European study finds women face training, promotion and work-life balance problems

The findings of a major EU research project on the progress of women working in junior positions in the finance and retail sectors in eight Member States were presented in May 2002. The project found that: there is a lack of training, particularly in the retail sector; advancement opportunities are rare or not possible to take; and it is becoming increasingly difficult for women in these positions to manage work and their private lives.

The SERVEMPLOI project is a three-year European Union-funded project which monitors the progress of women working in the finance and retail sectors in eight EU Member States: Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK. The project, which ran between December 1998 and December 2001, has now issued its reports on the two sectors. The project aimed to answer the following questions:

  • 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 the 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? and
  • what differences are to be found between countries?

The reports are based on case studies of retail and financial services firms and panel studies of female employees over a period of two years. The women studied worked in junior jobs - in the retail sector they worked as sales assistants and check-out operators, while in financial services they worked as clerks or cashiers, customer consultants, 'back-office' administrative employees and call centre agents.

The results

The main findings of the project were presented by the project manager, Juliet Webster, at the annual committee meeting of the finance sector of UNI-Europa (the European regional organisation of Union Network International, which groups trade unions organising in sectors including finance and retail), which was held on 14 May 2002 in Nyon, Switzerland.

Training

The report finds that in both the retail and the financial services sector, women in junior positions are not adequately 'networked' in terms of information technology. This is in contrast to the fact that the organisations these women work in are highly networked - the retail organisations use computerised check-out technologies, while in financial services women are increasingly working with integrated technological systems in branches and in call centres.

Training is found to vary considerably between countries, ranging from arrangements in Germany whereby vocational training schemes offer adequate preparation, to the UK, where some women studied had received no training at all for their work and in Spain, where the women studied in the retail sector had received little or no training. In all countries, however, on-the-job training and 'shadowing' other employees is commonplace.

On a sectoral basis, most of the women studied in the financial services sector had received some kind of training - only one woman had received no training at all. By contrast, a significant minority of women in the retail sector - around one third of those studied - had received no training at all.

In terms of length of training, the retail sector in particular offers training which is short, usually of less than one month's duration. In financial services, longer periods of training - sometimes of more than one year - are more common, particularly in countries such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

Nevertheless, there appears to be a trend towards decreasing levels of training, with certain types of apprenticeship and vocational training no longer offered to women in junior positions

Progression

Only 15% of the women studied had achieved promotion out of their junior jobs and into better jobs. These latter jobs are usually junior management positions. Almost half the women studied were in exactly the same position at the end of the study as they had been at the beginning. It was reported that some employers did not provide the women with advancement opportunities, assuming that they were unambitious because of the junior nature of their position. However, other women had promotion opportunities but had felt obliged to refuse them, usually because this entailed working longer hours, which were difficult to reconcile with their private lives.

Social issues

Many of the women studied felt that their working life was stressful because they had little control over their jobs and were particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of working arrangements. A number of women reported physical and metal health problems, particularly where their employer had been involved in mergers, where working time flexibility was imposed on them, or if there was bullying or harassment in the workplace. The project found that a significant minority of the women studied left the labour market permanently on health grounds.

Further, the women studied had considerable problems in managing work and their family life. In both retail and financial services, opening hours are being extended, meaning that employees who serve customers are having more and more demands placed upon them. The project found that the women's lives were being made more stressful by having to find childcare arrangements, often among members of their family.

Recommendations

One of the main conclusions drawn from the project is the need to rethink working time and the organisation of work in order to allow people to maximise their contributions to their companies and exploit the opportunities open to them, without having to compromise their lives outside work.

The reports also urges trade unions to reach out more to women in the workplace: 'in general, trade unions throughout Europe have a poor, though improving, record of serving the needs and requirements of their female members.' It urges unions to draw up an agenda to help change the situation and to be less 'remote' to women. For example, the report states that unions could help to develop new 'skill labels' so as to value properly the competencies which women routinely use in the workplace 'but which often go unrecognised'. Further, unions could press for discrimination-free job evaluation systems and resist schemes which reward managerial skills but overlook lower-graded skills which are commonly used in women's jobs.

Commentary

This important piece of research shows that, despite more than 25 years of equal pay and equal opportunities legislation in the European Union, women remain at a disadvantage in the workplace. Women in junior positions in particular appear to suffer from low levels of control over their work, ever more rigorous demands in terms of working hours and imposed flexibility, and increasing difficulties in reconciling their job with the demands of their private life. There is also a real problem with a lack of advancement - as a result of opportunities not being offered but also as a result of a refusal of promotion due to work/life balance difficulties.

It would therefore appear that there is much to be done to improve the situation. The report highlights the key role of trade unions in working to improve their focus on female members and initiating discussion in areas such as job evaluation and redefining skills. This would be an important start in improving the situation over the medium term. (Andrea Broughton, IRS)

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