Women speak out about gender-based harassment in call centers

At Coworker.org, conversations with current and former call center workers reveal the prevalence of gender-based harassment in their workplaces.

According to information from call center employees, the problem of harassment in call center workplaces spans across the United States and potentially other parts of the world. As of 2014, the United States has about about 66,000 call centers with about 5 million call center workers¹. Experts say that this workforce will continue to grow as more retailers bring their products and services online². Companies such as Comcast, American Airlines, and Amazon, government agencies, and large banks use call centers to interact with their customers. Call center operators perform a variety of functions — from helping existing consumers use their products to marketing services to new clients.

Why is gender-based harassment in call centers so widespread? Studies of call centers have found that such workplaces are often heavily female dominated, but are disproportionately managed by men. Since call centers typically offer better compensation than other jobs open to those with similar education and experience levels, workers say that it is hard to leave their jobs at call centers when they face harassment. These trends within the call center workforce highlight the importance of worker-led campaigns that call for pay transparency, safe reporting, and other protections against gender-based harassment and violence in the workplace.

Gender

Despite the fact that the call center workforce is predominantly staffed by women, men disproportionately occupy leadership positions in call centers. As a result, female workers say they often have male bosses, and male employees in call centers are rarely held fully accountable for workplace transgressions.

Researchers of The Global Call Center Report: International Perspectives on Management and Employment gathered that 71% of the global call center workforce are women³. This means that men make up only 29% of the global call center workforce — less than one third of all call center employees. Some researchers argue that women are often seen as good candidates for call center jobs due to the perception that they are better suited to do the emotional labor associated with customer service⁴.

In their paper Gender, Choice and Constraint in Call Centre Employment, Dora Scholarios and Phil Taylor give a more detailed gender and position breakdown of call centers. Of the call centers that they studied, they found that 73% of the operators women, but only 60% of managers and 45% of business analysts were women⁵.

Scholarios and Taylor conclude, “Although the workforce in all centers was predominantly female, men were overrepresented in team leader and higher status roles, while women were concentrated in high-volume and lower complexity customer-facing work.”

At Coworker.org, we’re hearing from current and former call center workers who confirm these findings. Rylinda Rhodes, a former call center employee in the Washington DC area, remarks, “In one of my call centers, there were two male managers and one female manager. Also, the director was male. It was mostly ladies on the phone though.” Through her campaign on Coworker.org, Rhodes connected with Catherine Hodges, a former call center employee in Colorado. Hodges similarly recalls, “Our call center was extremely out of balance. Mostly men were supervisors, the director was always a man and the CEO, of course, was a man. My guess was that there was 15% men on the phones opposed to the women.”

As a result, women in call centers report that there is a general lack of willingness to correct inappropriate male behavior. Jessica⁶, a former call center worker in Virginia, observed that “men are kind of treated with the boys will be boys kind of attitude.” In a similar vein, Porsha Dossie, a former call center worker from Florida, reported a male colleague who allegedly liked to follow women to their cars after work. While she said that her supervisor (who was a man) took her complaints seriously, she stated that the HR department at her call center did not take any disciplinary action because “you know how he’s just like that”.

Employee Benefits and Compensation

Positions in call centers are generally considered “good jobs” compared to other employment opportunities that are available to people of similar education and experience levels. Call center jobs often offer better pay, benefits, and working hours than other customer service roles. Thus, women say that it is difficult for them to leave their call center job when they face harassment or abuse at work because they know that it is unlikely that they will find another job that offers comparable benefits.

According to aggregate salary data from Glassdoor, call center workers make around $30,000 per year on average, which is, on average, $12,000 more per year than store clerks ($18,000/year), $7,000 more per year than food service workers ($23,000/year), and $4,000 more per year than front desk managers ($26,000/year). In addition, call center employees report on Glassdoor that they receive around $2,500 a year in bonus cash compensation.

Workers report that call center jobs also come with other benefits, such as stable working hours, physical accommodations, and opportunities for overtime pay. Stable working hours are particularly important for women, who disproportionately take the role of caregiving in the family⁷.

“The work is not as physically demanding as jobs in retail, where people have to stand up for hours at a time,” notes Chris Garlock, a call center manager in Florida. He continues, “I think the base pay is higher too. It’s around 13 dollars an hour in our call center, which is higher than the eight or ten bucks an hour in many other customer service jobs.”

Some workers say that these monetary incentives pressure women to stay in jobs where they may be experiencing workplace harassment. Jessica, the former call center worker from Virginia, elaborates, “the job itself did come with stability, better pay and great benefits, so it was very hard to walk away from, despite the mental health issues.” Furthermore, Jennifer McHenry, a former call center worker from Colorado, also found it hard to leave her abusive working environment due to the benefits that came with working in her call center. She describes, “The perks are very good for a job requiring only a high school education so it makes it an attractive position for someone without any education or just out of school. I had good enough health insurance [from the job] that quitting wasn’t really an option even when things were bad. […] Every other place I’ve worked (that wasn’t a call center) didn’t offer health insurance and usually tried to get to you do unpaid overtime.”

Conclusion

In the face of these challenges, women who have worked in call centers are starting to connect through Coworker.org. Rylinda Rhodes launched a campaign to fight sexual harassment she says she experienced while working at a Comcast call center. Now, other call center employees are joining her effort, contributing their own stories and coming together to publicly address issues in their workplaces. They believe that employees should not have to give up their mental well-being and physical safety in order to succeed in jobs that have stable hours and monetary benefits. Click here to learn more about their campaign.

¹Witsil, Frank. “Call Center Jobs Increase as More Return from Overseas.” Detroit Free Press, 4 Aug. 2014.

²Appelbaum, Eileen, et al., editors. Low-Wage America: How Employers Are Reshaping Opportunity in the Workplace. Russell Sage Foundation, 2003. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7758/9781610440141.

³Holman, D., Batt, R., & Holtgrewe, U. (2007). The global call center report: International perspectives on
management and employment (Executive summary)
[Electronic version]. Ithaca, NY: Authors.

⁴ Mirchandani, Kiran. “Gendered Hierarchies in Transnational Call Centres in India.” Work and Life in the Global Economy, 2010, pp. 78–98., doi:10.1057/9780230277977_5.

⁵Scholarios, Dora, and Phil Taylor. “Gender, Choice and Constraint in Call Centre Employment.” New Technology, Work and Employment, vol. 25, no. 2, 2010, pp. 101–116., doi:10.1111/j.1468–005x.2010.00242.x.

⁶Actual name is redacted.

⁷Sharma, Nidhi, et al. “Gender Differences in Caregiving among Family — Caregivers of People with Mental Illnesses.” World Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 6, no. 1, 2016, p. 7., doi:10.5498/wjp.v6.i1.7.