“Isn’t there someone else I could talk to? Maybe a guy who understands the software?”
“You look hot. Is that your real picture?”
“Thanks, baby girl, you’ve been helpful. Can I call you sometime?”
“Are you sure you’re qualified to talk about this? What’s your degree in?”
“What are you wearing?”
“I’m sure you’re cute and all, but I’m not interested in talking to you. Get your manager.”
“Are you single?”
“Shut up, b—-.”
The definition of customer misogyny is an ingrained prejudice or contempt for women in customer service.
In my customer service experience, customer misogyny is simply believing that it’s OK to reference my looks or my status as a female. Many customers (mostly males) believe my personal life is a valid course of conversation while I’m trying to resolve their support ticket (I assure them, it’s not). Sometimes, customer misogyny comes in the form of questioning my ability to comprehend complex subjects. Other times, it’s assuming that I’m just the girl sleeping with the dude who is running the startup.
Shocking? Maybe, if you’re a man. For women in the customer service industry, though, customer misogyny is an all-too-real aspect of our careers. Daily, we handle men believing we are “lesser than” in every way, and generally undeserving of respect. Men frequently assume our ability to work is affected by our hormones. We also deal with men who assume that they have power over us because we are “merely women.”
Obviously, this is not the entire male population; I’m not here to bash on every man out there. But what I am doing is drawing attention to something that I myself have been silent about for years. Whether they work in a face-to-face service area or they’re an online customer service rep, women deal with this every day. They also deal with it as others continue to bury their heads in the sand.
Disbelief and Disregard
One of the most infuriating aspects of customer misogyny is the air of denial. Mostly, we see it with the customer who just insulted you, claiming “you’re just too sensitive.” Other times, it’s the customer asking to speak to “the guys who know their stuff – but no offense!” Sometimes it’s the customer saying, “I was just asking if you were single – I guess I see why you are!”
Whatever situation it is, most women deal with these events largely without support. Women in the customer service field are not studied much – shocking, right? However, relevant studies indicate that 49% of women have been sexually harassed by male customers. Of those women, 25% received lewd texts or emails.
Another shocking statistic? In face-to-face service industries, from restaurant service to hospitality, 90% of women report being sexually harassed by customers or coworkers. Let’s remove the face-to-face element; not much changes. Some women would even argue the misogynistic treatment gets worse.
And as much as 70% of all workplace harassment goes unreported. Why? Businesses lack the proper infrastructure to support (and resolve) these problems. Sometimes, they don’t handle it at all. The lack of support exists in every customer service arena, whether online, on the phone, or in person. Women are frequently exposed to customer misogyny, and are frequently forced to “grin and bear it.”
Now imagine these numbers extrapolated on customer service reps who speak to, email, and chat with customers daily. Do you think the misogyny improves as you remove accountability, face-to-face reactions, or human interaction? I didn’t think so.
The good news is, we can change this. If you’re a customer service employer, a customer service representative (male, female, or self-identifying), or a woman who has dealt with customer misogyny, it’s not too late to learn how to support yourself and others.
Creating a Supportive, Zero-Tolerance Culture
Reversing customer misogyny is a pretty grandiose plan. You’re probably thinking, “I can’t change the customers!” and you’re right. But we can all agree that 70% of female mistreatment going unreported is unacceptable. Instead, businesses should create an environment where their female employees feel represented and respected.
As Sheryl Sandberg says, “Our biases against women need to be exposed, understood, and changed.” To do so, we need to teach managers, reps, and everyone in the customer service department how to handle misogyny. For some companies, this means letting their female reps report customers formally, through paperwork or a “claim.” Some companies tell female reps to forward a misogynistic customer to a specific manager who is authorized to handle the problem. Other companies have scripts for addressing misogynistic conversations. A few companies even terminate clients who are mistreating their employees. Some companies do all of this and more.
Thankfully, anyone in customer service can also address customer misogyny by simply holding a conversation. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but it’s also effective. Employers and customer service reps alike can:
- Defend a woman’s position: “I have worked here for five years and have more experience than anyone on this team. If you want your issue resolved, I’m the person to talk to.“
- Challenge the misogyny: “In this company, there are a number of great women in customer service who fully represent our company. Would you like to resolve your support issue now?”
- Explain the zero-tolerance policy: “I’m not comfortable with this course of conversation. I should let you know my company takes a no-tolerance approach to mistreatment and disrespect. I’ll be forwarding you to another representative who will handle this.”
Customer service departments, and even entire companies, should teach these methods. Even small businesses or “freelance” customer service reps can utilize some of these methods. The key takeaway here is realizing that customer misogyny is not just my job, as the “victim,” to report or prevent. It’s everyone’s job, and there need to be structures in place to prevent this.
Legal Implications of Customer Misogyny
Let’s be honest here. Women who deal with customer misogyny are not going to run screaming for their lawyer every single time it happens – that would be exhausting. The idea is that systems should be in place to deter this sort of behavior, as well as punish it. But how do companies or customer service managers do this?
In order to change the structure and culture, customer service reps and their companies need to be aware of:
The Fair Employment and Housing Act
This Act states that employers are liable for the mistreatment of their employees. This means the company is held accountable for damages, even if it was a customer’s rude or sexist comments. Businesses and employers are also considered guilty parties if they knew about employee harassment and did nothing to stop it.
What does this mean? Women: you need to report these customers. Employers: you need to have a system in place that shows you’re actively preventing this from happening again. Doing so will keep female employees happy and safe, and will also help turn the tide against misogyny in business.
Conflicts of Interest
If a company has a conflict of interest in a course of action, it is generally the employer’s duty to seek impartial representation. In lay terms? Your employer cannot be contractually, personally, or connected to the jerk customer. If they are, they cannot investigate the situation internally.
What does this mean? Your employer must have systems in place for handling these situations outside of their own resources (HR department, managers, etc.). Everyone should be aware of this, and women should seek companies who are developing these processes.
A vast majority of customer service reps do not support customers face-to-face. The majority of customer service work is now done over the phone, via email, via chat, or through social media. While this expedites the process for businesses, it also means that it’s harder to hold customers accountable for their actions.
In person, a customer trying to ask a female employee for her number and then insulting her when she refuses is harder to ignore. Online, it’s relatively easy. Records are not thoroughly evaluated or stored in most companies. And yet, 58% of women report being cyber-bullied at work.
What does this mean? Employers need to be aware of their state’s cyberbullying laws, and also need to manage records. Chat, email, phone recordings, and reports can track these events as they occur. Most of all, it’s also important to train employees to handle this behavior. This could mean reporting, addressing, or forwarding on a support ticket.
Currently, there aren’t enough studies or findings to represent customer misogyny in remote customer service. They will come soon, though. Then, there will be more legislation and regulation created to represent women. Until that point, though, it’s up to us (and the people who employ us) to do something.
Fixing Customer Misogyny Means Fixing ALL Misogyny
Our society perpetuates misogyny and gender disparities. We’re even seeing it in this election season – a potential female POTUS! But wait! Could Hillary Clinton really withstand the stresses of the Oval Office? She’s too old, she’s too sick! Look at what she’s wearing, that’s just terrible. Put some more makeup on, lady!
Instead of listening to what she says, addressing her political stances, or even evaluating her past experience in politics, we devolve into talking about her hair, her pantsuits, her weaknesses. And, in some ways, Hillary is about to provide the ultimate customer service; she’s quite possibly going to have to deal with all of the American people (her customers)! And she’s experiencing misogyny just like women in every other customer service industry.
While feminists have been railing against the patriarchy for decades (and possibly even a century) now, there is still a long ways to go. The biggest problem isn’t creepy men trying to hit on us while we fix their broken website, though. It’s our reactions, and the reactions of those around us.
We see Hillary do it during the debates; the slight scoff and shake of the head. Can you believe he’s talking about my stamina as a woman right now? Everyone in customer service does this, regardless of gender. We do it when we roll our eyes at lewd requests on support chat. We do it when we tell other women, “Yeah, men are pigs. Can’t change it!” We see the systems we have in place fail to reasonably react to a customer mistreating a female employee. Employers disregard our concerns or say nothing can be done.
Something can be done, though.
It Starts With Me (and You)
Through my online customer service work, nothing really shocks me anymore. Colorful sexual innuendo is a daily phenomenon for me. Men track my personal email down after harassing me on my client’s Internet forum. And I’m not even surprised. It’s a good day when I wake up without a customer response suggesting where to stick my advice or asking if I had to perform sexual favors to get my job.
On a nearly daily basis, I mutter the words:
“Men are pigs.”
“Even if I said something, nobody would do anything.”
“If I say anything, they might fire me. This is a big customer.”
“I’m just being dramatic.”
This is a troubling thought process, especially if you know anything about the blame mentality. And while I can say I’m a strong, independent woman, I’m doing jack squat to prevent this from happening to me (or other women in my field) on a daily basis. As a result, nothing changes. So it starts with me. I am currently “in talks” with two of my clients to set up a system to flag misogynistic employees. I am talking to other women on my teams to see if we can brainstorm together. And I’m addressing those repeat offenders by forwarding them to my manager after letting them know I won’t tolerate their disrespect.
This obviously won’t fix everything, but it’s a start, and it’s what I can do right here, right now.
What about you? Are you doing something to prevent customer misogyny? What is your employer doing to prevent it? What can we, as customer service reps as whole, do to make sure that customers know this is no longer acceptable?