Wonder Women

Women are a powerful part of the workforce. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise 47 percent of the total U.S. labor force and are projected to account for 51 percent of it by 2018. In the spa industry, in particular, women make an even bigger impact. “Over the past decades...spa customers have been more female than male by a large margin,” says Susie Ellis. “And while that gap is closing, it has meant that women were more likely to really understand the spa customer. This fact opened a lot of doors at every level. So, the spa industry has held powerful opportunity for women, because they typically understand the customer better than men do and have a long, strong history in the industry.” Here, we tap into the extensive experience of several important female industry leaders to get the lowdown on the opportunities, challenges, and more faced by women in spa.

Meet the Experts

Noel Asmar  CEO and Creative Director, Noel Asmar Group of Companies

Mary Bemis Founder and Editorial Director, InsidersGuidetoSpas.com

Wendy Nierel Bosalavage President, LIV unLtd

Christi Cano Founder and President, Innovative Spa Productions

Susie Ellis Chairman and CEO, Global Wellness Summit; Chairman and CEO, Global Wellness Institute

Tara Grodjesk President, TARA Spa Therapy; Emeritus Founding Board Member, Green Spa Network

Susan Harmsworth Founder and Chairman, ESPA

Sylvie Hennessy Cofounder, Co-owner, and Executive Vice President, Pevonia International

Annet King Vice President of Global Education, Elemis

Shannon McLinden Founder and President, FarmHouse Fresh

Ada Polla CEO, Alchimie Forever 

Lydia Sarfati Founder and CEO, Repêchage 

Gaye Steinke General Manager, Spa Anjali at The Westin Riverfront and Allegria Spa at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek (CO)

A Perfect Fit

Spa, in particular, is a great industry for women. Discover what makes women an ideal match for the wellness world.

“A successful spa must have a strong culture of nurturing and care, traits that are innate, understood, and valued by females. This culture is woven from top to bottom, with managers empathetic to the needs of the staff and a technical team that delivers a healing experience customized to the unique needs of each guest.”—Gaye Steinke

“I think beyond spa, the beauty industry as a whole is one that naturally appeals to women. We remember our mothers using beauty products and makeup. For example, I remember my grandmother taking me to an esthetician for my first facial. Women have more of these memories than men, and I think this helps attract us to the beauty and spa industries.”—Ada Polla

“Women, because of their naturally maternal and feminine energy, are essentially built and programmed in their DNA to provide others with comfort and nurturing. Because the demographics show that the majority of spa-goers are women, it makes a lot of sense that female managers and directors, along with female therapists, will have common ground with their clientele and be able to show empathy and support and best be able to meet their needs.”—Tara Grodjesk

“Spa is a high-touch and passion-driven field. Women have more empathy and are better listeners. In a recent study, Harvard researchers discovered that female doctors who care for elderly hospitalized patients get better results. The study showed that patients cared for by women were less likely to die or return to the hospital after discharge and ‘that approximately 32,000 fewer patients would die if male physicians could achieve the same outcomes as female physicians every year.”—Mary Bemis

The Hotel Exec Conundrum

One of the biggest challenges female spa executives face is at the still-male-dominated hotel executive level. “My experience in hospitality is that a majority of senior management, including GMs, are male,” says Wendy Nierel Bosalavage. “I have found that women are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts.”

Susie Ellis agrees, adding that over the course of her career, she has found many male execs approach spas as “a necessary evil” rather than as an integral part of the guest experience. Tara Grodjesk says she has also noticed a disconnect. “Male executives have to work a little harder, perhaps, to access their feminine side to understand the more esoteric and spiritual nuances to which a female-predominant clientele will appreciate and respond,” she says.

Christi Cano says she recently had a conversation with a top hotel executive who explained that the rise in interest in third-party spa management companies is because many typical male hotel execs are not interested in learning about spas. “They understand rooms and food and beverage, but almost all climb the ladder without an exposure to spa operations,” she says. “Their lack of understanding has led to a lack of interest in supporting the spa department.” For this reason and more, adds Ellis, “It would help immensely if spa directors in every hotel sat at the table with the other hotel management departments to add their expertise and vision, whether male or female.”

The Women Wars

While women can offer excellent support to other women, they can often serve as their biggest enemies. “Women can be dismissive, steal ideas then claim them as their own, have a lack of empathy, and tear others down behind their backs,” says Christi Cano. “Female ruthlessness can be particularly harsh. I’ve seen women do this more often to other women than to their male colleagues.” Tara Grodjesk agrees, adding that shifting away from backstabbing and toward support and collaboration is the best solution. “Women need to be each other’s allies and support one another to excel and break out of the box of traditional business style and competition,” she says. Adds Cano, “Instead of spending time competing, criticizing, and judging, remember that we are in this together.”

Money Matters

Perhaps former first lady Michelle Obama put it best when she said, “No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens.” In the spa industry, as well as the workplace in general, women are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to compensation—studies show that women tend to receive about 78 percent of what men do for the same job. According to the experts, the best strategy for addressing this issue starts with research. “Get the facts,” says Susie Ellis, starting with reaching out to colleagues and industry experts and asking them about their salaries, their starting pay, and more. Annet King also advises using industry tools and studies to discover typical pay ranges for your role and also to take stock of your achievements and what you want to deliver. It’s also important to come to the negotiation table with ideas for improving the bottom line rather than an “I just deserve it for working hard” mentality. Ellis suggests being able to answer the following questions that your boss or supervisor might have: How will you bring in more business? How will you save on expenses? “Better yet, instead of discussing it hypothetically, just do it, and then have the raise discussion,” she says. “Then it will be a pleasure for any boss to say ‘yes.’” Once you are properly prepared, it’s time to schedule a meeting. After all, as Ada Polla says, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. So ask, and then ask again.” 

Feminine Focus

Looking to hone your leadership skills while enjoying an exotic escape? Consider taking part in The Emerging Feminine: Evolving Leadership for Women, an all-inclusive retreat that takes place April 2 to 6 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Hosted by Tara Grodjesk, it includes local adventures, wellness activities, healthy cuisine, and discussions on topics related to the role of enlightened leadership and the balance of feminine and masculine energies. Email [email protected] for more information.

Mistakes to Avoid

Want to get ahead in the spa business? Watch for some of these common missteps.

“Find a balance between empathy and discipline. A spa manager who does not listen will not find support from her team. But without holding the group to clear and strict expectations, chaos will emerge. One toxic team member can impact the entire work group. A good leader must be brave to root out and remove negative influences that can destroy the harmony of the organization.”—Gaye Steinke

“Fear of disrupting the system or possibly affecting someone else’s path can hinder the growth of female businesswomen. Being considerate is important, but it is critical for women in the workplace to know their value and believe in their own abilities. You are your own biggest asset, and you need to believe in yourself.”—Noel Asmar

“The same mistakes women seem to make are not knowing how to negotiate, being too “nice,” undervaluing themselves, and not knowing how to ask for what they want and need. Women also fall into the trap of working too long and too hard to prove they can.”—Mary Bemis

“Many women have not achieved a balance in their work and personal lives. I regularly see women working very long hours to support their businesses then leave work to take care of their home and family. Many women are exhausted and need more time in their lives for self-care.”—Christi Cano

Endless Opportunities

Our panel shares their thoughts on the most exciting prospects in the spa workplace for women.

“Opportunities are still huge in corporate-level training, sales, business development, and management.”—Tara Grodjesk

“This is wide open to include entrepreneurs, massage therapists, estheticians, barbers, fitness pros, and beauty influencers and educators. Job growth is faster than average for massage therapists and skincare specialists. Barriers to entry for many jobs are low, because certification requirements do not require lengthy education compared to other professions.”—Christi Cano

“One of the best opportunities is in training and education for skincare brands. I am in awe of our trainers who not only have the knowledge and skills acquired through certifications but who can electrify a room and bring a renewed excitement about providing services to spa guests.”—Shannon McLinden

“We have made tremendous progress in terms of licensing, qualifications, and career opportunities outside U.S. borders. The caliber of U.S. professionals is truly exceptional, and many are securing international positions due to their leadership and expertise. I believe further improvement is inevitable as millennials move up the ranks. This generation comprises the largest population in U.S. history and will be by far the most educated. They are technologically advanced and will find innovative ways to position the spa as a go-to wellness source for future generations by adding new and unique experiences.”—Sylvie Hennessy

“While we have some very good spa directors, we don’t have enough of them at a leadership level. We need stronger spa directors and managers, which boils down to better education. I’d love to see more women GMs.”—Mary Bemis

Another opportunity? Apply for a spot on industry boards, such as the ISPA board of directors, which is currently made up of seven women and 12 men. “I really encourage other women to apply for this very insightful and valuable experience,” says board member Noel Asmar. “This is a moment to give back to the industry and create an incredible sense of friendship and camaraderie.” Gaye Steinke also encourages women to apply, even though serving on a board may seem like a big commitment. “Many will attest to the difficulty in balancing the needs of guests, staff, operations, and overall resort needs, not to mention the demands of parenting and home life,” she says. “However, the growth and learning opportunities from board work are substantial, and the industry needs the voice of spa insiders. The personal growth, industry connections, and visibility it can bring to the resort and the team can have long-term rewards, along with the gratification that you are supporting a vital industry.”

Network, Network, Network

A common sentiment among our experts is the importance of networking. “There is no excuse for anything less,” says Lydia Sarfati. “Join industry networks and social channels, and participate in key trade events. Stay on top of market trends and new developments. Connect with experts, and establish a mentor panel that you can tap for insight and best practices. Many industry legends and influencers are willing to share their insight for the greater good.” Here are some groups to get you started:

American Massage Therapy Association

American Med Spa Association

Arizona Spa & Wellness Association

Bay Area Beauty Association

Caribbean Wellness & Education



Day Spa Association

Florida Spa Association

Global Wellness Institute

The Great Lakes Alliance

Green Spa Network

Hawaii Spa Association


Las Vegas Spa Association

National Aesthetic Spa Network

National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork

New York Spa Alliance

Professional Beauty Association

Step Up Women’s Network

Washington Spa Alliance 

Women in Wellness Awards

American Spa is taking action to celebrate some of our industry’s most powerful females with the Women in Wellness Awards, an exciting new accolade that honors phenomenal women. A panel of spa and wellness journalists will be tapping winners in the following categories:

  • Industry Icon This award will honor a long-time spa leader, at the spa or manufacturer level, who saw the potential of our industry and influenced its growth and success.
  • Visionary This spa leader inspires others with original ideas and a strong vision for the future of our industry, as well as effective strategies to help achieve those goals.
  • Innovator  Here, we’ll honor an inventor, formulator, or out-of-the-box thinker who has introduced a new method, technology, or product.
  • Rising Star  This newcomer to the industry is making an impact with new, cutting-edge, and exciting ideas.
  • Mentor Whether an educator, a leader of a group or organization, or a company head, this woman is making a difference by serving as a trusted advisor and shining example to others.

To nominate yourself or a colleague, visit www.womeninwellnessawards.com, and submit an application by June 1. Our esteemed panel of wellness journalists will select the winners in each category. Winners and finalists will be announced in our September issue in a special Women in Wellness section that will feature the deserving winners and runners up with in-depth articles that delve into their impressive contributions. We will also host a Women in Wellness Awards event this fall to celebrate the nominees. 


Employer Advocacy

Want to make your workplace welcoming for women? Follow these tips from the Harvard Business Review to make sure your business is working to close the opportunity gap.

  • Create college or school recruitment programs focused on attracting female candidates.
  • Offer mentoring programs for junior-level female employees. These have been shown to diversify management tiers within a number of well-known companies.
  • Ensure social accountability via the hiring of a diversity manager or creation of a diversity task force. When managers who may be averse to the idea of promoting women are asked to explain their decision-making process to this team, they're found to be less likely to act on bias.
  • Publicly hold the entire company accountable by releasing gender-equity reports online.