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PROMOTING EQUALITY, PROMOTING DEVELOPMENT: Empowerment and Opportunities for Women in BPO

Author: Fern Carlos

Posted: March 25, 2012

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A recent report issued by Grant Thornton's International Business Report (IBR) indicates that women in the Philippines hold 39% of all senior management positions, which ranks near the top of all countries worldwide.  The figure represents a 4% year-on-year rise, bucking an international trend that has seen the number of women in top company leadership roles diminish over the same period in many parts of the world.  The release of this data and the fact that this March marks the 101st anniversary of the establishment of International Women's Day inspire us to examine the progress women have made in the workplace.

Miles to Go

From all indications, the empowerment of women has come a long way but there are still miles to go.  Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, in her Harvard Business Review (HBR) article "Why Focusing on the Gender Pay Gap Misses the Point" mentioned PEW research that showed that 26 percent of wives in the United States earn more than their husbands.  A Goldman Sachs study, on the other hand, as cited by Wittenberg-Cox, found that more women are starting American businesses or companies, that the buying power of women worldwide is increasing and that more women in the U.S.  are achieving higher education, earning 6 out of every 10 bachelor's and master's degrees.

Despite these statistics, however, a recent study conducted by Catalyst, and cited by Boris Groysberg in the HBR piece called “How Star Women and Star Men Fare Differently in the Workplace, show that there are still too few women climbing the corporate ladder in the US.  In 2011, women accounted for only 16.1% of board seats; only 14.1 percent of executive officer positions and 7.5 percent of executive officer top-earner positions.

Across the Atlantic, it's not much better either.  "What the U.S.  Can Learn From Europe About Gender Equality in the Workplace," the Harvard Business Review article by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, mentioned new data from the Center for Work-Life Policy that shows that women in Britain make up only 19 percent of Parliament and only 12 percent of corporate boards.

More Women Managers in the Philippines

According to Grant Thornton's IBR, the proportion of women in senior management positions has been steadily declining worldwide since 2009.  The Philippines ratio of 39% women in top posts is second only to Russia worldwide.  The report added that 64 percent of the top Filipina executives hold senior finance positions or are chief finance officers.

These figures bode well because, as McKinsey Southeast Asia Head of Public Affairs Penny Burtt said, a McKinsey study shows that gender diversity impacts businesses positively.  "Companies with more women at the top tend to have more leadership capabilities, better decision making and better corporate governance," Burtt told CNBC.com's Shivali Nayak.

The local Information Technology-Business Process Outsourcing (IT-BPO) sector seems to show proportions similar to the IBR findings.  According to the International Labor Organization, as cited by Tonyo Cruz in his report for asiancorrespondent.com, "young Filipino women dominate BPO jobs by up to 59.3 percent."

The paper "Night Work Prohibition of Women Workers in the Philippine Call Center Industry" by Dr.  Robert Keitel and Melissa Dorothy Ledesma mentioned that "a large percentage of middle to senior management positions are also held by women."

Empowering Women

The IT-BPO sector in the Philippines, as we know, has risen to become one of the leading destinations for IT-BPO and GIC (Global In-House Centers) in the world.  According to the Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP), the sector grew from US$100 million in total revenues in 2001 to an astonishing USD3.3 billion in 2006; and has since doubled its revenues every year.

This high rate of growth has, of course, helped provide opportunities and benefits to women employees such as:

Financial independence - The paper "Night Work Prohibition of Women Workers in the Philippine Call Center Industry" said that "workers are drawn in to work in a BPO or Call Center because of the financial security it gives and its impartiality when it comes to age, status, etc.  of the individual as long as they have the necessary skills needed for the job; specifically that of computer and communication skills." Financial independence, with salaries that are typically above minimum wage and are available to a broader spectrum of women (and men, too), has given many women employees in the BPO sector the opportunity to provide for their needs and that of their families.  Their compensation has also increased their spending power and has also led to positive effects for the local retail industry.  And the fact that BPO companies in the Philippines are not just in urban centers in Metro Manila, but are also in other parts of the country, means that more women in more areas in the country are getting the chance to gain financial independence.

Opportunities for advancement - For a large number of women in the BPO sector, these employment opportunities open a door to more chances for advancement, not just financially and socially, but also in terms of career and skills.  The sector is built to constantly offer training to update knowledge and usually offers career advancement and promotions.  The paper by Keitel and Ledesma, citing figures from the Business Processing Association Philippines.  (2007).  ITES & ICT Sectors, viewed 18 March 2007.  Makati City -- pointed out that BPO's place "high emphasis on people and talent development resulting in a high level of activity and investment in training and coaching at all levels; companies spend an average of Php 21,000 - Php28, 000/year per employee for training and development." Training is a chance to update skills as it also helps employees choose and forge a career path.  It has also proven helpful for women who return to work after maternity leave and the like.

Opportunity to learn new skills and technical skills - The industry, like the technologies that power it, is fast paced and continuously changing and updating.  Employees get to continuously train and learn or update skills.

Chance for fresh graduates - Fresh graduates, who have been turned down for jobs that require experience, are given the chance provided that they pass the training and continue to maintain standards of quality.  The emphasis on recruitment, Keitel and Ledesma said, again citing BPA/P, 2007 -- is on "competency based assessment and behavioral assessment" or the "workplace readiness and job fit" as new hires are typically given "15-20 days training prior to start of work."

Building skills and confidence - The skills acquired from training and day-to-day operations such as communication skills, technical knowledge and product knowledge go a long way to help add confidence and assertiveness.

Sourcefit Philippines, Outsourcing Blog: PROMOTING EQUALITY, PROMOTING DEVELOPMENT -- Empowerment and Opportunities for Women in BPO

Accomplishing more and achieving balance - The flexibility of the work atmosphere, according to authors Keitel and Ledesma encourages most employees to accomplish more with his or her time.  This helps employees achieve balance in their work and personal lives.

Indirect benefits that help make life better for more people - These include better infrastructure, government support and areas evolving into better centers with better infrastructure facilities which benefit the employees and the rest of the residents near the area.  The IT-BPO sector also contributes to the growth of, as well as the creation and support of jobs in real estate, security, transportation and other industries that support BPOs.

Gaining self-reliance and a better standard of living - The paper "Night Work Prohibition of Women Workers in the Philippine Call Center Industry" mentioned the following non-monetary benefits: leaves with pay, HMO and health programs, flexible schedules, off-setting, opportunity to negotiate part time work, bedroom or sleeping quarters, health programs, career leaves and breaks, study/training scholarship and subsidy, early retirement, club membership and cultural/religious leave.  These non-monetary benefits also add up to a compensation package that has the potential to improve the standard of living.  For countless Filipino women, the benefits of an above average compensation such as autonomy, self-reliance, freedom and the opportunity to have a better life are priceless.

Makes Perfect Sense

Continuing to make these employment opportunities within reach for more women in the country is not only just, it also makes perfect business sense.  For BPO companies to continue growing at such astonishing rates and contributing to the growth of the Philippine economy, they need to meet the demands of a growing number of clients with, first and foremost, the best talent for the job.

In June of last year, a law was passed to ensure that women would be allowed to work at night for more than 11 consecutive hours.  This repeals the provisions of the Labor Code that prohibited night work for women and which forced BPO firms to constantly seek exemptions from the Department of Labor and Employment to allow them to employ women for work at night.  Industry players and the Labor Department welcomed the signing of the new law as a move to give women equal access to opportunities for employment.

The government also continues to find measures, including looking into laws and government incentives that can offer support to expanding BPO operations, providing more access to free training and assistance in getting employment in the IT-BPO sector.

The Department of Education, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, the Commission on Higher Education and the private sector are working together towards training and education to avoid the talent gap and meet the strong demand.

In 2011, Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP) executive director for external affairs Martin Crisostomo said in an interview with the Philippine Star, the BPO sector hit $10.9 billion in revenues.  For 2012, as businesses abroad aim to concentrate on their core operations and become more competitive and with increased demand in the non-voice and voice subsectors of the Philippines' BPO industry, the projected revenue of the local IT-BPO sector is $13 billion.

The economic empowerment of women is, by all means, part of the big picture.  As the Asian Development Bank (ADB) report titled "Paradox and Promise in the Philippines: A Joint Country Gender Assessment 2008" pointed out, "Enhancing women's economic empowerment is, therefore, not only a question of promoting equality, but also of supporting the socioeconomic development of the country."


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