SINGAPORE – On the occasion of International Women’s Day earlier this month, the South East Asia division of Accor Group announced that it had achieved the milestone of 45% of its leadership team being women. The group also reiterated its commitment to make the workplace gender balanced and free of gender-based violence on the occasion. 

One of the key people ensuring that these commitments are fulfilled in the organisation is Garth Simmons, the CEO of Accor SE Asia, Japan and SouthKorea. A father of two girls, he is especially conscious of ensuring that they get equal opportunities when they grow up. So, he began working towards the goal in a personal and professional capacity. 

An Australian national, he has been in the hospitality industry for more than thirty years, and with the Accor Group for almost fourteen years. He has worked his way through the ranks in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore. He talks to Women Icons Network about the importance of male allies to achieve true female empowerment, importance of gender equality at the workplace and why women fared worse than men during the pandemic era.

Workplace Gender Equality  

Simmons thinks that one of the best ways to improve gender equality is to set targets with a deadline attached. He gives the example of how Accor agreed to reach wage parity for women and men by 2017 in its corporate offices. “In some countries, things are moving much faster than others but by setting a target you are at least making it clear that you are committed,” he shares. 

Another change he swears by is to ensure that there are an equal number of men and women candidates for any role advertised. He says it is important to ensure diversity in terms of cultural and racial backgrounds as well. “The more inclusive and diverse a workplace, the more we can represent and respect the differences and similarities among people. It has been proven that companies that are more diverse perform better and are more open to innovation,” he says. 

While policies being changed can help, everyone has a role to play in stamping out sexism and harassment, says Simmons. “True equality can’t come without men supporting and promoting their female colleagues. Women are sometimes reticent about putting their hands up for positions, so I encourage our leaders to look out for strong emerging women talents and create the conversations and opportunities for women to stretch themselves,” he says. 

Diversity at Accor

Gender diversity requires the full support of both men and women in an organisation to be effective, believes Simmons. Luckily for him, Accor Group shares this belief system. That is why they were among the founding members of the United Nations’ HeForShe programme to encourage men to be advocates for their women colleagues. 

“Women face a number of challenges in their personal and professional lives. So, Accor has created a training programme called Women in Leadership, which helps to build their confidence, negotiation skills, communicating with influence and more,” he informs. The company strives to promote more women into leadership roles within the group, he adds. 

This is not something that the conglomerate has done to jump on a bandwagon. Its first formal network to foster gender equality was created back in 2012, under the name of Women at Accor Generation – WAAG. All this gave impetus to gender balance by providing training, education and mentoring programmes to help women take on more senior roles. Six years later, they launched an initiative called Riise, with the ‘ii’ symbolising both the women and men who are committed to sharing knowledge, combating stereotypes and working together towards diversity of all kinds. 

“We have seen the satisfaction levels of our employees of both genders rise over this period. We constantly share stories of women’s successes and showcase the diversity of our leadership team to show our teams that anything is possible,” asserts Simmons. The group also has an Ethics Charter in place which makes it clear that discrimination of any type will not be tolerated.

Role of Male Allies

Garth Simmons believes in leading by example when it comes to inculcating a belief system within his team members rather than depending on regulations. Today, five of the eleven people in his leadership team are strong, capable women. “It’s not enough to just say you are committed to diversity, but to actually walk the talk. This means ensuring you have enough role models in the organisation for anyone to envision themselves in the leadership role. I have been very lucky in my career and personal life to have intelligent, strong women around me. I always try to treat everyone equally,” he shares.

He mentions that over 40% of Riise members are men, including him, which is important as men still retain many of the senior positions within the company so they need to instigate change from the top. All these male members have mentored several women through the programme. “We all have a role to play to teach, model and lead those coming up behind us, regardless of gender. Not only for the benefit of our company but also for the industry as a whole,” he believes.

While most men now are more aware about acceptable behaviour towards female colleagues, Simmons says, he has had offensive behaviour from male colleagues reported to him by women in the past. “In such cases, frank discussions with those in question about how they would feel if the same behaviour was meted out to a significant woman in their own life, their mother, sister, wife or daughter, works. This usually will give people a pause to reconsider their ways,” he says.

When you commit to diversity of any kind, you are saying that you are a company where everyone is treated with respect and provided equal opportunity regardless of their background, he asserts. “It says that everyone can feel safe and supported within the company and that everyone’s voices can be heard,” he adds. 

Impact of Pandemic

Women, Simmons believes, have fared worse than men during the covid 19 pandemic and it’s fallouts. “They were more likely to lose their jobs or because they picked up even more responsibility at home due to homeschooling,” he explains. 

Accor decided to act early on in the pandemic to support Heartists (the term used by the company for its employees because they provide the art of services from the heart) in difficult situations. A sum of € 70 million was set aside for this, and has helped thousands of employees whose salaries were reduced due to reduced hours or closure of a hotel.

However, we have also seen some powerful women emerge stronger in the aftermath of the human tragedy, he adds. He counts leaders like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-Wen, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Finland’s Sanna Marin as effective leaders who were all very effective in controlling the virus in their respective countries. Then, the world saw US Vice President Kamala Harris assume power. 

“We are seeing a pivotal moment for women in leadership that can only be a good thing as we move forward,” he states. The lessons he learnt from observing everything around him during the confusing times, he says, are that we need different perspectives to see a problem from all angles and that by embracing everyone’s ideas we can emerge better and stronger, together. 

Women Bearing Brunt 

Despite his observation about rising female political leaders, he acknowledges that women are still under-represented in politics, on boards and in positions of power across the community. This often means their voices are not equally heard, adds Simmons. 

He thinks that gender equality is not only a fundamental right but also the basis for a sustainable future. However, during his work across twelve Asian countries, he has seen first-hand the inequalities that exist for women and girls. “There are enormous challenges just in getting women and girls out of poverty and ensuring they are not subject to prostitution or servitude,” he informs.

Besides, the social norms are such that women are more likely to be victims of violence, abuse and harassment than men. In a bid to help change this situation, Accor has made a commitment this year to working to end any form of violence against girls and women. The company has been a long-time advocate of empowering the women from disadvantaged backgrounds with the help of education and training that could help them take up employment and become financially independent. 

A strong advocate of CSR, Simmons has led several causes including Accor’s Race to Survive, which raises millions to provide medical equipment for hospitals in Fiji; A Tree for a Child, which provides healthcare and education in Indonesia; and he was a founder of the ‘Achieving The Dream (ATD) initiative, which supports emerging Indonesian athletes.