Gendered Experiences in Customer Service

“Can’t you just get one of the boys over to help me?”.

I was asked this by a woman who needed a wire for her DVD player. I was, if anything, overqualified to help her as we were in a supermarket. I gave her all of the correct information, but by telling her the right thing, I was telling her she was wrong. She didn’t like this. She wanted “one of the boys” to help her. Despite being a supervisor, I was made to get a male co-worker, a boy who had just been outside pushing trolleys around, to help her. He repeated to her exactly what I had told her. Yet, according to her, he was “incredibly helpful”, whilst I needed to “get off my high horse”.


Arlie Hochshild defined Emotional Labour as the requirement for “one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others […] the sense of being cared for in a convivial and safe place.”

In my own words ‘Emotional Labour’ is “forcing, creating or controlling certain emotions and feelings in your responses, most commonly in the workplace”; Generally, there is an expectation in all fields of work for all genders to use emotional labour for success in the work. However, in the workplace, any outward emotions expressed by women and men are interpreted differently. Why is emotional labour more commonly expected from women than men? 


I firstly asked a few of my female friends if in the workplace they had ever found customers have treated them differently than their male co-workers? 


Female Server: “When working at a kid’s soft play area, sometimes dads would wink and kind of make odd comments and touch my shoulder. If I was busy or a little short with them, they were more offended than when my male colleagues were unhelpful or made them wait. I feel like I was expected to be more polite and accommodating”.

Female Barista: “I think it happened all the time. People were definitely way more patronising to me than the boys. Often the male customers would do that thing where they’re like ‘cheer up love’ and never in a million years would they say that to the boys.  If the guys’ service was slightly slow it’s fair enough but when it was us, it’s unacceptable and terrible service. Men especially wouldn’t really take me seriously; they’d always have to double-check with one of the male baristas. A customer once asked me to describe one of our coffee roasts, when I couldn’t remember the exact country it comes from, he insulted me, calling me dumb.  He then asked my male co-worker who proceeded to tell him the exact same information that I did, but my co-worker’s response was apparently fine”.


I then decided to ask some male friends whether they had noticed themselves getting treated from their female counterparts? 


Male Barman: “I have noticed that when a customer is complaining to a male worker, they have often been rude and aggressive in their demeanour. However, with girls they are usually more polite, but not all the time. On the flip side, often female co-workers are flirted with and expected to do the same back or are spoken to in an unwanted way. There are two occasions I recall… two male costumers were persistently asking for a female co-worker’s number at the bar, she had just turned 18, I had to intervene and ask them to “back off” and get away from the bar. The second occasion is when I overheard a group ipf three men comparing two female colleagues to one another, without them knowing obviously. Making off-hand comments and remarks which would make them feel uncomfortable. So, I would say both sexes are treated differently but with men its more confrontational and with women its more to do with unwanted comments and inappropriateness… if that makes sense.”


Male checkout assistant: “I don’t think it happens a lot. I work on the cigarette counter a lot, on multiple occasions customers have expected me to know specifics about the tobacco products we sell. There was one time when I was working at the cigarette counter, there was no queue and the male customer went straight to my 18-year-old female co-worker. When she asked him what he wanted he responded ‘you’. She just laughed and moved on. But yeah, I can’t remember, a lot of old people will call the girls ‘babe’ and ‘sweetie’ and stuff. All customers when they need a top-shelf item or an item which is too heavy, they’ll ask for a ‘strong, tall boy’ to help them”.


From these experiences, it seems that emotional labour is expected more from women. For men, however, this emotional labour is characterised by the need to be strong physically and mentally. They are constantly assumed to have more power and knowledge than their female counterparts. Meanwhile, women are expected to be constantly friendly, ignoring any crude comments and inappropriate touching.  Anyone who works in customer service should not be assumed or expected to be or act a certain way for anyone, especially not because of their gender. Customers unknowingly create and reinforce the power divide between men and women by behaving in this way. 


Customer service is already a mentally demanding job, so why make people’s lives harder by forcing them to behave according to gender stereotypes?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *