is an investigation into women’s employment and development prospects in
two European service sectors – retailing and financial services. The TSER
project (January 1999 to December 2001) covered 8 countries – Denmark,
France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.
were the central questions addressed in the project:
the impact of technical and organisational innovations on the work processes
of female employees in junior positions, and on the knowledge content of
exist for these employees to develop and utilise skills, competencies or
expertise in their work?
this affect their 'employability' and opportunities for personal development,
within firms and beyond them?
‘Knowledge Economy’ relevant to women in junior positions and are they
able to harness its potential?
are to be found across countries?
researchers conducted case studies of retailing and financial services
firms in all 8 countries, examining the work performed, the expertise deployed,
and the personal development prospects open to female employees at lowest
levels of these organisations. In a particularly innovative part of the
empirical research, the researchers also conducted a two-year qualitative
panel study of selected women moving within firms, between firms, into
or out of employment, or becoming self-employed. They interviewed the informants
bi-monthly on changes in their organisations and in their personal work,
on new tasks taken on and training received, and on their progress in the
in the two sectors
context of women’s work in European services is one of increasing concentration
of ownership coupled with progressive deregulation of company activities
in most European countries. Financial services, particularly, have been
transformed in the last decade from institutions to commercial organisations,
with a large number of mergers and acquisitions leading to the domination
of the sector by a progressively small number of large cross-national players.
In retail, too, large companies are coming to dominate the European market,
many of them operating across national boundaries. We have also seen the
(not unproblematic) entry of US retail multinationals into the European
market with companies such as Wal-Mart and Borders.
addition to the structural developments taking place in the two sectors,
women employed there find themselves affected by a series of organisational
and technological innovations. In large-scale retailing, the extension
of opening hours throughout the European countries and the continuing move
to out-of-town shopping has been coupled with the introduction of increasingly
integrated information systems which can, among other things, plan labour
requirements based on the ‘customer footprint’. This has served to augment
already high levels of part-time working among female retail employees,
often with their working hours being set out by computer systems. In financial
services, the call centre is now a commonplace arena for service delivery,
and women are the dominant group of employees in these environments. Call
centre working emphasises relational skills more than product knowledge
or financial expertise and call centres employees do not generally have
a background in financial services. Call centres are physically and organisationally
segregated from their wider organisations.
Relations and Skills Development
opening hours lengthen, the demands made on employees to be flexible and
available to meet the requirements of firms have been heightened. Part-time
working and shiftworking are the most common forms of working time flexibility
applied at the lower organisational levels dominated by women. Often women
working flexibly do so because it enables them to balance their paid and
unpaid work, but they tend to pay the price in terms of reduced access
to training and development, and career progression. In both retail and
financial services, progression into management depends upon being seen
to work long hours, and many women in this study opted out of promotion
opportunities because they could not manage the working time demands of
senior positions with their caring responsibilities.
some European countries, vocational training for junior jobs in both sectors
is extensive, involving several years of study. In others, however, training
is relatively brief and job-specific. Vocational training provision in
all countries seems to be under pressure, and in environments like call
centres and supermarkets, it is predominantly concerned with the interpersonal
skills needed to deliver the ‘aesthetic’ of the service to the customer.
Few companies in the study train their junior women employees expressly
to prepare them for knowledgeable work or for career progression. A great
deal of human resource potential is thus being wasted.
this, junior staff in front-line customer service jobs are being asked
to assume increasing responsibilities in European service workplaces: training
other staff, providing excellent customer service which often includes
dealing with angry or frustrated customers, and assuming junior management
functions, often without recognition, increased pay or better prospects.
regimes, gender equality and social sustainability
of the findings of the project highlight problems faced by junior employees
of both sexes. However, a sharp sexual division of labour still permeates
European organisations, and women remain the majority of junior staff.
The study has found that the prospects for these women to progress out
of junior positions and into better work remain poor. This is partly the
result of organisational practices, in which lower-grade workers are given
schematic training and minimal development prospects, and companies continue
to organise more senior jobs in ways which women find difficult to accommodate
with their unpaid responsibilities in the home. Partly it is the result
of a continuing imbalance in the domestic division of labour, with women
still performing the bulk of unpaid caring work and paying the price for
it in terms of their jobs and careers.
the same time, the intensified demands of service work and working time
are also playing havoc with women’s health and well-being, and their overall
happiness in the workplace. Not only is potential being wasted, but our
employees report on the heavy toll that their work exacts from them. This
is socially as well as economically unsustainable.