My story: Claire Osborne, AWTE chair
Running the gauntlet at British Rail, why travel conferences remind her of Bon Jovi and which companies are leading the drive for equality.
Association of Women Travel Executives chair Claire Osborne gives her views and discusses her strategy for 2020.
Claire Osborne vividly remembers working life in 1991.
Back then, the current chair of the Association of Women Travel Executives (AWTE) was a 20-year-old employee of the now-defunct British Rail at Birmingham New Street Station.
“We’d go into the staff canteen. It was heavily subsidised so there was a real want to go in there, because it was a lot cheaper than going upstairs into the shopping centre,” she recalls.
“The girls used to call it ‘running the gauntlet’. I thought ‘what the hell do they mean?’ Then I realised what it was. The food was at the bottom of the canteen, so as you came in, you had to walk past all the tables and they were full of guys that worked on the tracks, on the platforms, on the trains.
“It was called ‘running the gauntlet’ because you had to get from the back, where you came in, to the food, without getting your bum pinched. The boys used to say that if you could, you were either really quick or really ugly. Most of us were made to wear heels, so running wasn’t always an option.
“I could stand up for myself and would give someone a slap if they touched me, but not all the girls were able to handle it and it undermined their confidence.
“The shocking thing is that I genuinely didn’t feel at the time I was being discriminated against, because that was culturally how it was.
“It’s horrible that women accepted it because we didn’t really know we could stand up and say ‘no’ to that behaviour in those days.”
Thankfully, much has changed in 29 years.
Osborne is fulsome in her praise of her current employer Travelport, where she works as head of local product and technology, but believes the travel industry still has to do more to promote equality.
In the past year, she can recall a couple of unsavoury incidents and knows other women who have similar stories.
“I was wearing a very modest dress at an industry event. It showed the tiniest little bit of decolletage and I had a man saying he liked that dress because it revealed a little bit of me. He realised immediately that it wasn’t the right comment to make.
“On another occasion, someone told me they didn’t want to deal with ‘that ditsy blonde’, referring to a young woman in the team who has blonde hair.
“It’s important to call this out, as it happens, so people understand when their words are inappropriate.”
Communication is key
Osborne is a strong believer in communication.
“We have to work hard to change people’s attitudes and behaviour.
“It’s not about killing fun at work. We have fantastic fun and banter in our team. People take the mickey out of each other and it’s no problem, providing no one is uncomfortable or offended. It’s about knowing where the line is.”
She is keen to involve men in all discussions about equality.
In April 2019, the AWTE withdrew support for the ITT conference, citing a difference in values and criticising a male-heavy speaker panel. ITT chair Steven Freudmann responded by saying the ITT has always been totally committed to diversity.
Nine months on, the two parties are talking.
“We’re not distanced from the ITT and since then I’ve met with Steven.
“A couple of people who were members of both were a bit uncomfortable that we were falling out. We wanted to help the ITT understand why an all-male panel was not a good thing.
“It’s a comfortable relationship. We got the message across and we did what I want to do, which is call out things that we don’t think look right.”
She wants men to become a bigger part of the AWTE in the future.
“At the AWTE we’ve always allowed men to be members and we want to encourage them to be ambassadors. We are looking to progress this and are discussing how we do it.”
She’s very keen to focus on important areas of discrimination, rather than calling out people who mean no offence.
“When we are in a work environment we all need to be mindful of people’s feelings.
“But I think there is an element of what I call the ‘professionally offended’ – people who go and look for offence in things that are not intentionally offensive.
“We need to be careful how much we cater for that mentality, otherwise you end up calling a manhole cover a personal access hole cover, when drain cover will do.”
Osborne first got involved with AWTE over five years ago.
“I didn’t know much about it until I met [then membership director] Ali Jarvis, who was on the board, and she persuaded me to get involved. The first thing I came to was the Christmas lunch.
“I had the perception that it would be a little bit cliquey and introverted and it wasn’t – the thing I loved about it was how much I was welcomed. They wanted to hear about my experiences and how that could help other women in less fortunate positions. I was persuaded by then chair Debbie Dale to get more involved and drive it into a modern age.”
However, early attitudes to equality were formed as a child, growing up in what Osborne describes as a ‘strange place’ in Birmingham.
“My mum, when I was six, got a job managing student accommodation. They were all overseas students who would stay over the holiday period. One Christmas we had 46 people for Christmas dinner. They were from every race, creed, colour and I was acutely aware that, when I was little, all these people were just getting on, no matter how different they were, and nobody was better than anyone else.
“We had 10 deaf Saudi Arabians and I was the only one who could communicate with them. We had this weird little sign language for them to let me know when they had forgotten their keys.
“We had Russians there in the early 1980s and ‘immigration’, or rather MI5, used to come round and have little chats with them.
“It ingrains into you that everyone is equal. When the Bosnian war was going on, we had Bosnians, Serbs and Croats all living in the same house, all getting along. It didn’t matter that their governments were fighting each other.”
She wants the AWTE to be seen as a campaigning body and more than just a social networking club with a great Christmas party.
“I get that perception, but I also want us to be seen as making a difference. I don’t like using the term hard-hitting because I don’t want to be seen as confrontational, we want to bring people with us.
“We’re helping women be the best they can be and to achieve their potential.
“We’ve got a few events planned for this year, we just have to sort out rooms and details before we can announce them. We did have to cancel a few things last year, following the Thomas Cook collapse, but we will be re-invigorating the events part of our work this year.”
Giving women in the workplace more confidence is a key objective for Osborne.
“There has been a lot of research, which AWTE has covered, that shows women will not apply for roles unless they are sure they can almost do 100% of the role, whereas the majority of men will apply for a role if they feel they are 60% competent.
“There has also been a lot of research around how women don’t like to self-promote. That’s one thing we would like to change at AWTE. I was horrifically bad at self-promotion because I thought I was brown-nosing or being unhumble.
“But it’s not about brown-nosing, it’s about being happy in yourself and acknowledging that you’ve done a great job and making sure that the people who need to hear that, do so.
“You don’t need to say it in a ‘aren’t I great?’ sort of way, you just need to make sure that the right people know it’s your effort.”
Osborne is keen to promote equality in all areas in the workplace.
“Of course, our focus is women, but really we are campaigning for equality for all, regardless of their background.
“One of my proudest moments was when one my team came up to me and said ‘thank you for allowing me to be open about my personal life and work at Travelport’. They had never felt that they’d been able to be honest before and they now feel they are accepted for being their true self.
“We still suffer from a lack of racial diversity in the travel industry, which is a bit of a bugbear of mine.
“Going to a travel industry conference is a bit like going to a Bon Jovi concert – there are a lot of white middle-class people in attendance."
(Osborne stresses that is merely an observation and not a criticism of Bon Jovi).
“It’s about attracting talent into the right kind of roles. We never had a problem attracting women into the travel industry, but at the grass roots level.
“We’ve had a problem attracting top diverse talent from other industries into top roles and we’ve had a problem nurturing our own talent into top roles. I think that’s the same whether you look at gender, race or ethnic background.”
The AWTE also sponsored a recent industry discussion on mental health in the workplace.
“It is important to focus on mental health in the workplace and the shocking thing is the number of people who are affected by it.
“People can procrastinate at work and it’s easy to say JFDI (Just F Do It) and mean it in an empowering way, but we have to be careful, because there is a fine balance. Don’t ride roughshod over someone’s feelings.
“I’ve supported a number of people, both at work and in my private life who have faced issues with mental health and wellbeing.”
Recent studies show that women are still heavily under-represented in key positions. They make up just 6% of the chief executives of FTSE 100 companies.
But Osborne does not believe quotas are the solution.
“I first came across quotas as a 17-year-old. My Dad was the treasurer of the National Association of Teachers and Further and Higher Education – basically the lecturers’ union – and he was exasperated because a lady had been put in a position on the board.
“He was exasperated because she was the least qualified person and she had been put there because she was a woman. He came home and asked me and Mum what we thought about it.
“I was horrified that someone had got a job just because of their gender, their race or whatever it might be, who wasn’t then qualified to do the job.
“However hard that poor lady tried, everyone was always going to say ‘you only got the job because you’re a woman’. The fact that she couldn’t do the job just made it even worse.
“My Dad has always been very keen to promote the careers of women. My Mum always worked. For a time, she was the only breadwinner in the household, which was quite unusual in the 1970s.
“But I just think quotas have a negative balance. Quotas are not the way forward. We need the best person for a job. What we need to do is to make sure that the people hiring have no bias and we need to make sure we are opening up the opportunity for people to get in front of that interview panel.”
Gender pay gap
In the travel industry, the gender pay gap widened at a number of companies in 2019, compared with the previous year. Osborne does not, though, put too much store by this.
“It is disappointing, but I don’t like the way the gender pay gap is reported.
“For me the issue is when I’m doing the same job as a man and being paid less than him.
“Companies do pay differently. I’ve seen it in lots of places.
“If women are as equally qualified and experienced, they should not be paid less, just because they haven’t been brave enough to ask for a pay rise, when her male colleague has, which is often the case.
“But I don’t think it is necessarily helpful to compare a pilot with cabin crew, because the job is different.”
Osborne supports the recent landmark ruling that saw BBC presenter Samira Ahmed win an equal pay claim against the broadcaster.
Ahmed presented feedback programme Newswatch and claimed she was owed almost £700,000 in back pay because of the difference between her rate of £440 per episode and the £3,000 per episode rate paid to Jeremy Vine for hosting a similar programme, Points of View.
“The argument that he is more well-known and so will attract more viewers almost stacks up in commercial television, because they want as many viewers as they can. I don’t necessarily think it’s right, but I understand it.
“However, I think it’s the correct ruling for the BBC. They were doing similar jobs at similar times. What it says is that if women do equal work they should get equal pay – that’s fantastic, as a premise.”
A particular cause for concern is the attitude some companies still have towards hiring women of a certain age.
“I asked AWTE colleagues about this and had a few responses. A while ago a woman was refused a bonus because they were told that while they were on maternity leave, she cost the company money.
“More recently, she went for a job interview and was asked ‘have you finished having children?’
“I think hiring women of a certain age is still a consideration that goes through some people’s minds. I don’t think the legislation has stamped out that unconscious bias, particularly in smaller companies.”
Osborne feels that a change in the law may be needed.
“If you look at places like the Nordic countries, the responsibility for looking after people on parental leave is not down to the company. Their taxes are a lot higher to pay for that, but the state pick up the bill for the maternity leave.
“Years ago, I worked for a small company and I didn’t think I was going to have a baby any time soon, because I thought I might need to have IVF, and I don’t mind you sharing this.
“But I found out I was pregnant six weeks after starting. Had I taken my full maternity leave, it would have caused them a massive issue.
“They were practically a start up at the time and I was brought in to change everything and make sure they had contracts with their customers.
“When I told them I was pregnant, it was as though they had hit a brick wall. They were good about it, though. I did have one person, a woman actually, who made an inappropriate comment and she was called out by a man.
“I had a fairly short maternity leave and went back to work when my daughter was three months old, which is what I’d intended to do.
“But it highlights the issue. Whenever there is so much of the responsibility for maternity leave with a company, it’s hard to break down the barriers of discrimination when there is a fiscal cost attached to it.”
Companies doing it right
Osborne has praise for many companies in the travel industry and a couple of them immediately spring to mind.
“You hear a lot. I like Intrepid, as they are not just talking the talk but walking the walk on lots of different platforms – sustainability and their people.
“They have a good all-round ethos on what a good workplace will look like. That’s where true equality and acceptance of diversity really comes from.
“HF Holidays – look at their model, very traditional, very family-owned, but in the last 4-5 years, they’ve made considerable efforts to look at the needs of women in the workplace and changed the board so that women are represented 50% there. They allow people like Michelle [Laverick] our vice chair, to come and work with organisations like AWTE, to learn more and understand more about women in the workplace.
“They wouldn’t necessarily be seen as progressive. Their workforce isn’t particularly young, they’re not a new company and they are a very traditional company in what they sell. But it hasn’t stopped them moving forward as a company.”
Optimism for the future
Osborne is, by nature, positive and optimistic. She has high hopes that the industry will continue to move in the right direction in 2020 and beyond.
“I am optimistic, absolutely. When you see young guys coming through the industry, the sleaze factor isn’t there so much. As a generalisation, young men have a better appreciation of treating everyone equally.
‘My 13-year-old daughter thinks it’s insane that I’m part of a group that promotes women’s careers. She says ‘well, surely, women just do what they want to do?’
“I was shocked, though, to recently hear about a whatsapp group among men that rated the attractiveness of women entering the industry. I found that astounding. We need to be more grown up than that.
“We are all guilty of judging people on appearance, but we need to engage our brains before we speak or act.
“The nirvana would be that we don’t need an AWTE or we just keep the benevolent fund side of it going, which looks after any members who come into hard times.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re certainly in a better place than we were in 1991.”