Gender in Call Centre Work

By Tuija Koivunen
January 2012
Tampere University Press
Distributed by Coronet Books Inc.

ISBN: 9789514486333
305 pages

$92.50 Paper original

This study examines gender-related practices in call centre organizations in Finland. It aims to find out, first, what kinds of workplaces the call centres are from the gender perspective. In doing so, the focus is on the contextual matters at large, such as the regional characteristics in terms of local labour force and labour use, the local understanding of work in relation to gender, and gender-related practices on various levels and instances of the call centres. Second, the study identifies the ways in which gender is practised in customer service work in the call centres by focusing on the interaction between the employees and the customers. This interaction is loaded with implicitly or explicitly expressed expectations of gender-related practices. Third, the study is interested in the ways in which gender is practised among the workers, between the management and the workers, and among the managers in the call centres. The focus is then on the interaction among and between different personnel groups. This interaction may be related to work or be informal by nature but it occurs among colleagues.

The theoretical framework of this study is twofold. On the one hand, the study is embedded in the existing call centre literature, with its diverse research interests. Yet, the majority of the call centre studies do not adopt a gender-sensitive perspective. On the other hand, the theoretical framework is drawn from discussions on gender-related conceptualizations, such as the idea of the gender system which holds that gender follows the principles of difference and hierarchy in society. In addition, the set of gender processes in work organizations are taken into use in analysing gender in call centres. Further, the dual concept of practising gender and gender practices is adopted in order to take a closer look at gender-related practices. Finally, the practices of displaying emotional labour, aesthetic labour and heterosexualized labour, and practising masculinity through homosociality are taken as apt illustrations of the ways in which gender organizes different work-related expectations and preferences.

The empirical analysis is based on ethnographic research material with interviews, observations, digital photos, and documents produced in three Finnish subcontractor call centres during 2004–2006. The analysis of the ethnographic research material utilized resources of both ethnographic and feminist analyses which together enable a better understanding of the gender-related practices.

The research findings of the study show that the flat organizational hierarchy did not indicate small power differences or better opportunities for women to enter managerial positions in the call centres. On the contrary, women had access to managerial positions among other managers, but if there were only a few managerial positions in the work organizations, they were not open for women. This does not mean that in work organizations with steep hierarchical relations the managerial positions were open for women without a struggle. In the work organizations where women were in the top management, the horizontal gender segregation was still steep. Consequently, the decrease in the hierarchical gender segregation did not indicate a decrease in the horizontal gender segregation in any way. Furthermore, in these call centres men in general were highly valued, appreciated and welcomed as employees. The appreciation of male employees indicates that hierarchization was clearly emerging in practice in the call centres.

The gendered interaction patterns framed the ways in which gender was practised between the call centre workers and their customers. For one thing, some of the employees found that gender made no difference in customer service work. What is more, this study illustrates the numerous ways in which gender was used to explain various, even contradictory, ways of thinking. In many cases, but not always, these contradictory explanations were related to the characteristics of women and men in interaction. The explanations could be considered to reflect gender practices but also to include notable inconsistencies, particularly in regard to women’s alleged characteristics. Also, two contradictory interaction patterns were identified, according to which gender was practised in interaction between the workers and the customers. On the one hand, the pattern of homosocial interaction indicates how the workers described the same-gender interaction as more effective and easier for both female and male workers than cross-gender interaction. On the other hand, the pattern of cross-gender interaction between women and men was also described as most efficient in interaction with the customers. Both of these patterns occurred simultaneously in the same work organizations and were stated as being useful in making rapport and profit.

This study indicates that gender had become commodifiable and profitable to sell, and in call centre work it was also embedded in the products and services. This is a process in which gender becomes part of the commodity that is marketed, sold and purchased. In other words, gender becomes an increasingly abstract feature that organizes business activities. However, while commodification of gender enhanced selling products, it also directed the ways in which the workers practised gender. The study also points out that heterosexuality, broadly understood, is present in such a commodity process of gender. The symbolic space of heterosexuality is utilized in modifying the relationship between a customer and an employee.

The study discusses the homosociality of male managers. The mutual relationships of the all-male management formed a site for practising masculinity and homosocial bonding. Homosociality was constructed on male managers’ similar social backgrounds and related work histories, differentiating them from women employees.

Finally, emotional labour, aesthetic labour and heterosexualized labour did not play a central role in the work of the call centre employees but stayed more in the background. The employees were expected to display emotional labour and at least occasionally also aesthetic labour with customers. These expectations were somewhat rarely expressed, and, to a certain degree, the employees had emotional autonomy. There were also some instances in which the employees displayed heterosexualized labour with customers. However, this appeared as more employee-driven than organizationally driven behaviour. The research results indicate that no forms of employee control, including those of emotional, aesthetic and heterosexualized labour, are very extensively used in the Finnish call centres.


Acta Universitatis Tamperensis No. 1680


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