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Number 03 (18.07.2002)
Subject SERVEMPLOI: Impact of innovations on women’s work
Major results
Contribution SERVEMPLOI 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.

Research questions

These were the central questions addressed in the project:

  • What is the impact of technical and organisational innovations on the work processes of female employees in junior positions, and on the knowledge content of their work?
  • What opportunities exist for these employees to develop and utilise skills, competencies or expertise in their work?
  • How does this affect their 'employability' and opportunities for personal development, within firms and beyond them?
  • Is the ‘Knowledge Economy’ relevant to women in junior positions and are they able to harness its potential?
  • What differences are to be found across countries?

Innovative research methods

The 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 labour market.

Developments in the two sectors

The 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.


In 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.

Employment Relations and Skills Development

As 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.

In 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.

Despite 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.

Gender regimes, gender equality and social sustainability

Many 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.

At 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. 

Contributor Juliet Webster
Project Director of SERVEMPLOI
Reference Info on SERVEMPLOI
Descriptors D-CDO  D-KM          
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Editor: Sabine Manning  © WIFO