You’re through to a feminist, how may I lecture you today?

An article on sexism, from the BBC:

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.

My initial, gut-instinct response is that, with women now pouring into the workplace by the million, someone needed to find something for them to do. Hence the growth of HR departments, process-driven bureaucracies, NGOs, and – for the dimmer women out there – call centres.

With the closure of factories, automation, and a shrinking army the options for dim young men are narrowing, but they can still work as security guards or lug stuff around on a building site. But what are the dim women supposed to do, now they’ve been encouraged (or forced, due to house prices) to enter into the workforce? Cashiers are dwindling thanks to automation brought about in part by the minimum wage, leaving them with few options outside a call centre. The author has other ideas, though:

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.

Of course. What else could it be?

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.

Call centre employees need to be agreeable? I’m not sure this required much research to figure out, but okay.

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.

Women are more agreeable than men, on average, so tend to do well in customer service roles. Who knew?

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

Because their natural behaviours are more in line with what their managers are asking them to do? Apparently not:

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.

Women working in call-centres are more agreeable than men because when they were at school they were cowed into submission by sexist teachers. Like many profound revelations, it’s obvious once pointed out.

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.

Note that none of these differences are natural; they’re purely socialised.

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.

On the contrary, the plethora of process-driven corporate and government departments seems to have sprung up at precisely the time women entered the professional workplace en masse.

It keeps them in highly regimented jobs with low prestige and little influence.

This will come as a surprise to anyone who’s worked in a modern corporation.

Interviews with call centre managers and recruiters suggest that female workers are preferred over males because they stick to the rules.

Women being preferred over men is an example of revolting sexism against women, is it?

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.

And just like that, the premise of the entire article disappears in a puff of smoke. But the author being a senior lecturer in English Language and applied linguistics, from the Open University no less, soldiers on:

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.

Translation: women deserve better jobs than working in nasty call centres. Because, wimminz.

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.

As if men don’t find themselves working dirty, dangerous, poorly-paid, and soul-destroying jobs.

If women are driven into these low-paid and stressful jobs, where they have little influence and low status, talent will be lost.

Just think of all those potential power-skirts wasting away in a cubicle under the colossal weight of a headset.

It also potentially discriminates against men who could and would want to do the job.

Heh! I like this: men shouldn’t be discriminated against for jobs we feminists think are beneath us. For the good jobs, we need quotas and diversity targets.

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.

And there’s the gender equality movement in a nutshell: we want women to have all the well-paid, cushy jobs in air-conditioned offices; the men can do all the shit we don’t want to.

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22 thoughts on “You’re through to a feminist, how may I lecture you today?

  1. “And there’s the gender equality movement in a nutshell: we want women to have all the well-paid, cushy jobs in air-conditioned offices; the men can do all the shit we don’t want to.”

    There has never been any doubt about that has there? No one has ever been promoting more women into offshore fishing or forestry. Its all about seats on the board.

  2. If only I’d known 10 years ago when I had responsibility for a call contre that it’s raison d’etre was to be beastly to women. We could have saved a small fortune in customer surveys, call monitoring, call charges and training. After all who needs satisfied customers, especially when they’re likely to have called with a problem and been unhappy in the first place?

  3. Hello. Is that Dr Mee?

    What do you want, please?

    Is that Dr Mee?

    If you tell me what you want I’ll tell you my name.

    Oh, you very rude man. I ring you at midnight. Ha.

  4. This reads like someone who has never visted a professional call centre (ie not one trying to sell SEO services cold calling from India) or spoken with someone who runs one.

    These places are generally incredibly well run, data driven and employee-focused (see the previous point about turnover). If they do that, the customer satisfaction naturally follows. If they don’t, they’re out of business.

    The managers of these place keep or lose their jobs based of tangible results, employee engagement levels being one of the major metrics. Compare and contrast that with the job of a BBC employee.

  5. 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.

    You would think a Proggie would believe this to be an ideal – restricted vocabulary of approved words and opinions, closely monitored with rewards for those who comply and punishment for those who don’t.

  6. “This will come as a surprise to anyone who’s worked in a modern corporation.”

    In fairness, and I think this is true across most of Europe as well as America, very senior management remains male-dominated. (And anecdotally it seems disproportionately common for the women who do make it to the top to do so via managing the firm’s HR or Diversity, rather than something operational or financial. But I’ve not seen hard statistics to back up this impression.)

    But I don’t think that’s because some women are shunted into call centre work, any more than the fact some men are shunted into warehouse, security or other strength-based physical labour jobs handicaps men from reaching board level. Particularly because, let’s be honest, those are unlikely to be the same men.

  7. I do think your point that men are disproportionately likely to end up in dangerous jobs (mining, fishing, working at height etc) is fundamentally a good one. If the danger figures were the other way round then that would be on the face of it a valid cause for feminist complaint. (I wonder historically if there are times that might have been true, at least in certain industries. Perhaps with lots of women working in factories with dangerous machinery around them, for example.)

    Nevertheless it has to be conceded that in these de-industrialized times, only a minority of men are exposed to those traditional “male role” risks. For most people today, work places present a very different set of risks than they did to the Victorians. Shift work, even office-based, seems to be associated with a higher death rate – relevant to 24hr call centres or ones dealing with clients across time zones. Stress, or its effects, can kill too. Such risks may not be so acute or dramatic as the threat of serious injury or death in industrial accidents, but for most people they are more representative of the possible harm they face.

    In principle one could build a case that examines the problems inherent in call centre work, in terms of low pay, career progression, effect on mental and physical health etc, and if the case is successfully built that these are indeed “crap jobs”, then the fact such jobs are female dominated would become a valid discrimination concern and merit closer examination. In the same way that finding another set of “crap jobs” is male dominated should be too, though I don’t trust the author to care about that.

    In practice I don’t think the author really makes the case. Pay might be “low”, but for the requirements (education, experience, skills) the job demands, is it unusually low? Similarly, is it a dead-end job or do those people who churn through it stick “developed communication skills dealing with frustrated customers” on their résumé and find their next employer takes it as a big plus? I’ve heard bad stories about micromanagement and a target-driven culture at call centres, but also that employers can be obsessive about measuring and trying to boost staff morale. I suspect it takes a certain kind of person to get on well in one, and neither me nor the author would have much fun. But what matters more is whether the people who do it find it okay, whether the work is actually associated with higher levels of stress or health issues, and so on. And also what the trade-offs are like – flexible hours are a pro that’s especially appreciated by women, and it isn’t sexist of a firm to offer them. Indeed the reverse – firms that don’t offer flexible working, especially in those roles where it isn’t structurally impractical to do so, often get harangued for effectively discriminating against women.

    Moreover, if the author is upset about women being “forced” into call centre work, doesn’t that imply the main problem the lack of alternatives rather than the call centres themselves? It’s not an unreasonable point; applicants may not be herded in at gunpoint, but in many towns the opportunities for low-skilled workers with few qualifications are limited, and if they need child-friendly hours then even more so. Supermarkets and call centres will often be the stand-out employment opportunities.

  8. There really is no pleasing these people is there? You’d think they would be happy with a job sector dominated by women, and I bet they’d complain just as loudly if the ratio was reversed.

    @MyBurningEars- the reason there are less women in senior roles is becuase they take years out of their careers to have kids, then return part time. Bit hard to do be an effective manager working 2 days a week (I experienced this first hand myself with a former boss)

  9. In fairness, and I think this is true across most of Europe as well as America, very senior management remains male-dominated.

    Yes, but middle and lower management – especially in what laughably get called “support services” – are awash with women.

  10. I call these articles “Three blind men and an elephant” article. Zero clue about what the business they are writing about. I spent years building both inbound and outbound call centers.

    Women work in the outbound centers because they require little skill, other than reading, speaking, and clicking a mouse. They require less skill than a fast food job would. They can also work in shifts.

    Inbound centers I’ve seen had plenty of males (I don’t know if I’d call them men). They can require slightly more skill.

    With all of them, the systems, procedures, and processes are to make sure that the workers are doing what they are paid to do – make, or answer calls. Some of these centers hire way low on the food chain, and the ways the workers goof off are legion.

  11. I propose a new rhetorical rule: if you do not have at least the outline of a *solution* to whatever is stuck in your craw don’t bother writing/speaking about it. It would save so, so much time for all parties involved.

    The only action I gleaned from the quoted nonsense was “challenging call centre recruitment practices”. If the author was expected to actually articulate what the hell challenging recruitment practices means the drivel would have never been typed.

    @MyBurningEars: My rule also applies to your comments. You say, “[if these jobs are crappy and] are female dominated [then it] would become a valid discrimination concern and merit closer examination”. Closer examination does nothing to address the central concern that some people have a crappy job.

  12. ( ) where following instructions and meeting targets is how your performance is measured.

    How utterly sexist to actually measure performance against set targets. It’s as if the employers actually want to pay people for doing what they are paid to do instead of something else (knitting, gossiping, discussing last nights TV etc – or is that sexist too?).

    Good grief! To think how repressed I have been throughout my career for doing the job the employer wanted me to do. I demand kom-pen-say-shun for all the mental anguish and discrimination.

  13. I propose a new rhetorical rule: if you do not have at least the outline of a *solution* to whatever is stuck in your craw don’t bother writing/speaking about it. It would save so, so much time for all parties involved.

    This is an iron-clad rule in software engineering, by the way, where bitching and arguing endlessly about The Way We’re Doing Things is legion. Successful team leads learn early on to tell the complainers to go away and code up a proof of concept on their own time if they’re so incensed about it.

  14. “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.”

    That would be the female dominated teaching profession (26% of all teachers are men) thats oppressing all the girls at school then? The education system that routinely medicates unruly boys with diagnoses of ADHD and doses of Ritalin? The one where boys have been dropping behind girls in just about every measure of educational attainment for decades?

    Rather than the one thats been run pretty much entirely for the benefit of female pupils for the last 30 years since the introduction of ‘continuous assessment’ style curricula and exams?

  15. @Sam Martinez

    I can actually see two valid concerns: the crapness of jobs, and how fairly they’re allocated. Off the top of my head, there seem to be three main approaches to the fact some people have crap jobs:

    A: Proactively work to eliminate crap jobs. Can they be automated or off-shored away? Rendered technologically or socially redundant? Surely nobody wants to be a gongfermour nor can regret that profession’s passing. So cull the role, and make it easier for former workers to reskill or relocate if necessary.
    B: Make the job less crap. Better health’n’safety. Improved working conditions. Introduce career progression options. Higher pay – in fact an Elizabethan gongfermour would make sixpence a day, not bad going for the time. A side-effect of the stricter regulations and increased costs of option “B” is that it tends to accelerate option “A” too. This may or may not be intentional.
    C: Tolerate their existence. Probably tell our kids to avoid them, or alternatively make them do it over the summer holidays till they realise the value of hard work, that money doesn’t magically materialise into pockets and that they’re at an important time in life for the determination of career prospects. But some people willingly sign up for this crap, apparently because they deem their alternatives to be even worse, so who am I to stop them? Gongfermours gonna farm gong. (Legal notice: THIS IS COPYRIGHT AND NOT AT ALL BANAL OR DERIVATIVE.)

    Which mix of options might depend on the extent of the crapness, technological and strategic considerations, the level of employment, or where we stand (should we believe in it) upon the Kuznets Curve. But even if we’re completely comfortable with the continued existence of crap jobs, we may still bear legitimate concerns about inequity in their allocation.

    I don’t want to live in a place like early 20th-century Northern Ireland, where Protestant owners of prestigious enterprises would ensure only their co-religionists had access to the plum jobs. Nor the American South at a time when the colour of your skin had such a determinative effect on your work and life-chances. Worse, I’m alarmed that in the modern day developed countries, labour economists regularly find that changing the ethnic origin of names on fake CVs substantially affects chances of getting an interview.

    If someone can show me convincing evidence that women are being funnelled into demonstrably crap jobs and men into good ones, that prima facie suggests the possibility of some unpleasant discrimination. But it’s not strong enough evidence to design an effective policy – without careful investigation of the causality we can’t even know whether employers are discriminating! The appropriate response is “better quality research so we know what’s going on”, not to design an ineffective and likely over-bearing policy on the back of what’s merely an observed correlation.

    If here it transpired the driving force for this disproportionality is that call-centre work is unusually conducive to more flexible shift patterns, and this benefit was on average rated more highly by women than men, then in terms of their utility (surely what we care about) it may simply be a less crap job than the alternatives, while for men it may be worse. Requiring call-centre operators to close the gender gap by bringing in child-unfriendly hours or targeting males in recruitment campaigns would nonsensically lower social welfare, though I may be missing a less problematic male-friendly female-neutral change to working conditions. To the extent it suggests women encounter discrimination, it’s the fact inflexible hours presented barriers to entry at alternative employers while the call-centre industry isn’t a problem after all (at least from the gender equity point of view; if your beef is that the jobs are crap that’s a separate issue).

    As Andy points out though, not all jobs are suited to flexitime. I can only see the gender gap being closed completely if there is radical change on a social level rather than fiddling with HR policies. If women choose to prioritise careers over kids and the Total Period Fertility Rate drops like a stone (plausible, some developed economies may be heading this way, but I wouldn’t look forward to its effects on the country, nor on individual happiness), if working patterns changed towards Keynes’ 15 hour week (has its evangelists but Keynes wrote in 1930 it would be here in a century and there’s little sign of it yet – though it’s true household working hours have been slashed), or perhaps a revolution in the sharing of childcare (but it can’t be easy to break the habit of hundreds of thousands of years, and it raises the thorny question of whether it’s a merely social or more deeply biological issue).

  16. How utterly sexist to actually measure performance against set targets. It’s as if the employers actually want to pay people for doing what they are paid to do instead of something else (knitting, gossiping, discussing last nights TV etc – or is that sexist too?).

    Or at Google inciting revolution, riot and snitching on your colleagues.

    I can actually see two valid concerns: the crapness of jobs, and how fairly they’re allocated

    Jobs aren’t allocated, at least in any economy that isn’t Communist. ‘Distributed’ is a better word probably.

  17. What Rob said.

    This is exactly what I mean Burning Ears. “Eliminate”, “cull”, “make”, “introduce” – all missing the WHO and the HOW. I have to assume you mean “by government force” but then again you also say this:

    “But some people willingly sign up for this crap…so who am I to stop them?”

    Only some are willing eh? Here’s my solution, as it were: (1) Make slavery illegal and punish convicted slaveholders via imprisonment. (2) Remember that the employer owns the job (although they do not own the employee – see point #1) and avoid/eliminate licensing, certificates of need, and other government regulatory barriers to hiring, firing, and new business creation. Once these policies are firmly in place you can rest assured that all people are willingly signing up and willingly quitting and, after all, who are we to stop them?

  18. @Rob

    Jobs aren’t allocated, at least in any economy that isn’t Communist. ‘Distributed’ is a better word probably.

    I see your point but economists often talk about jobs or resources being “allocated” (and often “misallocated” or “reallocated”) without necessarily implying there is some shadowy supreme controller who’s directing it all. “Market forces” maybe, though that’s just the cumulative decisions of thousands of agents. Once you’ve read several shelf-loads of textbooks that use words in a certain way, you can stop noticing how they mean something different to someone who hasn’t, so it’s a fair call-out. “Distributed” has the advantage of avoiding conjuring the supreme controller’s image; perhaps a disadvantage is it might hint we only care how the final distribution looks, whereas there’s a hair-splitting but arguable case that what’s important is the fairness of the process that leads to that distribution.

  19. <i?I’m alarmed that in the modern day developed countries, labour economists regularly find that changing the ethnic origin of names on fake CVs substantially affects chances of getting an interview.

    I’m alarmed that the basic concept of freedom of association is treated by so many as a quaint and archaic notion.

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