23 Women in Customer Service Sarah 4 01
Article Ultimate Life Popular 6 min read

Why Women Should Shape the Future of Customer Service

Sarah Al-Hussaini, Chief Operating Officer at ultimate.ai, believes now is the time for the gender leadership gap to be closed, and for women to step up and shape the future of customer service

The gender gap in customer service

Customer service is an industry that has long been underpinned by women.

In the US, for every male customer service representative, there are two women, according to 2018 data from DataUSA. A similar ratio is seen in the UK.

But despite making up two-third of the customer service workforce, only a fraction of those women make it to the ranks of leadership - 48%, to be exact, according to the UK Office of National Statistics..

The bleak picture doesn’t stop at the gender leadership gap.

Men working in the industry are on average, 2.5 years younger than their female counterparts. This indicates that as men get more experienced, they move up the ranks into leadership, or move out of the industry, while women remain in roles that don’t offer meaningful career progression.

This trend in the customer service industry resembles a similar trend worldwide: the higher up the ladder, the fewer women can be found.

This gender leadership gap translates into a pay gap as well. As women get stuck in lower level roles, and stay there longer than their male counterparts, a pay gap starts to emerge.

The gender pay gap by age group
Below 30 years old: 1.65%; 30 - 39 years old: 8.6%; 40 - 49 years old: 11.6%; 50 - 59 years old: 13.5%; Source: UK Office for National Statistics (Gender pay gap by age and occupation; 2020 provisional)
The gender leadership gap in customer service
Women in frontline call center roles: 62%; Women in supervisory and managerial roles: 48%; Source: UK - Office for National Statistics (Employment by gender, 2018)

It’s often assumed that the gender pay gap exists because more women work part-time. But as data shows, even for full-time workers, the gap clearly exists.

Workplace discrimination might be one of the contributing factors to the leadership gender gap, a 2019 report by McKinsey & Company and Lean In found.

“Women are often hired and promoted based on past accomplishments, while men may be hired and promoted based on future potential,” the authors wrote.

How women impact and shape the industry

Despite the underrepresentation of women leaders in the customer service industry, it’s clear that women have a lot to offer.

In an industry that involves managing demanding customers and high volumes of work, skills like empathy and EQ are essential.

For women, this tends to come more naturally to them as compared to men, as recent studies have found.

But women don’t only bring ‘soft’ skills like empathy to the table.

Due to Covid-19, businesses have been forced to digitize more rapidly than ever before. As customers grow more sophisticated, and as volumes of customer inquiries balloon, the complexity and demands of the job increase. Contact centers are forced to upskill and become more high-touch, giving rise to “superagents”.

This also gives rise to tech-driven solutions like process automation and conversational AI, which helps agents complete repetitive, predictable tasks faster, or take over those tasks altogether.

This, in turn, creates new tech roles within the industry, which is in the process of transforming from a low-skill industry to a high-skill one. A talented and experienced workforce is needed to build, test, train, and operate the technology that is scaling the impact of customer service teams.

A pivotal opportunity for women to transform the industry

In the customer service industry, we are at the cusp of an enormous opportunity - to create the first deep tech specialization (conversational AI) dominated by women. Who better to shape the future of the industry than the women who make up the majority of its workforce?

However, the software industry should serve as a cautionary tale for us.

In the early days of software development, simply getting a program into a machine took a long time. A lot of the work was manual, tedious, and repetitive. And a lot of this work was done by women. Women paved the way for the software industry that we have today.

As the industry became more lucrative and complex, it drew more men. As men began to enter the industry, software development started to be classified as an engineering and STEM discipline, educational paths that societal structures discouraged women from pursuing. Men took on the new roles that were being created while women left the industry or were stuck in lower level positions.

Today, if you look at C-level executives and founders in tech, you see a sea of men. And as the industry becomes more technology-driven and sophisticated, we may see the same trend repeat itself in customer service, if this industry continues to be served by women, and led by men.

Because of the number of roles they hold in this industry, women are the group most impacted by automation and AI. Women have unique expertise and frontline knowledge of what customers want and need, and thus, they should be leading the way and building the technology of the future for this industry.

While AI-related job titles such as Automation Managers and Conversation Designers are rapidly growing in the industry, the playing field is still level. The window is open for women to step into these new roles and specializations, leveling the playing field and upending the status quo.

It’s time to lean in

The customer service industry is one that is rapidly evolving, and at ultimate.ai, we truly believe that conversational AI is the future of customer service. It allows companies to handle high volumes of interactions while delivering personalization in a human way, using AI and deep learning.

For clients using ultimate.ai in their customer service, we’ve seen over and over again how quickly the project leads get promoted or become product owners of the tech, helping their companies transform digitally and adding tremendous value in a short amount of time.

Informed by women leading this shift, technology can help companies “go digital while staying human”, to borrow the words of Eveline Erkelens, an experienced Agile CX strategist and thought leader, and founder of Bright6.

There is so much evidence out there that women are less likely to put themselves forward if they feel even slightly unqualified to do something. But when it comes to conversational AI and automation in customer service, because this domain is so new, it’s still an emerging field, with a limited supply of talent to fill in the gaps.

Our domain expertise as women on the frontlines of dealing with customers is an incredible asset, and cannot be discounted. We have the chance to be the champions and early adopters of this technology. Technology is just a tool, and most things are low code today. Women should not be intimidated by a perceived “skill barrier” when hearing words like “AI” and “automation”.

To echo the words of Sheryl Sandberg, women in this industry must “lean in” to opportunities to tackle the challenges we face today.

The future of the industry and our ability to continue to deliver the highest quality of service to customers around the world depends on us “leaning in”.

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