Inequality and segregation pervasive in ICT sector

A recent research paper reveals that the Portuguese ICT sector is characterised by hierarchical inequities and sexual segregation among its workforce. Call centres, in particular, represent a ‘computer taylorism’ type of work organisation.

A recent study has examined the results of a survey of Portuguese companies in the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector. The study reveals that the main changes in companies’ human resource strategies reflect the growth of the services sector, feminisation of the labour market, and increasing prevalence of flexible forms of employment.

Hierarchical inequities

The results of this study contradict the thesis of the ‘new economy’ ideologists, who aspire to the flattening of employment posts and the spread of ‘smart and flexible work’. The authors conclude that there are, in fact, significant differences between managers, specialists and some technicians, and call centre operators. The tendency is for managers to gain more and more advantages, while call centre operators become more disadvantaged.

Managers and specialists are to be found mainly in a stable employment situation, supported by promotion, training and professional development; whereas call centre operators, despite their high education, are in a precarious situation and seek a more stable employment status (see Table 1).

Table 1 Work and employment dimensions, by occupational group
Managers and specialists have more advantages in terms of work and employment conditions than call centre operators have
Work and employment dimensions Managers/specialists Call centre operators
Seniority High High rotation
Contract status Permanent (100%) Temporary contract (97.4%)
Working time Full time (100%) Part time (36.6%)
Unemployment in last five years 5.6% 9.7%
Job content High complexity tasks Limited and repetitive tasks
Promotion in company 70.4% 9.7%
Promotion perspectives High (38.3%) Few or none (67.5%)
Training supported by company 92.0% 35.0%
Interested in professional training 96.0% 56.5%
Remuneration High (€2,000 or more) Low (between €320 and €648)
Fear of losing job 22.6% 45.9%
Willing to change job 18.8% 55.5%
Willing to change occupation 17.6% 59.3%

Source: Kovács, I. and Casaca, S. F., 2004.

Sexual segregation

The study also refutes another thesis, according to which inequalities in employment conditions between men and women tend to disappear in the new economy. In fact, the authors conclude that the ICT sector is characterised by strong sexual discrimination: the work carried out by men is concentrated in the more valued, highly paid and contractually stable occupational segments.

The workforce in call centres is mainly composed of women, in contrast to other ICT sub-sectors, such as new information technologies and software development, which are predominantly staffed by men. More men also work in the audiovisual, communication, multimedia and imaging fields. In the specific domain of call centres, those providing services to the banking/financial sector employ mainly male workers, while the telecommunications sector is mostly staffed by women.

In terms of employment contract status in the ICT sector, the male workforce is in a favourable position: 52% of male workers have a permanent contract, while the proportion of women working on a temporary basis through temporary work agencies is twice that of men (see Figure). The female workers with precarious employment contracts are mostly call centre operators.

Contract status, by sex (%)

With regard to working time, the differences between male and female workers are particularly striking: while 6.8% of male workers work part time, this percentage rises to 20.4% for female workers. Almost four out of five part-time workers (79%) are women.

Working time ranges from a minimum of five hours per day (in the call centres) up to a maximum of 55 hours per week (in the software/computers sector). This illustrates the trend of very long working hours in ICT businesses, where the time spent working is considered a reflection of commitment to the job and company. However, such long hours may compromise a work-life balance, and could undermine the gender equality agenda.

Call centre ‘computer taylorism’

According to the study, it is possible to identify a ‘computer taylorism’ in the work organisation of call centres. Evidence of this may be seen in the:

  • Clear demarcation between conception and monitoring tasks - carried out by a small number of technicians - and routine tasks, carried out individually by the operators. (In one of the cases studied, the researchers found 244 operators linked to a temporary work agency, coordinated by 15 technicians with permanent contracts.)
  • High level of dissatisfaction among operators, underlining the great discrepancy between their educational level and their job, which consists of simple and repetitive tasks, without autonomy and decision-making participation.
  • High labour turnover, with many operators expressing their desire to change their present occupational situation.
  • Low salaries (workers earning the higher salaries, between €649 and €1,002, represent 7.4% of the male workers, and only 2.9% of the female workers), and poor employment conditions.
  • High work intensity: despite the six hour per day average working time, 92% of the workers surveyed stated that their work pace is too fast, and 82% reported that they often come home very tired after work.

Survey methodology

This survey was conducted in the sub-sectors of the information and communication technologies sector (namely, telecommunications, computers and software, audio-visual, communication and imaging, and call centres), and of the retail trade sector (including large stores). The survey includes the following occupations: managers, professionals, technicians and associate professionals, clerks, service workers and shop and market sales workers, craft and related trades workers, elementary occupations, and call centre operators. Some 246 persons were surveyed, and 20 in-depth interviews (life histories) were also carried out with workers in these sectors.


Kovács, I. and Casaca, S. F., ‘Formas flexíveis de trabalho e emprego no sector das tecnologias de informação e comunicação’ (Flexible forms of work and employment in the information and communication technologies sector), Paper presented at the Fifth Portuguese Congress on Sociology, Reflexividade e Acção , Minho University, Braga, May 2004.

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