As a whole, the hospitality industry has far to go in terms of promoting gender and racial equity in its middle and upper management ranks. Particularly when considering the heavy concentration of women and people of color in entry-level positions, such as hotel housekeeping and maintenance, against the dearth of people who look like them in senior positions.
Melanie Glenn is an exception to that. She is today the director of engineering at the W Hotel in Hoboken, New Jersey. She initially applied several times for several jobs with hotel companies just to get her foot in the door and, after much effort, the Marriott organization was the first to hire her. Even then, she had to take an entry-level job in housekeeping—something unheard of among her engineering peers.
Indeed, the World Travel and Tourism Council reported in 2017 that, while more than half the industry workforce is made up of women, less than a quarter of managers in tourism are women. One prominent hotel in Las Vegas has one woman among 25 executives. Doing a better job is American Airlines, where three women out of nine management team members are women, bettering all other major companies in the airline, hotel, amusement, and booking platform companies surveyed.
Glenn, who possessed an affinity for fixing things from a young age after being taught by her father, had the skills to do what hotel building engineers do, which is to oversee the functioning of the physical property. Perhaps perseverance was her strongest skill—something that counts for a lot in the never-ending challenges of keeping hotels operating effectively, efficiently, and with apparent ease. She shares how guests never see what it takes to keep the lights on, the water running, carpets in good repair, and air temperature just right.
With what had to be a mix of frustration and determination, Glenn took the housekeeping position with pride and a plan but made it clear to her supervisors that she would like to work in the engineering department. After about four months at the Marriott International Residence Inn in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she and her New York City born-and-raised family moved after 9/11, the maintenance engineering position opened. Shortly after that another vacancy enabled her to become the chief engineer, overseeing the renovations and property contracts.
All of this might appear to be strokes of luck. But luck, as it has been famously said, is when opportunity meets preparation.
Glenn describes her younger self as a child that loved everything from dolls to trucks, and says her father provided the encouragement she needed to put her interests to work with an engineering mind-set. Her talents for repair came in just as handy as an understanding of how to prevent things from being broken.
“We make your lights work,” she says. “That includes keeping the computers running, and maintaining the chillers and heating. We call in an electrician—when the problem involves 240 volts—and the master plumbers, and the licensed engineers, and we oversee maintenance and replacement of things like carpeting.” Glenn is emphatic about preventive maintenance, describing it as both scientific and strategic. That often means she has to roll up her own sleeves to diagnose a problem.
It’s also a job with no small effort given to sustainability. “Everything I do has a green initiative,” she says. “Marriott’s overall goal is to reduce our carbon footprint.” That included a universal replacement of halogen light bulbs with LEDs, which saves the company about $60,000 in energy costs and a commensurate amount in CO2. The hotel has also installed remote-control thermostats and sensor- and voice-activated light switches; throughout the older Marriott properties, including the Hoboken W Hotel, older windows have been replaced with modern, energy-saving versions. The housekeeping staff has even been trained to reduce unnecessary water use.
Of course, as buildings and building systems modernize, and municipal building codes become more stringent, so too do engineers. Not only has Glenn advanced her education and certifications, but also her regional manager tapped her to participate in a quarterly advanced engineering program and to attend sessions with the hotel behemoth’s global vice president of engineering. “It’s mostly corporate people who go to this,” she observes. “I am one of the few hotel-based participants.”
Despite the hurdles it took to get hired in the first place, Glenn is grateful for the advancement opportunities she’s received, with stops along the way at Marriott properties around the world. She says the company values its employees and prioritizes promoting from within.
Countering the industry’s poor record in gender equity, Glenn now leads Marriott’s Women’s Advisory Council, which mentors, trains, and empowers women in the company’s engineering discipline. It fits an ethos she recalls her from childhood: “My grandmother always said, ‘Never give up on your dreams.’” Today, Glenn has her wife of 30 years, her 3 sons, 4 grandchildren, and family cheering her on.