conditions Abroad, spends her time teaching businessmen and women how to cope with different cultures in foreign lands. She doesn't dare ask what foreign businesswomen visiting London make of our restaurants: 'I had lunch in an Italian restaurant with a female colleague about a year ago and the service was appalling. There were a lot of businessmen there and we were the only two women at a table. A few months later we went to the same restaurant and my husband joined us and the service was transformed.' Maria Jonas, general secretary of Socialist International Women, feels awkward when eating in hotel restaurants. 'I get the smallest table, by the door or the loo. It's not only if I am on my own. If I'm with other women invariably we are served last.' The worst kind of brush-off, says Ros Martin, is to be treated on a first-come/last-served basis, then have insult added to injury by being told that the man was served first because the waiter assumed that he had something important to do after lunch. 'Our members get very frustrated by that sort of attitude.' They get frustrated too by airlines which assume that a woman seated next to a man on an aeroplane must be his secretary, or perhaps his wife. Margaret Lloyd runs her own New York firm with her husband and son, yet on board any aircraft she is still likely, she says, to be 'treated as an appendage to any man I happen to sit next to'.

A woman fashion designer interviewed by market research analysts Mintel last year for a report on airlines reckoned that air hostesses didn't much like female travellers: 'They seem to see them as a waste of space.' Treatment like this obviously matters to the women concerned. Is this dissatisfaction ever likely to be addressed by those who dole out the treatment? Mintel thinks it probably will be: 'Given the increasing number of businesswomen holding management posts it would seem to be an area that deserves more attention as airlines cannot afford to alienate any of their customers, particularly a group so fundamental as women.' With regard to security, BWTC's Ros Martin says that even in major hotels receptionists will call out the room number when handing over the key. A man might not worry, but a woman may be concerned that anyone within earshot could tell which room she was in. Another security consideration is the location of the room. Generally, most women will prefer not to be on the ground fIoor (there are too many public rooms into and out of which anyone can stray), and most of them, says Martin, will want to be given a room close to a lift rather than at the end of a corridor. The biggest grouse under the heading 'irrelevant facilities' seems to be that while there will be lots of perfumes and suchlike in hotel bathrooms there is almost never an iron or a skirt-hanger.

Nevertheless, Rhiannon Chapman, director of The Industrial Society, believes there are some small advantages to being a woman traveller - for instance, airport security checks. 'They have to have a woman for body searches for women and if you are a business traveller there is usually a big queue for the men at the checkpoint, but because there are relatively few businesswomen we get through jolly fast, which is nice.' l get through jolly fast, which is very nice.'

Second sex, second class service

A recent survey by Official Airline Guides backs up the anecdotal evidence suggesting women travellers get a raw deal. Or at least it shows that British travellers think women get a raw deal. A sample of more than 700 businessmen and women were asked three questions about perceived sex discrimination in the way that business travel services were provided in hotels and airports. There was a marked difference between nationalities. Most Germans (85%) thought both sexes got equal treatment and most of them (83%) believed that most business hotel rooms were geared to female needs. By contrast only 65% of British travellers thought that European business travel facilities catered for the sexes equally and only 14% thought hotel rooms took women's needs into account.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

The questions to ask when everything is unknown

Systemic intelligence is an indispensable skill for business leaders.

How to stop your culture going back to normal after COVID

In this video, Capita's Melanie Christopher and Greene King non-exec board director Lynne Weedall discuss...

This isn't just a health crisis, it's an equality crisis

Inspiring Women in Business winners: In the “new normal”, we must make sure that female...

How to build an anti-racist business

You don't need a long history of championing equality to make a difference.

What are Simon Roberts’ big 3 challenges at Sainsbury’s?

The grocer's new CEO has taken the reins at a critical time.

Should CEOs get political?

The protests that have erupted over George Floyd’s murder have prompted a corporate chorus of...