Women’s work? shutterstock.com

Revealed: what sexism in call centres can teach us about sexism in society

Anna Kristina Hultgren

Although you are likely to have dealt with both male and female call centre agents, the fact is that 71% of workers in the global call centre industry are female. Dubbed the “female ghetto” or, more positively, “female-friendly workplaces”, women are significantly over-represented in call centres.

The reason for this is linked to one of the biggest conundrums in gender equality: how can it be that girls consistently outperform boys in schools and yet, by the time they reach adulthood and enter into the professional arena, they earn less, occupy fewer leadership roles and generally have a lower status and less influence?

My research sheds light on this phenomenon. After extensive interviews with call centre managers and agents, as well as an investigation into the industry’s working culture and practices in Scotland and Denmark, it became clear that call centres are built on the sexist attitudes embedded in society.

Playing by the rules

Call centres are intensely regulated and target-driven work places. Agents are instructed to speak to customers in certain ways. The extent to which they follow these instructions is monitored by managers, and their salaries and career advancement can depend upon it.

Agents may be told to use the customer’s name, create small talk and interject with prescribed “listening sounds” such as “aha”, “OK” and “I see”. The purpose is to ensure that agents keep the call on track and also give the impression of a personalised service.

When I compared male and female call centre agents’ compliance with the language prescriptions, an interesting pattern emerged: it was invariably the female agents who complied more. This was the case for both the Scottish and the Danish women.

In other words, the female call centre agents more often than their male colleagues acknowledged the customer’s problem, used their name, encouraged them to call back if necessary and finished with a personal touch, such as “have a good weekend” – just as they had been told to do by their managers.

School vs work

Why would female agents comply more than their male colleagues with the linguistic prescriptions?

There is evidence from child development and schooling research that girls are rewarded for complying with the rules and sanctioned more severely than boys for breaking them – such as messing around or shouting out in class.

Girls outperform boys in school, but the trend reverses in the workplace. shutterstock.com

It is conceivable that these socialised differences carry over into the workplace. These differences then show up particularly clearly in highly regimented workplaces, where following instructions and meeting targets is how your performance is measured.

Greater female rule keeping would explain both these phenomena. But while rule compliance is valued and rewarded in schools, by the time young women enter the professional arena it may start to work against them. It keeps them in highly regimented jobs with low prestige and little influence.

Other research has found similar things. Interviews with call centre managers and recruiters suggest that female workers are preferred over males because they stick to the rules. Managers (of both sexes) say things like:

You do find that the men are more likely to be doing things that they shouldn’t be doing, whereas women stick to the procedure and the way it should be done.

Of course, greater female rule compliance is just one among several explanations for why women are disproportionately represented in call centre jobs. Some women may choose themselves to work in call centres. Call centre work is often amenable to flexible working, which makes it attractive to women of child-rearing age. And, of course, there are deep-rooted beliefs in society about the different strengths of each gender. Service jobs require emotional labour, which women are believed to be particularly good at.

A blow to gender equality

Call centres have opened up new opportunities for women in the UK and across the world. However, in the longer term, the over-recruitment of women to the industry could be detrimental to gender equality.

Call centre jobs are notorious worldwide for their high levels of turnover, absenteeism, employee burnout and emotional exhaustion. Agents are at constant risk of angry outbursts from customers, sexual harassment and outright abuse. If women are driven into these low-paid and stressful jobs, where they have little influence and low status, talent will be lost. It also potentially discriminates against men who could and would want to do the job.

Yet call centre jobs are here to stay. In Europe, where my research was carried out, the industry grows by 10% each year. And call centres are now one of the most significant employers in the globalised service economy. If we want to have a more diverse workforce and exploit everyone’s talent to its full potential, it is time to start challenging call centre recruitment practices.

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The research project mentioned in this article was funded by a grant from the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

The Open University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.