Business Process Outsourcing is the latest mantra in India today. Several software and IT companies are trying new ways to increase their revenues, and BPO is one of their primary tools of doing so.
BPO involves outsourcing the non-core processes of a company to external service providers. This leads to savings in terms of time and resources and streamlines the company's processes. Functions being outsourced to external sources range from order entry, billing and collection to pay roll and HR administration.
The Indian IT-BPO industry is the largest private sector employer in the country providing direct employment to 1.6 million professionals, and indirect employment to over 6 million people in different sectors.
In India, the outsourcing boom has seen a surge in the number of call centres set up in major cities. Typically, call centres address issues ranging fro sales support, airline and hotel reservations, tele-marketing and market research. Having a large low-cost, English speaking, technically trained workforce, India has emerged as the premier outsourcing destination. As the job opportunities provided by such call-centres have increased over the past few years, more and more women are joining the industry.
Women account for close to 30 per cent of the total workforce of the Indian IT industry and this number is expected to rise to 45 per cent by 2010. According to the Registrar General of India, the proportion of women in the Indian IT industry in 1981 was 19.7 per cent. This went up to 22.7 per cent in 1991, further rising to 25.7 per cent in 2001.
A survey by The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) found that women comprise about 25 percent of the 200,000 strong workforce of Indian BPO-IT majors such as Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Wipro and Satyam. NASSCOM also predicts that the male versus female ratio, currently at 76:24, will be 65:33 by next year.
The participation of women in the BPO industry is critical factor for its growth. While the number of women and men at entry level positions is evenly split, the case is different for the middle and senior management positions. BPO companies are adopting newer measures to employ more women for higher roles and functions.
Problems faced by Women in BPO
A report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India entitled ‘Night Shift for Women: Growth and Opportunities' assessed the BPO sector among four other industries in terms of women's perceptions of security and an adequate working environment that employers are obliged to provide them for working the night shift. The survey has aggregated women's perception of their "security" in working the night shift and other parameters such as adequacy of childcare facilities, transport facilities and in-house training on health and safety issues, mental harassment by the employer, pay package, etc. In this urban survey covering 216 women workers and 56 employers in nine cities in the BPO, health, textile and garments and leather industries, the BPO sector fared best.
Nonetheless, women in this industry still face numerous hurdles.
Considering that the Indian society is quite conservative, women are expected to first contribute in the household tasks even when they have an 8 hour job. According to a UN study, women in India approximately spend 35 hours each week on household chores and family responsibilities against four hours per week for men. Striking a balance between home and career is one of the biggest challenges faced by women in this field. In order to be able to rise to higher levels, it is also vital for women to have a good personal support system.
In the IT industry, employees need to maintain a high learning curve if they want to keep up their performance. Many women may have a natural predisposition towards areas like HR or are more visible in support functions rather than the more technology and computing intensive areas. Women find it particularly difficult to remain updated in technology and IT because of the burden of responsibilities outside work.
Besides, pre-conceived notions about working in a call centre or in the IT sector can prove to be major stumbling blocks. These notions are particularly so regarding hazards of night shifts, unfriendly and strenuous work environment and health related disorders.
In the light of a couple of incidents where female call centre employees were raped and murdered, several questions about the safety of women staff in IT services were raised, given the industry's odd timings and logistics challenges.
There have been a few instances where women have also complained about men unwilling to cooperate with their female colleagues despite the latter's proven work record. Some people are of the opinion that women cannot come up with the opinion and are less talented in science and mathematics. This opinion, though not widespread, needs to be busted.
Though many companies prefer female employees due to lower attrition rates, there continues to be a bias for men in many IT and BPO related sectors. Getting a female employee is seen as lacking in mobility, increased uncertainty, need for flexibility and mid-career gaps. Though denied by top IT companies, glaring salary gaps between men and women in middle and higher management positions are also said to exist.
Solving the Problems
A rise in the number of women at higher levels will have a trickle effect and will lead to a better situation for the women down the hierarchy. The Administrative Science Quarterly in one of its reports stated that the ability of female professionals to form healthy relationships with female co-workers depends on the proportion of women at higher positions and not the total number of women in the organization. An obvious move to encourage women to join this sector would be to boost participation of women at higher levels of administration.
Most women join work in their early twenties, a time when a lot of personal decisions are taken. As the society is more demanding on women, organizations have come up with services to help working women. Infosys set up a creche on their premises to help young mothers in their organization. A Women's Inclusivity Network has been established to address women's needs in the workplace.
Advancement in technology has helped many women work from home. Tele-commuting and video-conferencing have made working remotely a hassle-free experience.
Some organizations also offer women flexibility regarding work timings. Many women have security concerns about night shifts and others find night shifts difficult with families. Call centers and BPO services are now more forthcoming in adjusting work timings for women with such issues.
In light of eminent security issues, organizations are giving top priority to employee safety. Companies now use internal communication channels to reassure employees and address their doubts.
Advantages of having Women in the BPO Industry
For the women themselves
The most obvious incentive that draws women (and men alike) into the BPO industry is high pay-packets. Young graduates with basic qualifications join the industry, many simply to make a quick buck before continuing with their education. Yet, there are many graduates who are lured by the salaries and perks, yet stay on in the industry because of the lucrative career growth.
By offering flexible work hours to employees, BPOs prove to be more attractive for women as they are not required to compromise with family commitments.
From the hiring end (lower attrition rates among women)
Women are more likely than men to stick to a particular job. Work-life flexibility is extremely essential in order to ensure a high retention rate.
In the Indian outsourcing industry, women form 35% of the 1.3 million strong workforce. The industry faces an annual employee turnover of 30 per cent. Women are responsible for only 5% of this figure. Women are also less likely to switch jobs for a small salary increase. A slight increase in salary or some perk does not always motivate them into quitting.