Female travellers: a unique risk profile

Solitary female traveller
Safe travel for all

Lauren Haigh spoke with a collection of travel risk, security and insurance experts to identify the unique risks facing female travellers and how they can be mitigated by the industry

Travel can pose myriad risks for women, and this is an issue that has received significant media attention of late. The recent high-profile case of a teenage British tourist who alleged she was assaulted in Ayia Napa by a group of Israeli youths and the case of three American female tourists who alleged rape and sexual assault following a New Year’s Eve party in Spain (see ITIJ 229) are just two examples that highlight one of women’s worst fears when it comes to the risks associated with travelling outside of their usual sphere of protection.

A 2019 survey from SAP Concur, a US-based SaaS company that provides travel and expense management services to businesses, revealed that safety is the number one concern for female business travellers. Indeed, 42 per cent of respondents said that they have had a negative experience related to their gender; with most being asked if they are travelling with their husband. 

The number of females travelling alone is on the rise, but so is women’s unease

Certain countries may be deemed particularly ‘high-risk’. Travel blog site Asher & Lyric created the ‘Women’s Danger Index’, which reveals the most dangerous destinations for solo female travellers, looking at factors including the percentage of women who feel safe walking alone at night, the female victims of intentional homicide index, attitudes to violence against women and the global gender gap.

“To be able to measure safety for solo female travellers, we realised that we couldn’t only look at data on street safety, rape, and violence,” said Lyric Fergusson. “We also needed to dive into the general attitude of the culture, the minutiae of the legal system, and other gender inequality issues. This is because these issues can affect everything, from easily getting a taxi alone to having your voice be heard in a conversation to even needing a male escort for your safety.” According to the Index, South Africa is the worst country for women travelling alone, followed by Brazil, Russia, Mexico and Iran.

Risk assessment
Looking at the specific risks facing female travellers, Raquel Recuero, Regional Security Co-ordinator, Healix International, which provides healthcare and risk management solutions, told ITIJ that these risks are not inherently different to those faced by male travellers. The difference is that women may be prone to being considered more vulnerable targets by perpetrators. “This perception of vulnerability thus increases the risks female travellers face when travelling to some locations around the world. Although general safety recommendations should be followed by all travellers, female travellers may be more liable to experience sexual harassment or assault in some locations, as well as opportunistic crime, kidnap or targeted attack,” she said.

Suzanne Sangiovese, Operations Manager – Americas, Riskline, a travel risk intelligence company, agrees: “Statistically, women are at higher risk than men to be victims of sexual harassment or violent sexual crimes. Women are also often perceived as an easier target by criminals, placing them at higher risk for some petty crimes or muggings,” she told ITIJ.

The number of females travelling alone is on the rise, but so is women’s unease. Marketing communications agency Eric Mower and Associates asked 400 US women about their perceptions on safety when travelling alone and found that one-third are less comfortable travelling alone today due to current media coverage of sexual harassment and assault. Only 15 per cent said that they are very or extremely comfortable travelling solo. And when it comes to experiences, two in five reported that they have experienced sexual harassment or unwelcome interactions when travelling.

With both perceptions and experiences indicating that solo female travellers are an at-risk demographic, it is important that businesses and travel insurers alike prioritise their safety. Indeed, more than ever before, they are recognising the unique travel considerations of women, and work is being done to minimise risks and make travel safe and enjoyable for this demographic.

A happy female traveller

Recuero also said that cultural norms may have more impact on female than male travellers. For example, how female travellers dress can be particularly important regarding the risks they are exposed to overseas. Deborah Avery, Head of International Assistance, Anvil Group, which delivers advanced technology-led business resilience and travel risk solutions, agrees: “For females who are travelling to countries where there may be higher crime levels or complicated social and cultural differences to those in their home country, women may be treated differently to men and attract unwanted attention.” Therefore, Avery said, it is important that travellers respect cultural differences and take measures to ensure they comply with the expected local behaviours and norms. 

It is important that travellers respect cultural differences and take measures to ensure they comply with the expected local behaviours and norms

Rhonda Sloan, Senior Vice-President and Global Head of Marketing and Industry Relations at AIG Travel, a global insurance company, also underlined this point: “Not knowing local customs, or failing to follow them, might cause female travellers to be the recipients of aggressive behaviour from locals,” she stated.
As such, many insurers offer advice and guidance, along with providing other resources, to ensure female travellers are fully prepared prior to embarking on their trips. 

Anvil provides a range of traveller safety courses specifically designed for women travelling alone or with other females that cover: what to expect while travelling; safe travelling, taxis, self-drive and public transport; business culture; socialising abroad; managing sexual harassment; and dressing for their environment.

Sangiovese of Riskline further highlighted that female travellers face unique risks pertaining to culture and customs. “While many countries around the world have specific societal customs and laws for all genders, there are typically more variables that would affect a female traveller, such as: dress code (covering of hair or modest dress) and behavioural norms (not shaking hands with men or drinking alcohol in public). Some countries have specific laws that limit the movement of women in certain public places (segregation in restaurants or on public transportation),” she said. She also pointed out that, when it comes to health and wellness during travel, female travellers may have limited access to specialised gynaecological and reproductive health services, medicines and products in certain areas.

Peter Cooper, Global Security Director for Collinson, a global company in the provision of medical, security and travel risk management services, said that female travellers face a unique set of risks and one reason why a one-size-fits-all approach is neither appropriate nor adequate is that each traveller carries their own unique risk profile. “It is important to recognise that we will all face slightly different risks based on our profiles and good travel risk management will take these into account,” he told ITIJ. “Female travellers are a significant proportion of the business travel segment and they have their own specific risks and experiences.”

Two female travellers on a cliff

So how can these risks be mitigated? Providing pre-trip education and training on the types of risk that female travellers may face is paramount. “A growing number of companies are requesting and developing policies focused on the risks that are more prevalent for female travellers. Researching and conducting due diligence about destinations, transport and accommodation options, as well as potential venues, are also effective strategies for the mitigation of risks,” Recuero told ITIJ.

Cooper said that a key part of travel risk mitigation is understanding and recognising the risks that potentially lie ahead for the female traveller. “Not only does this reduce the risk of incidents occurring, it also provides reassurance to the female traveller that their welfare is the organisation’s key priority,” he stated. “Education should be across the business, so that female travellers have a good understanding of the types of behaviour and actions they can take to help keep themselves safe. It’s equally important that education is provided for managers to understand the differing risks faced by female travellers and the support needed so that trips are successful and safe.”

Does perception match risk?
When it comes to perception versus the reality of risk, the two might not necessarily be aligned, said Cooper. “In a recent survey of 503 female business travellers conducted by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) in 2018, 83 per cent had one or more safety-related concerns that year while travelling and 90 per cent said safety concerns affected what they did in their personal time while travelling for work,” he told ITIJ. “Some risk perceptions may not be aligned with the reality of risk female travellers face, for instance feeling anxious about being caught up in a terrorist event while travelling when the actual risk of being involved in one is very low.”

Cooper said that this gap is often expanded in the aftermath of widely publicised events and that it is important that travel risk mitigation programmes remind female travellers that what appears to be a low-risk, everyday activity, such as taking a taxi, may actually incur higher risks than largely publicised incidents.

Sangiovese concurs that perceived and actual risk can sometimes be misaligned. “Some locations can be perceived as having higher risks than they really do because they seem foreign, unfamiliar and exotic, whereas those that appear safe can lull a female traveller into a false sense of security,” she stated. 

Sloan of AIG pointed out, though, that travellers’ concerns and reality are, in some instances, in an appropriate state of alignment. “We recently conducted research with the GBTA that explored a range of safety concerns for female business travellers. For example, 72 per cent of female business travellers said they believe they face greater risk of sexual harassment and assault than their male counterparts; while previous research revealed that 31 per cent had actually encountered sexual harassment while travelling. Both statistics show that female travellers’ heightened concerns about sexual harassment or assault while on the road are well-founded,” she told ITIJ.

Female travellers may be more liable to experience sexual harassment or assault in some locations, as well as opportunistic crime, kidnap or targeted attack

Spotlight on safety
Fortunately, female traveller safety is very much in the spotlight and is a topic that continues to gain traction. “Social movements advocating the promotion of gender equality and the acknowledgement of gender discrimination have gained support in recent years and have drawn attention to the risks female travellers face not only while travelling, but in their daily lives,” said Recuero. She pointed out that, as a result of this, security providers are witnessing a growing number of companies requesting policies and recommendations specifically tailored to female travellers, many of them focused on the mitigation of risks such as sexual harassment or assault. “Aside from the moral duty of care that organisations have for the safety of their globally mobile employees, their productivity is also likely to be a key concern,” she added.

Female traveller on a swing

Each traveller carries their own unique risk profile

Cooper said it is crucial that businesses consider the unique risks a particular employee may face before sending them on a trip. “Viewing all travellers through one lens is lazy, short-sighted and ultimately not fair to the business travelling population,” he said. Sangiovese agrees: “Organisations have a diverse workforce and not everyone has the same needs. In order to accurately fulfill their duty of care obligation, it is vital that the safety of their whole workforce is taken into consideration.”

Cooper pointed out that a female traveller who is confident that the correct travel risk mitigation process has been fulfilled will feel more valued as an employee, more confident travelling on behalf of the business and will be best prepared to fulfil the trip safely and productively. It is in everyone’s best interests to fulfil adequate mitigation measures and, beyond this, it is a question of duty of care as well as a moral obligation. “There can be no excuse for not addressing and treating the specific risks for female travellers,” he stated. “Not only is it morally right, if you do not and subsequently your female travellers suffer an incident, you are going to be held responsible. Not thinking about it is negligent.” 

Sloan also highlighted the benefits to companies of implementing appropriate mitigation strategies. “A greater focus on travel safety for women when implementing risk management programs or employee assistance programmes can do much to allay these concerns and, accordingly, reduce the negative impacts those concerns have. It is clear that businesses could see direct, bottom-line improvements if travel safety concerns could be reduced or eliminated,” she said.

Female traveller jogging

Viewing all travellers through one lens is lazy, short-sighted and ultimately not fair to the business travelling population

Room for improvement
Unfortunately, when it comes to travel insurance policies, there are relatively few that specifically address female safety. Recuero said that this could be because developing policies that acknowledge gender-specific concerns can be complex, as organisations often prefer to avoid making any group feel targeted or victimised. The situation is improving though, she pointed out: “Over the past few years, policies are becoming increasingly sensitive to the profile of the traveller, taking into account their gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Cooper, too, thinks that although things are improving, there is still a way to go. “Part of the problem might be attributed to the reluctance of organisations with existing policies to assign resources to update them, and lower female representation in organisational risk and security departments might impact how female traveller risk is prioritised,” he told ITIJ. “This is hopefully not the situation any longer as people and organisations become more aware that applying a one-size-fits-all approach to travel risk management is not appropriate. The various major segments of the travelling population should be addressed individually, by gender, age, ethnicity, race and religion, as well as LGBTQ+ travellers.”

Sangiovese said that inherent historical gender bias has impeded progress in this area. “In short, travel risk management policies were policies for businessmen, and the majority of men are not equipped to understand the unique travel risks women face,” she told ITIJ. “In reality, however, nearly half of all businesspeople travelling are now women. It has taken time for the corporate world to ensure their duty of care obligation is inclusive of their diverse workforce and movements like #metoo have helped to bring up the issue of accountability. I believe we are getting there, however, and the right changes are being made.”

Female traveller reading a book

Encouraging progress
It is positive that mentalities are evolving, as are policies and practices, but what more can be done to ensure the safety of female travellers? Recuero believes that the provision of training should be a priority for organisations. “Global travel security providers can support business travellers in-country with dedicated intelligence and operational teams can monitor on-the-ground developments and provide logistical in-situ support and protective teams.”

Avery too said that there are a number of steps businesses can take to mitigate risks. “These include things like booking their female travellers into rooms with additional safety features such as double locks and 24-hour security, and potentially providing pre-arranged and vetted transportation services at travel destinations,” she said. “Companies can also take proactive steps to mitigate potential risks by preparing female employees in advance, providing training and information that will help them to understand the cultural, religious and even legal restrictions they may face at their destination.”

With sustained focus on this topic and the growing co-operation of risk, security and travel insurance companies, female travellers can feel and be safer than ever before. Although there inevitably will always be some level of risk associated with any kind of travel, the benefits associated with travel for companies and individuals alike outweigh potential dangers. As Avery astutely said: “The important thing to remember is that travel itself can be fun, offer some great benefits and is predominantly safe, whatever a traveller’s gender, providing they remain aware of their environment; plan and prepare properly; and have the appropriate mitigation measures in place.”