Judi Brownell is professor of organizational communication and dean of students at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. Her most recent research, “Creating Value for Women Business Travelers: Focusing on Emotional Outcomes,” released in June 2011. It concludes that hospitality companies should “focus on how combinations of services, amenities and facilities contribute to the desired affective responses sought by women business travelers.” She also is a past president of the International Listening Association and has received awards for her research in this field.
Tell me about your recent research. Why did you choose to focus on women business travelers?
We have a Center for Hospitality Research here and it has a number of partners. At meetings they generate topics they think are going to be of interest and women business travelers has come up as one several times. I’ve been in administration for a few years and haven’t been as active in research as I was, but I have always been engaged in women’s issues and in career development, so I said I wanted to explore the topic.
Was there interest in women travelers as a topic because there hasn’t been sufficient research on the topic?
Yes, I think so. With all the women’s issues, reaction to them is a mixed bag. There are some in the industry who dig in their heels and don’t want to hear of treating women as a separate demographic. With this new research I’ve done, I knew there would be people who find it very useful, but I’m also ready for those who will look at it and say “Yeah, right. You’re just making a big deal over women again.”
And have you had negative feedback yet?
No. And it’s amazing. This is unexpected. I’ve had requests for more information and for permission to put it out there in various places. I hadn’t expected it being so positively received.
Is that a good sign about changing opinions of research into women’s issues?
I think there has been some change, yes. I believe people are more open to it. The number of women business travelers is increasing, for one thing. They account for nearly half of all business travelers in the United States. What I did was look at the research and say there is no silver bullet answer to attracting women travelers. But I believe the emotional factors, the feelings a woman has are important [in her choice and assessment of a hotel]. The “This feels safe” or “Yes, this feels comfortable” reactions matter.
In focus groups, men are more likely to say ‘I just need a bed and a TV.” Women will debate bringing their own pillow. They define an experience differently.
Have you had any adverse reaction to your research from businesswomen, who may not like it to be said that their decisions are based on emotions more than a man’s might be?
You’re right that that is a concern that I had. It is a risk. It can flow into that “Women are more emotional so maybe they can’t handle management duties” stereotype. But there are facts [about women travelers] that shouldn’t be ignored. There also shouldn’t be a negative spin just because women pick up emotional cues more readily or display emotions more readily than men. Women are more affected by ambience.
I have not heard negative feedback on that conclusion. Yet. The two women I acknowledge in the research [Cary Broussard, president of Broussard Communications, and Leslie Grossman, co-founder of the Women’s Leadership Exchange] were my sounding boards on such things and both were supportive. These are women who are out in business and they thought [the topic] was OK. I really wanted to provide insights that made improvements for women.
How do you assess the level of opportunity for women within the hospitality industry? What are the women graduates you send into the business world finding?
Actually, we now have more women admitted than men. Our women graduates are doing wonderful things. They’re entrepreneurial; they’re starting business and creating. But I wrote an article many years ago on work/family balance, and while some hotels are providing daycare and such, the bottom line is that it is not an easy industry for any but single women. The hours are crazy and you’re on call at all hours. The job often is your life.
I’m not sure that’s the fault of the industry. It’s the reality of the industry. So we see a lot of attrition still. A lot of women get into the business and then when they get out there, they get to a point where they ask, “At what cost?”
The stereotypical role relations still are such that a woman is more forgiving of a man who works those kinds of hours than a husband does with a wife.
Do the women coming into the Cornell program really understand what likely will be asked of them?
I think they do. Cognitively, at least. But then you get out there and you can rethink it. I know we talk to them about it. And they have a passion for it. But in the end there still are more women than men who leave [the program]. The difference in attrition isn’t huge, but it’s significant.
I know that you also have done research on the topic of listening. Did this grow from your business consulting work?
A while ago I was called in to a company to do a needs analysis. The employees were complaining that managers didn’t listen and they asked me to do some training. The managers didn’t think they needed help, that it was the employees who didn’t listen. I developed a model that looks at listening as separate skills that you can teach independently.
People may be better in some of these skills than in others so you can target training to groups and individuals. I wrote a text that has 90% of the very small academic market. It’s in its sixth edition. The first chapter is attention; the problems of concentrating and of focusing and being in a position of readiness to listen. Then it’s understanding, comprehension and interpreting (which is picking up non-verbal cues), remembering, and evaluating.
So my father was correct when he repeatedly told me that “Listening is a skill”?
Oh yes. Well, it’s a skill, but the interesting thing is that without motivation, it doesn’t really matter what kind of training you go through; the willingness and interest in listening is vital. So people might test out as an excellent listener but when they go into the job setting they may get rated poorly because they’re no longer trying to listen. You have to value listening to be a good listener.
In your experience, how widespread is a deficiency in listening at the top management levels in business?
It’s very common. People don’t see that a lot of the problems created are the result of not listening. It’s critical.
When employees first come in to a company and are socialized and learn the culture, they need to listen really well. At mid-career, speaking becomes more important because you’re asked to lead. But when you get to senior management, listening again is critical. You can’t be everywhere; you need to depend on others.
Give me a sense of your own career path. You didn’t set out to be a professor of hospitality, I assume.
I started out going to school year-round. I loved school; I had a million majors. But my mother said, “You need to do something.” I ended up teaching English at a high school, but I wanted still more advanced classes. I got my M.A. in speech communication and I became interested in the applications of communications to organizations. I did an interdisciplinary Ph.D. at [State University of New York at] Binghamton, and I came here because a lot of the really interesting organizational issues involved service businesses.
I’ve been associate dean responsible for the faculty and I’ve been director of graduate studies. I do some research and I teach one course.
Those are top management roles. How have you dealt with some of the “women’s issues” that you’ve researched.
Assertiveness by women was a popular topic a few years ago and I’ve taught my share on it. Back when I talked about women’s careers, I believed that the male students were going through school with a more positive of their female colleagues than in the past. But we still find that it’s the Old Boy Network that hurts women.
I’m not a feminist by any measure, and I think men don’t do it intentionally. It’s a comfort issue. They can talk golf or sports with each other and the women can’t join in.
Men and women have different interests
Sorry, but they do. It often comes down to who you want to work for. You want to work for someone you’re comfortable with and who you share interests with. Men have this bonding thing that excludes women and I don’t know whether that will change.
How do you counsel women in the program to deal with that reality?
We tell them to understand it and to say something about it without feeling a personal slight. Because it’ not an intentional thing.
I hear from women who are in environments that really are sexist. Professional kitchens, especially. I believe women need to be ready to assert themselves when they see that things are unfair or if they are harassed. We want the women graduating from this school to not jump to the conclusion that it’s a personal insult, but we also want them to be ready to say what they want and need.
And are you educating the men about this as well?
Certainly. We’re helping them see the pitfalls they can fall into in a workplace. It’s gotten better, but sexism is certainly out there. I think women need to speak up. We struggle with the line between being bitchy and being passive. Women wait and wait and don’t speak up and then they go crazy. And that plays back to the question with the business traveler research about women’s emotional needs.