© ATTA / Nicole Geils

Storytelling to Fight Gender Inequality

1 March 2023
International Women’s Day (8 March) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women's equality. The theme for 2023 is Embrace Equity.

Every woman has a story she might tell you, if you ask, about the first time she realized her gender put her at a disadvantage.

I was lucky, because before I learned that the world saves its harshest criticisms for women, my gym teacher was Sharon Golden. In a rotating wardrobe of 90’s tracksuits, she facilitated our elementary sports with a primary goal of nurturing strong women. When our 5th grade class held a girls versus boys basketball game as a school fundraiser, she was our original Ted Lasso. She believed, so we believed. We did not win the game, but it never crossed our minds that we couldn’t.

The story we were told was that we were capable and equal.

Women’s stories communicate what statistics – however alarming or revealing they may be – cannot. Stories forge connections and create impact across cultures, time zones, and generations. They can generate empathy, expand understanding, and spread knowledge. Often, women are the storytellers within our families and communities, keepers of our legends, and wisdom teachers. They know the power of storytelling as a tool: it can soothe a crying child, preserve an oral tradition, and challenge the status quo.

© Christine Winebrenner Irick

Christine Winebrenner Irick has made it her life’s work to create space for women to tell their stories. As the Founder of Lotus Sojourns, she designs experiences for women to travel, connect with the destination, and understand the cultural context of being a woman within that society. Her award-winning Soul of Travel podcast is currently in its fourth season, honoring Women Influencing Change. In 2022, Soul of Travel won the Bessie Award in the Wanderful category as a brand that has gone above and beyond to support, empower, and represent women in the past year. 

My first call with Winebrenner Irick was brief; she had to cancel our meeting because her daughter had been injured on the playground at school and they were heading to the doctor. We rescheduled for the following Monday.

I offer this context because not talking that day is as telling as the conversation that followed. Women are often balancing the needs of their children and families with their careers. Depending on the sector in which they work, the country in which they live, the cultural expectations of their community, and the familial support system they have in place, this balancing act can range from challenging to a literal tipping point.

If you are claiming to have sustainable travel you have to be seeking to create gender equity. Otherwise, you do not have sustainable travel.
Understanding Gender Inequality

As Iris Serbanescu, founder of wmnsWORK, noted last year, “A lot of the unpaid care burden falls on women if they have families to take care of. The 9-5 work culture was created for people without children – for men, mostly. So the system has historically excluded women. They have not had the same opportunities as men to stay late for meetings and do what was needed to get the promotion. All of these things we take at face value now.”

Addressing systemic issues of inequality is one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to reach by 2030. According to a recent update on goal five – gender equality – the “social and economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation even bleaker. Progress in many areas, including time spent on unpaid care and domestic work, decision-making regarding sexual and reproductive health, and gender-responsive budgeting, is falling behind. Women’s health services, already poorly funded, have faced major disruptions. Violence against women remains endemic. And despite women’s leadership in responding to COVID-19, they still trail men in securing the decision-making positions they deserve.” 

Perhaps most alarming is the recent opening statement by UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous to the First Regular Session of the Executive Board, in which she shared that the goal is even further off track than originally thought: based on the current rate of progress, projections estimate that reaching global gender parity will take another 300 years. But Bahous rejects that outlook in her remarks, and instead asserts the Board’s commitment to the work as, “a refusal to accept the betrayal of generation after generation of girls who are asked to accept that they have been born into an unequal world because of our failures.” 

That striving toward gender equality continues to happen – it must continue to happen – across the globe and throughout all sectors. This is where tourism holds the power and potential to create enormous change. As a community, adventure travel professionals have an opportunity to once again lead the way in our unrelenting belief that travel can have a net positive impact.

Which brings me back to the work of Winebrenner Irick. On our second call, she told me that in her more than twenty years of experience in tourism, she very quickly found the niche of adventure and sustainable travel.

“I was really drawn to the people having those conversations, because I felt like we were being irresponsible not to be. All the promotion of destinations all over the world meant nothing if we destroyed the destination in the meantime,” she shared. “But at that time, it was not a popular conversation to have.”

She also noticed immediately how few women were represented in leadership across the industry, with most major events – including the first Adventure Travel World Summit – featuring only one or two women as speakers.

“For me it’s simple, we are 50% of the world’s population, why are we invisible? But I think it’s so important because so many people don’t see it. I’ve found in conversations with men – well-educated men, even fathers of daughters – they don’t always see it because it doesn’t impact them.”

Women in Adventure Travel

Notable progress has been made in the twenty years since then, with the rise of women in adventure travel who are creating experiences owned and guided by women. Women are transforming the industry by prioritizing sustainable travel experiences, conservation, and investing in initiatives that improve the daily lives of people within their community. 

Jussara Pellicano Botelho, CEO of Sisterwave, acknowledges the leaps women have made in her article the Role of Women in Tourism. She observes that, “Despite the slowness of progress, less than one century ago, women did not have the right to vote, be a candidate as a politician, have their own bank account, or manage their own money. In terms of tourism, in most countries, women did not have the right to travel alone, at least not without authorization from a man. Even nowadays, this right is not guaranteed in some countries. And everywhere those rights are constantly under threat. In order to deal with all of this, it is important to have female leaders and diversity in all spheres of power.”

Leadership and diversity in those spheres of power is perhaps where gender equality is most lacking. In March 2022, the ATTA published The Influence & Impact of Women in Adventure Travel, which found, “Women represent 54% of the tourism workforce worldwide, however, that is not proportionally reflected at leadership-level positions.” As of 2021, only 11% of companies with more than $10 million in revenue have a female CEO. The report notes, “This means that the largest and most visible organizations in the industry are overwhelmingly led by men, who therefore have more access to resources and more influence.”

Which is to say, there is still plenty of opportunity for improvement. Amplifying the stories and perspectives of women is a key way to take control of the narrative, and reclaim some of that influence.

© Christine Winebrenner Irick / Colorado Sojourn -Journey to the Mountain Retreat, September 2021. Members of this 3-month mental, physical and spiritual training program and community-building gathered together to support each other in their goal to summit Mt. Cameron, a 14er (14,000 ft) mountain in Colorado.

As a traveler, Winebrenner Irick felt most connected to the stories told by women she met along the way. She wanted to create that experience for other women, and envisioned her product as a way to understand the world in all its vastness and simplicity. She partnered with local artisan cooperatives and designed her company, Lotus Sojourns, around the most impactful parts of travel – she focused her itineraries around workshops, conversation, and community.

“I launched the company, really perfectly, in February 2020,” she deadpanned. 

But in some ways, she was grateful for the timing. If it were not for the onset of the pandemic which forced her to shift gears, the Soul of Travel podcast may have never come to fruition.

“And it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. We need a space to tell the whole story, where the business came from. Every time I find one person, I find twenty more people whose stories need to be told – to share the projects they are working on and the impact they are creating in their communities.”

The Soul of Travel grew from a belief that people need to hear more stories from the women leading by example within tourism. It features women who are industry veterans, thought leaders, experts in sustainability, grassroots entrepreneurs, and changemakers. They hail from every corner of the globe and across the adventure travel industry – from tourism boards to content creators. The guest list and episodes are a veritable ‘who’s who’ of everyone doing cutting edge, meaningful work related to travel.

“I just interviewed someone who is one of the first female tour operators in Pakistan and it is amazing to hear her talk about what she has done in her business and the battles she has had to overcome. It's important that as an industry, we hear these stories so that we know how to support the growth of women,” Winebrenner Irick paused. “That is a place we need to land. To make the changes we need to make, people need to know what they don’t know about gender inequality around the world.

If we are looking at having sustainable businesses, women are going to be giving back to their communities, they are going to be educating their children and lifting other women up with them, and that is the definition of creating a sustainable industry.
Social and Economic Sustainability

In order to know what we don’t know, as individuals we first need to understand how gender equity is inextricably linked to sustainability. Within travel marketing, ‘sustainability’ is sometimes used as a blanket term for minimizing environmental impact without much concrete action to back up the claim. Too often, the social, human, and economic pillars of sustainability are overlooked completely. Economic empowerment is a central tenet to achieving gender equality, which in turn is necessary for sustainability. 

Founders Rosette Dekool Kyomukama and Hannah Bamwerinde of Adventures with Locals prioritize training female guides in Uganda because in addition to being natural storytellers, women are key to prioritizing conservation. Investing in conservation and sustainable tourism is also an antidote to forcing communities toward the alternative: investing in extractive industries, which includes mass tourism.

“When local women and local communities are more involved in tourism, that is when conservation takes place,” Bamwerinde explained in an episode of Soul of Travel. “Because they have seen the benefits of tourism. But when they can not see the benefits of tourism…it is hard to preach conservation to people who have never seen a dollar from tourism.”

Those dollars tend to then stay within local communities because women reinvest it, according to Winebrenner Irick.

“If we are looking at having sustainable businesses, women are going to be giving back to their communities, they are going to be educating their children and lifting other women up with them, and that is the definition of creating a sustainable industry. If you are claiming to have sustainable travel you have to be seeking to create gender equity,” she added. “Otherwise, you do not have sustainable travel.”

This clarification is important, because in the latest research to assess preferences and priorities within the supply chain of adventure travel, survey respondents indicated that among the 13 qualities they consider in choosing a partner, both suppliers and buyers firmly ranked women-ownership last in terms of priority, with 45% selecting “not at all important.” Sustainability practices, meanwhile, were ranked toward the upper middle, with 75% of respondents categorizing sustainability as “somewhat important” or “essential.” 

A generous interpretation of these results might assume a different outcome had the question been asked another way. Perhaps if respondents were asked if they support women-owned businesses, most would have answered yes, because at least theoretically, they support women-owned businesses.

But support is not theoretical, nor is it passive. Support requires action.

The adventure travel community prides itself as a leader within the tourism industry. We were the first to focus on sustainability, pushing the conversation into mainstream tourism. We are leaders in initiatives for community-based tourism and ensuring wildlife experiences are ethical. We are always looking for more ways to make travel a force for good. This is the story we tell ourselves and that we believe, but we run the risk of falling into a sense of complacency if we think that gender equality exists.

When you are a leader, people watch to see if you do as you say. What if we begin to measure the strength of our businesses not by who we outsell, but by who we lift up?

Taking Action in Travel

Transformation happens by committing to incremental changes sustained over time. There are a number of accessible actions for adventure travel professionals to commit to; here are five ways to join the fight toward gender equality.

Seek out and actively support women-owned businesses

“Be aware of where you are operating, understand the social norms, customs, and the context for women in those countries, and prioritize hiring female guides, female-run hotels, and female-owned restaurants,” Winebrenner Irick said. 

Even doing this occasionally – starting with a goal of 50% of the time and working up from there – makes a difference. For the 2022 Adventure Travel World Summit, she Googled “women owned hotels in Switzerland” which led to an incredible find: she met the business owner, toured all of their hotel properties, and had a more personal experience. “I walked away with an opportunity that I would have missed if I just booked a two-night stay in Zurich without thinking about it,” she said.

How can tour operators, travel advisors, and destination management organizations apply this to their business model?

“Know your values, and if one of your values is empowering women in the areas you work, seek them out because they are there – they are just harder to find, so you don't get to cheat and say you tried,” Winebrenner Irick said. “You have to try. We all have a big enough network that I guarantee we all know somebody who can help you find a hotel, guide, or a driver to create an opportunity for supporting women in tourism.”

Communicate these decisions and the stories behind the product to your customers

As an industry we need to create consumer demand, and we cannot create consumer demand without educating customers and travelers. These same customers have spoken, and they want evidence of sustainability, not just lip service. This means there exists a barely-tapped wellspring of possibilities to increase commitment to gender equity within tourism.

Business and marketing professionals can share their experience and evolving understanding of best practices with their clients and partners. Rather than shy away from conversations about cost, educate travelers about the supply chain, commitment to gender equality and fair wages, and the investment necessary to achieve sustainable practices. Tell the stories of the people providing the products and services. Itemize conservation fees where applicable, while highlighting the work those fees support.

Travel advisors have key opportunities here as well, as their knowledge base is impressively broad and they have worked to build trusting relationships with their clients. In addition to educating travelers about choices they make, advisors can tap into their network to source companies who have concrete examples of the sustainable business practices they have implemented.

Create space and opportunity for women to enter leadership

From boardrooms to artisan cooperatives, women are often juggling domestic responsibilities in addition to their careers. Begin by asking women what they need to feel supported and successful in their roles, and listen to what they say. This might include skills training or professional development courses, flexible hours, or an increase in pay – globally, women make an average of 77% of what men earn.

Collectively, as travel professionals we can work to create supportive environments where diverse voices can thrive. For too long, women have blamed themselves for feelings of inadequacy in their careers – a perception which has been shown to have nothing to do with ability and more to do with systemic issues and biases that often exclude “diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities”  from leadership.

Get to know your audience

Recent findings suggest that most women over 50 feel misunderstood or completely ignored by the travel industry. Women cited concerns that included, “the lack of age-appropriate and diverse photography and marketing materials, a desire to see more appropriate terminology to describe older women, and more emphasis on mobility and accessibility requirements.” This disconnect is a missed opportunity, as Claudia Laroye noted that, “women aged 50+ represent over $15 trillion in purchasing power in 2023, and are experiencing the largest population growth over the next 10 years.” 

The assumption also persists that, “a 28-year-old male would be the average adventure traveler, when in fact it is a 47-year-old female, who wears size 12,” Heather Kelly wrote on the key findings of the ATTA’s research on The Influence & Impact of Women in Adventure Travel

“These real women want to see themselves portrayed in marketing images. Therefore, giving visibility and airtime to as many different types of women as possible plays an important role in creating a more welcoming and supporting travel environment.”’

Go all in

For those looking for a deeper dive into working toward gender equality, the UNWTO has published Gender Mainstreaming Guidelines for the Public Sector in Tourism, which contains “tools to support national, regional, local and other tourism institutions and apply an approach to tourism planning, programming and implementation that integrates gender equality and women's economic empowerment.”