When Zina Bencheikh strode to the tourism ministry in Rabat with an armful of applications for new tour guides, she was making history – and creating a brighter future for women all over her country. As Intrepid’s general manager for Morocco, she had personally lobbied the government to grant more tourism licences to women – and those forms, filled out by ladies from every walk of life, was the culmination of her hard work. Of the applicants, thirteen women were granted accreditation – and Intrepid Travel is now the largest employer of female guides in Morocco.
This is just one in a long line of success stories for the adventure tour operator. Last year, it pledged to double its number of female tour guides globally – before surpassing the target six months early. Now, it employs 314 women in tour leader roles, helping women in countries from Mexico to Morocco to build careers that they have traditionally been denied – whether by societal norms, family pressure, or simply lack of opportunities. In India, the company now has a 50/50 split of male/female guides.
But it hasn’t been easy, admits Leigh Barnes, Intrepid’s Chief Purpose Officer: “In 2017 we became signatories to the UN Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles – but that same year, we realised that we didn’t have the right gender balance among our leaders,” he says. “To address this, we set a company-wide goal of doubling our number of female guides by 2020.”
Leigh and his team had to resort to some creative methods to kick-start the recruitment drive: they advertised in beauty salons and cafes, created targeted social media campaigns, and even visited the homes of potential new recruits to reassure their families that tourism is a suitable career choice.
But without their efforts, the company never would have discovered women such as Hafida Hdoubane, a Berber who is the first mountain leader in the Atlas Mountains. Or Usha Mary, the first female guide in Southern India, who fought convention to follow her career dreams. These are strong, independent women – and fantastic guides.
Today, Intrepid Group (the umbrella company for the Intrepid Travel brand) has 2,100 staff from 68 nationalities based in 40 offices all over the world. Around 65% of Intrepid Group travellers are female, and 60% of global staff are women. “Diversity and inclusion has always been at the forefront of everything we do,” says Leigh. “We know that our strength comes through our differences and the freedom for everyone to be themselves – locals, leaders, and travellers.”