Making it in a male-dominated domain

3 minutes read
Posted 6 June, 2023
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Penny Clarke’s had a highly-decorated 54-year career in the hotel management game. It’s not been easy, she’s had to fight off stereotypes to rise to the top and forge a path for others.

British-born Clarke entered the hospitality industry at 18, working as wait staff while travelling in Perth, Australia. She arrived in New Zealand in 1972 when hotel management was a male-dominated arena and women weren’t allowed a bank account unless their husband was part of the process.

“If only some of the younger ones realised what us older women went through to have a job in this environment,” says Clarke.
“I didn’t think I could ever be a manager as I had no mentor. They were all men.”

It wasn’t until two male bosses approached her when she was assistant manager at Auckland Airport Travelodge in the mid-1980s that she even considered it. “They had to convince me that I could,” she says.

She worked hard, applying common sense and passion to the job and quickly brought the hotel up to scratch.

“I took the team with me, inspiring them to have the same passion to move forward.”

Ever since her motto’s been ‘give and take’.

“We take energy and skill from staff every day, so we need to give that back, taking time to teach and upskill them.”

Clarke’s managed top hotels, including as an area manager, across the country and even across the ditch in Australia’s sweltering Northern Territory. This included a stint at the Crocodile Hotel and tour operation in Kakadu, where she won Northern Territory Businesswoman of the Year.

In 1991, she won NZ Hotelier of the Year while managing Auckland Travelodge – the same year, she “made a baby and gave birth” to son Richard. A single mother all of Richard’s life, she “broke the mould”, incorporating quality time with him into her long busy days by employing a nanny.

Pregnant hotel managers were unheard of back then and there was no such thing as maternity leave.

“The boys didn’t know how to cope when I said I needed two weeks’ holiday to have a baby. I didn’t want to rock the boat. The firm obviously looked at that on the basis that if anyone can possibly have a baby and be back in two weeks, Penny can, so let’s give it a go,” she says.

“The hotel performed well and I came back to work, fed the baby and got on with the job. After that, a lot of our female staff, who’d looked at me working and very pregnant started getting pregnant too, as in those days, if you told the man boss that you were pregnant, you had to leave.”

While men have their own qualities, Clarke believes women bring more empathy to management roles. “As women, we’re able to read the room and how people are feeling,” she says.

Clarke’s empathy for staff and her own experience working up through the ranks have been key to her success.

“Human beings need to feel appreciated. It doesn’t take long to say ‘thank you’ to your staff,” she says.

But Clarke’s worried by an increasing trend of, particularly younger people, who don’t say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’.

“We’re getting worse at using those personal niceties. It’s a quality I’ve always looked for in staff.”

Managing men keen to climb the ladder has been frustrating at times but being tall has given her that extra boost of authority.

“Unfortunately, men tend to get bogged down in the importance of their title and position, and sometimes their egos get in the way, rather than just getting on with the job,” says Clarke. “So often it was the first question they’d ask me, ‘What’s my title?’.”

“Women who want to pursue their careers and run their own businesses certainly can these days. I did it back then, but you just need a job that’s flexible and hotels function 24/7, which was ideal.”


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