The business process outsourcing environment has many unique features that distinguish it from traditional workplaces. BPO services range from low-level data entry and back office processing to high-value solutions like consulting and strategic roadmaps, and the sector depends on a steady influx of skilled knowledge workers. Employees tend to go where the jobs are instead of settling down permanently in one location and working from there.
The Evolving Workplace: How it Affects the Outsourcing Industry & Women BPO Employees
BPO employees are also more likely to be shifted between different centers, and some may be sent abroad frequently for assignments or training. This can make employees itinerant and unable to stay in their jobs long periods, particularly in the early years of their careers (Gender Issues of Women Employees in the Workplace in the Indian BPO Sector by Murty, Pedireddi and Imtiyaz).
In India, majority of the IT-BPO workforce is less than 30 years old, of which 25 percent or more are women (NASSCOM Foundation). A large proportion of the female BPO workforce is made up of young single females, who are likely to find job stability less attractive than older, married women in managerial positions, which makes up less than 6 percent of the female workforce. However, a new workplace trend is shifting from people mobility to mobility of products and services through the use of technology, which may somewhat reduce physical mobility in the BPO sector.
The Philippines is another powerhouse that employs over 1 million people in the IT-BPO sector, more than half of which are women (IBPAP 2008). Like female BPO workers in India, women mostly work as call center agents and data processing specialists. In early 2015, the attrition rate in the IT-BPO sector hit an all-time low of 20 percent (2015 Towers Watson's annual BPO/Shared Services/Call Center Industry Total Rewards Survey), indicating that companies are improving their compensation and benefits package to reward performance and retain employees. Many companies are also offering wellness and programs exclusively designed for female employees.
One study reported that for women, feeling safe is the number one factor affecting their job satisfaction. This is also true for women in the IT-BPO sector, with its 24/7 nature that requires employees to work at night. BPO companies are enforcing stronger policies to ensure the safety of their female workers. In India, many firms provide free pick-up and drop off of women workers, with all vehicles equipped with GPS. Elsewhere, companies are taking a closer look at perceived security levels and taking immediate action in case of threats of violence.
More Women in Leadership Roles
While there are plenty of women entering the IT-BPO industry, women in leadership/boardroom roles and highly-skilled technology positions remain underrepresented. However, the industry predicts that more women will reach the top in business roles. Wipro senior VP for healthcare and life sciences said that in a few years, India's IT industry will start looking like India's banking industry, which is dominated by women CEOs. This trend of upward mobility for women can be traced to the flat-structured and informal work culture at leading Indian IT companies that also implement world-class HR practices.
Earlier Financial Independence
The rising wages in the BPO sectors of India and the Philippines are giving women more disposable income at a young age and opportunities for promotion even for those with minimum educational qualifications. This helps women reach their career and financial goals earlier than expected (Health, Social and Psychological Problems of Women Employees in Business Process Outsourcing: A Study in India by Amrita Gupta).
Better Work-Life Balance
Women look for companies that offer work-life balance, especially married women and women with children. Some BPO companies are revamping their compensation and benefits packages to better attract and retain women employees. These companies offer benefits like flexible shifts and work-from-home options, generous maternity leave policies, and sabbaticals to further the education of their female employees.
Technology, the Outsourcing Industry & Prospects of Women Employees
Rapid advances in technology have ushered in an era of female empowerment in the IT-BPO industry. Information and communication technology has greatly improved income and wages and increased the number of jobs in the sector. The impact of technology is clearly seen in leading BPO destinations India and the Philippines. According to the paper Digital Technology and Women Empowerment: Employment Dimensions in India by Ranjana Agarwal, India's IT-enabled services grew at a rate of 65 percent in the last decade. The IT industry was expected to create 2.2 million jobs by 2008, employing women in IT-enabled services like call centers, technical support, medical transcription, back office processing, engineering and creative services, payroll and HR, and insurance claims processing.
The IT-BPO industry is unique among other industries in that hiring is dependent on skills and talent and not gender. In India, about one third of the IT-BPO workforce is made up of women (Nasscom 2013), and about 25 percent of all science and engineering graduates in the country are women. Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS), India's largest IT services provider, employs about 100,000 women, which is 33 percent of its total workforce. Women also make up 34 percent of the workforce at Infosys and 30 percent at Wipro. In the Philippines, women represent about 50 percent of the overall IT-BPO workforce, which is expected to employ 1.3 million people by 2016 (IBPAP, 2014).
Studies attribute the growing number of women in the IT workforce to the nature of the work. Women are suited to IT roles because these require good communication skills, excellence at multiple tasks, and alignment of individual goals with business goals' attributes that are most common in female professionals (Frost & Sullivan). However, the proportion of women in leadership positions and very technical roles remain low. Men continue to outnumber women in the tech field by 4 to 1. While female IT leaders perform as well or even better than their male counterparts, there are very few female tech CEOs. Their number has also remained static since 2004 (Gartner CIO Agenda Survey Analysis by Gender). Gartner reported that the IT security segment in particular is short on women, representing only about 11 percent of the overall IT security workforce.
The Future of Women in IT and Outsourced IT Services
Online IT Work
A new survey called Women in Technology by online staffing platform Elance indicates that virtual work may help close the gender gap in IT work. In the study that polled over 7,000 professionals worldwide, women found more IT jobs online than in the real world. Seventy percent of these women said that virtual work gives them more opportunities to succeed than traditional on-site work, and 60 percent said that it is easier to work as a contractor with multiple clients than finding full-time work in the IT sector.
Working mothers also said that virtual work allowed them to balance work and family time better. Majority of women found that online IT jobs allowed them to improve their skills through more learning opportunities than traditional on-site work. To further encourage women to enter the IT-BPO field, respondents in the Elance study suggested providing equal pay to men and women with the same skills, having parents and teachers inspire girls and young women to study IT, providing more mentoring support for women, and providing more female role models in IT.
According to NewRelic's infographic The Fiercest Women in Tech, IT companies with more women in leadership roles have 34 percent higher return on investment. Over 187 million women worldwide own businesses and are opening businesses 1.5 times faster than men, suggesting that IT entrepreneurship is another field where women can close the gender gap.
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