VisitScotland rising to challenge to improve gender balance

Visitors vision: Tourists are attracted to the diversity of Scotland, including experiences like landing on Traigh Mhor beach on Barra. Picture: Paul Tomkins, VisitScotland
Visitors vision: Tourists are attracted to the diversity of Scotland, including experiences like landing on Traigh Mhor beach on Barra. Picture: Paul Tomkins, VisitScotland
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In partnership with VisitScotland

SINCE their names were unveiled by tourism minister Fergus Ewing at the start of December, it’s been a busy time for the new faces on VisitScotland’s board. From senior management familiarisation days through to their first board meeting, the latest recruits have been finding their feet and learning more about how the national tourism agency operates.

After she became First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon called on all public bodies to improve the diversity of their boards, including a greater push for gender equality. Sturgeon led by example, balancing the number of women and men in her cabinet.

VisitScotland was quick to take up the challenge, drafting in charitable organisation Changing the Chemistry to help it create a more diverse board. A workshop was held at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre last summer to encourage more women to put their names forward for the board positions and to explain how their talents and experience could be used to help shape the future of Scottish tourism.

Taking up their seats on the board during December were: Professor Anne Anderson, vice-principal and head of the College of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow; Rebecca Brooks, managing director of destination management company Abbey Scotland; Cathy Craig, commercial director at railway operator Abellio ScotRail; Carolyn Jameson, chief legal officer at Edinburgh-based flight comparison website Skyscanner; and Orkney councillor Stephen Hagan, who is the development, economy and sustainability spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla).

They join a board that already comprises Edinburgh Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar, Scottish Canals chief executive Steve Dunlop and Calum Ross, proprietor of the Loch Melfort Hotel near Oban. Together, the board members are responsible for setting the direction and making strategic decisions about the future of the organisation.

Each new member brings different skills and experience to the board. “I spend a lot of time going out to various parts of the world – the United States, Canada, Azerbaijan and China in particular – building links with our alumni,” says Anderson, who points out that there are 50,000 students in Scotland from outside the European Union, with their families and friends being potential visitors and they themselves becoming advocates for our nation in the future.

“It’s a real privilege because I’m being an ambassador for Scotland and not just my one particular university. I think I will bring the enthusiasm of that ambassadorial role to VisitScotland.

“There’s a great warmth for Scotland internationally, whether that comes from people having studied or worked here or visited on holiday.

“Building that network of people around the world who are advocates for Scotland will bring all kind of benefits, both commercial and otherwise. VisitScotland has done a good job of building that community feeling but there’s more we can be doing.”

Selling Scotland on the world stage – as a holiday destination rather than as somewhere to come to study – is also a major part of Brooks’s day job as managing director of Abbey Scotland, a destination management company or wholesaler that sells to tour operators worldwide and which brought 30,000 visitors to Scotland in 2015.

“My background is in the international arena in terms of in-bound visitors to Scotland,” says Brooks.

“Our model is to sell Scotland as a destination to international tour operators, with our clients coming from all over Europe, the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the wider world.

“My insight is into the international marketplace and the competition that exists. I also hope to bring my commercial awareness to my work with the agency.”

Brooks also wants to support the work that VisitScotland is doing in the digital space, both marketing directly to consumers and in the business-to-business arena.

It’s a topic that also strikes a chord with Jameson, who was the head of legal at Wolfson Microelectronics, another Edinburgh-based technology company, before she joined Skyscanner.

“My work in the digital environment will hopefully be of use to VisitScotland,” she says. “I also hope my legal skills will be of use, gained both from Skyscanner but also from Wolfson, which was a publicly-listed company and so had governance requirements.

“I’m also truly passionate about Scotland – it wasn’t just a line for the interview,” laughs Jameson. “What’s always shocked me is how many people don’t know about these beautiful places to go and visit in Scotland. I don’t think the economic role of tourism is appreciated either.”

For Craig, her time on the VisitScotland board will be an opportunity to highlight the importance of transport to tourism. “The idea that your holiday only begins when you reach your final destination doesn’t really ring true for me,” she says.

“The journey is part of the holiday too and if you have a bad journey then it can spoil your day or whole holiday. We need to make sure people can travel safely, on time and have a good experience.”

As well as bringing their skills to the table, the new members are enthusiastic about VisitScotland’s work to bring greater diversity to its board, not just through gender equality but also bringing on board people with diverse experiences.

“There’s a lot of evidence that diversity on boards leads to better performance,” explains Anderson, who is also Glasgow University’s gender equality champion and an adviser to Annabelle Ewing, the Scottish Government’s minister for youth and women’s employment.

“Diversity trumps ability in problem solving, so that’s a benefit to the organisation.

“But it’s also about providing role models for younger women at earlier stages in their career – they need to be able to see that they can finish up in any kind of role, whether it be executive leadership or non-executive.”

Brooks points out: “Any organisation needs diversity in all its guises. Gender balance is important. Tourism is an industry that’s made up of a huge number of female workers.

“In my sector, we need a lot of linguistics skills and in the UK, more women study languages than men. So it’s very positive to see female representation at the top of the tree.”

Jameson adds: “It’s not even necessarily about gender – it’s about having people from diverse backgrounds in the room, who collectively can hopefully make better decisions.

“It’s really encouraging to see organisations like VisitScotland doing that and will it hopefully set an example to other organisations that aren’t as forward-thinking in their approach.”

Craig agrees: “Personally, I’m not a big fan of positive discrimination and in fact the first part of the application process for these board posts was blind. It’s important but, for me, it’s more about diversity than it is about gender balance. VisitScotland was primarily looking for people with commercial experience.”

WHERE ARE THE NEW BOARD MEMBERS’ FAVOURITE PLACES TO VISIT IN SCOTLAND?

REBECCA BROOKS

“I’m a keen body boarder and so I love going to Sutherland, which is great for surfing. It’s a long way from the Central Belt but it’s well worth the journey. There’s nowhere else like it in Europe. I also love Orkney – it’s unique.”

CATHY CRAIG

“It has to be Harris for me – that’s where I truly fell in love with Scotland and decided I wanted it to be my home. The beaches are just beautiful. It’s magical. It’s so far away but really it’s still so accessible. It’s completely removed from day-to-day city life.

CAROLYN JAMESON

“I love visiting the islands, especially Mull. It’s so peaceful and quiet, yet there’s still lots going on and you get a really warm welcome. The walking is amazing and the wildlife is spectacular. Plockton is also really special and has a fantastic pub. The people there are so proud of their community – we need more places like that.”

ANNE ANDERSON

“Glasgow is fantastic. I really enjoy going out to events like Celtic Connections. I also always recommend Loch Lomond. I think a lot of visitors are surprised that somewhere as beautiful and picturesque as Loch Lomond is so close to a big city like Glasgow. You don’t have to drive far to feel like you’re getting away from it all.”

This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.