Dr Catheryn Khoo discusses gender equality, tourism and her new job

Dr Catheryn Khoo

Dr Catheryn Khoo is a multiple-award-winning consultant, trainer, speaker and researcher, whose work is focused around cross-cultural consumer behaviour, tourism, women and inclusion.
A highly respected industry figure with extensive global networks, Dr Khoo has excelled in bringing together industry, research and teaching. With her work, she bridges the gap between data and action, using her research to improve the industry and positively impact people’s lives.

Inspiring Thought Leader Dr Catheryn Khoo Discusses Gender Equality, Tourism and Her New Job at BMIHMS

Dr Catheryn Khoo is a multiple-award-winning consultant, trainer, speaker and researcher, whose work is focused around cross-cultural consumer behaviour, tourism, women and inclusion.

A highly respected industry figure with extensive global networks, Dr Khoo has excelled in bringing together industry, research and teaching. With her work, she bridges the gap between data and action, using her research to improve the industry and positively impact people’s lives.

A Fullbright Scholar with a PhD in Marketing, Dr Khoo has published several books and over 100 research articles on hospitality and tourism management, including publications covering the largely undocumented intersection of gender, travel and Asian cultural identity.

Currently, Dr Khoo is Editor-in-Chief of Tourism Management Perspectives; Series Editor for the “Perspectives on Asian Tourism” published by Springer, as well as the founder of Women Academics in Tourism (Wait); Consultant to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and Special Advisor to World Women Tourism.

On top of these other impressive roles, Dr Khoo is also now the latest staff member to join the team at the Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School (BMIHMS), Torrens University Australia.

In this latest exciting appointment, Professor Khoo will join BMIHMS and Torrens University to lead the Hospitality Department Research Cluster and to support overall research activities in Hospitality.

She will also be working closely on strategic initiatives, with a particular focus on the link between industry and curriculum.

The team at BMIHMS and Torrens University are thrilled to have her on board this year.

To celebrate, we approached Dr Khoo for an exclusive interview to discuss some of her ideas, what drives her, where she gets her incredible energy, and what she’s got planned for her role at BMIHMS.

Despite her full schedule, she responded with some inspiring answers to some of the most pertinent questions crucial to the industry today:

You are the founder of Women Academics in Tourism (WAiT), Special Advisor to World Women Tourism, and a Gender Expert to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and Advisory Board Member of the International Tourism and Investment Conference; you have been so busy in this field, and you are clearly very passionate about human rights.

Can you take us back to when you started out researching topics of gender, diversity and equality; what compelled you towards these subjects in the first place? Were you raised with a strong sense of social justice?

“My research agenda is mostly inspired by my own experiences as a female Asian traveller, but also by my students.

I have presented the challenges I was facing to my students in my classes, and over the years, some students have been interested enough to want to find solutions and have an  impact on decision-making for women in tourism.

The choice for my current research agenda is motivated by my own ideals as much as other factors, such as my own experiences with social injustice, the unfair circumstances one finds oneself in and curiosity around why people behave the way they do.

I do have a strong sense of social justice, but I think it is because I have experienced a lot of this injustice myself, although that is a long story.  In short, I want to live an inspired life. I want to make my work, which is a large part of my life, count.

I can see how I can help, I have this set of gifts and I’ve found a good way to use them.”

Can you tell us a little bit about WAiT and why you founded it?

“I founded Women Academics In Tourism (WAiT) after talking to many of my colleagues, in order to: help other women academics share career information, share career information specific to tourism and its sub-disciplines, and to make contacts across the various tourism departments and schools around the world.

WAiT is also set up for women to share information and be informed of the growing literature that points to occupational sexism, where women generally lose out on leadership positions based on normative perception of women's role in society.”

You have said that you are a women’s travel researcher, that with your work, you aim to help women travel better, so that women can have better travel experiences.

Can you explain a little about how travel experiences are gendered?

“Female travellers are likely to perceive greater risk than males and feel more vulnerable and insecure than males.

These perceptions, feelings and experiences constrain women’s travel behaviour. If you key in travel tips for women into Google, for example, the results are quite terrifying because what you will mostly find is everyone telling you that it is not safe for you to travel.

The geography of women’s fear refers to spaces and places within travel and tourism that we are advised not to go to because of the very fact that we are women. Some examples include dodgy neighbourhoods, suspicious streets, back alleys, night clubs or even night time.

As women, we have a mental map of unsafe places we need to avoid.

In addition, according to research, leisure consumption for those responsible for children is simultaneously recreational and laborious.

The divide between leisure and work is blurred.  Mothers, compared to fathers, are usually reported to be struggling to find an effective balance between relaxation or immersion in their own needs, and in spending time with the rest of the family. 

Mothers of babies and young children have been said to experience exhaustion from holiday preparations, and  anxiety from the anticipation of flying , as well as guilt from the children misbehaving in the public tourism space. And this extends even to women who are not parents, women who are carers of elderly parents and who are responsible for them during holidays. 

Added to the practical challenges of caring for children and parents are the social expectations placed upon women to be good wives, good mothers and good daughters or daughters-in-law.

So when women travel with their families, whether it be with their children, their siblings or their parents, they make sure that everybody is cared for, and that everybody is having a great time. The social expectations for women to be a good wife, good mother and good daughter or daughter-in-law bring with them social and psychological risks, perceptions of external scrutiny and judgement for failing to conform to ideals.”

What might a better travel experience for women look like?

“A better travel experience for women is one where we can move freely, where we can go anywhere without the fear of dark alleys, fear of walking alone at night, fear of being raped.

Those are the big ideals. On a more micro level, it is where women aren’t made uncomfortable  by the male gaze when they travel.”

What are a few things that industry operators could do to empower women - as travellers, but also as professionals within the industry?

“My research has consistently shown that women either consciously or unconsciously want holiday activities where they can be empowered, where they can return home feeling that they have done something to better themselves. Tourism providers continue to offer women nothing of this sort.

I have however worked with some tourism businesses and organisations to develop new tourism products that will empower women who go on holidays.

Many of the ideas have caught on and it’s great to see, but the majority of businesses are still not aware of women’s travel needs.

In the UNWTO Global Report on Women in Tourism, we laid out an Action Plan that will help actors in the private and public sectors boost tourism’s empowering potential for women. The Action Plan can be accessed here.”

What are the incentives for brands and operators in the industry to do better in terms of equality (not just do better targeted marketing towards women)?

“When brands and operators give women the same opportunities and access to opportunities as men, the organisations thrive, but families and communities also thrive.

It is because women don’t lead like men. Women care about profitability, yes, they have been found to increase profits and share performances of the organisations they work for; but, women also lead by nurturing and empowering the others around them.

Women empower other employees. A 2019 McKinsey study found that 38% of senior-level women currently mentor or sponsor one or more colleagues, compared with only 23% of senior-level men. Also, women are more likely than senior-level men to embrace employee-friendly policies and programs.

As a result, there is so much empirical evidence that supports gender diversity within leadership representation.

For example, another 2019 McKinsey study found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.”

You have been researching gender, travel and culture for quite a few years - you have written an impressive amount of books and articles on this topic. What keeps you going?

“What keeps me going is the ripple effects my work creates: when one party gets the message and implements the recommendations I made, I get to see how that in turn betters lives.

When I see eyes light up as they listen to me speak on these issues I care so much about, that’s what keeps me going.

It’s also the emails and messages I receive to say how something I’d said changed them, their perspectives and their lives, these are the things that keep me going. So, I think it’s all down to doing work that has meaning, not just for me, but for the industry and communities and people.” 

You are going to be starting a new role at BMIHMS soon. What will your role be, why did you choose it, and what do you want to achieve with this new step in your career?

“I will be leading research for hospitality and tourism. My role is to develop the research capacity within hospitality and tourism, to facilitate collaborative research networks and cross institutional research development opportunities both nationally and internationally.

Our industry-research linkages are already strong compared to so many other universities, but I would like to leverage more off our incredible industry networks.

I would like to introduce our students early on to research and data, so that when they go into industry, they will know how to incorporate reliable data and evidence into planning and decision-making.  One of the ways we can do this is to introduce research-focussed teaching into our curriculum.”

Your career covers roles in industry, research and teaching: what do you learn (and can then pass on to your students) from having a foot in each of these three fields?

“That all three are profoundly linked; that each one must inform the other two; that the role we play in one can be translated to the other two; and that we need to do a better job at integrating knowledge in research, in teaching and in industry.

Knowledge is not powerful if you don’t do anything with it, and yet that’s what researchers tend to do. They tend to generate knowledge, publish it and that’s that.

We need to do a better job at translating this knowledge into action plans, implementations, policies, benchmarks, and reflections.”

What advice would you offer young hotel management students - women and men - on how to affect change in their workplaces and careers, for a more equal and diverse industry in the future?

“I always say to students, you can get an education and still not be educated.

The degree does not improve you as a human being, if you don’t engage with the knowledge you’ve received. It’s just like downloaded data, sitting on a server, just taking up space not doing anything.

We need to question the status quo, and our own current way of thinking and doing things.

While it is good to celebrate successes and achievements, it is also important to question our own privileges and the access to opportunities that enabled our successes. We need to think about those who, whatever their circumstances, do not have the same access; those who might be more qualified than us, who did not have the same opportunities.

When we do this act of questioning and reflecting whole-heartedly, that will be enough. The answers that arise from this process will inspire intentions and actions.”

Check our Hospitality Courses to learn more
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