Article

Closing the gender gap in customer service leadership roles

This International Women’s Day, women show up as the antidote to burnout and champions of DEI and advancement into leadership roles—even as the gap in burnout between men and women has nearly doubled in the past year.

By Hannah Wren, Staff Writer

Published March 3, 2022
Last updated March 3, 2022

Since last International Women’s Day, women have made significant achievements in leadership representation in the workplace. Yet women are still promoted to higher-ranking and higher-paying leadership roles at lower rates than men. The latest Women in the Workplace Report from McKinsey illuminates challenges many women face that may contribute to this leadership gap. The report, in partnership with LeanIn.Org, found that men are far more likely to rise to manager positions than women, creating a barrier for women to progress to more senior leadership levels. And while women experience microaggressions that can hinder their professional growth more frequently than men, this happens at a higher rate for women of color than for White women. Additionally, more women are considering leaving the workforce or stepping down to lower-level positions because they’re burned out—the gap in burnout between women and men has nearly doubled in the past year.

The gap in burnout between women and men has nearly doubled in the past year.McKinsey's 2021 Women in the Workplace Report

The silver lining is that many women are leading initiatives to create positive change. According to McKinsey, they’re doing more than their male counterparts to improve employee well-being—for example, by supporting diversity and inclusion resource groups and guiding teammates through work-life challenges.

There are more women than men in customer service—yet men hold more leadership positions

Unfortunately, the challenges McKinsey outlines ring especially true for women on the frontlines of the customer experience (CX). Female-dominated industries see some of the largest gender pay gaps, including customer service, where traditionally there are more women than men and in lower-level positions. There’s also a high risk of burnout for all agents: According to Zendesk’s 2022 CX Trends Report, only 14% are extremely satisfied with the career paths open to them, 38% say the customer service team isn’t treated as well as other teams, and less than 30% feel empowered to do their jobs well.

Only 14% of agents are extremely satisfied with the career paths open to them. 38% say the customer service team isn’t treated as well as other teams.Zendesk’s 2022 CX Trends Report

I spoke with female customer support leaders to learn how they found success—and how they’re paying it forward to empower the next generation of women in customer service.

Find your network of champions

For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted, according to McKinsey. As a result of this so-called “broken rung,” fewer women are rising to senior manager, director, and vice-president levels than men.

For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted.McKinsey research

Almost every woman I spoke with said they owe a large part of their professional success to mentors who advocated for their achievements and championed their potential. “Women need a network of champions,” said Zara Lobrin, who ensures InterContinental Hotels Group’s (IHG) sales and service vendor sites in Portugal, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras deliver excellent customer service. “Mentors are critical to helping aspiring female leaders gain the perspective and experience they need to climb the corporate ladder.”

“Mentors are critical to helping aspiring female leaders gain the perspective and experience they need to climb the corporate ladder.” Zara Lobrin, delivery manager, sales and service, InterContinental Hotels Group

When Lobrin wanted to move to Europe to be with her wife, her manager recommended her for her current role in Portugal. Lobrin said women need managers like that who will get to know them authentically, learn their goals, give the right feedback at the right time, and rally for their growth. “Career development is a common reason why people leave their current company,” explained Lobrin. “But when you create these opportunities within your team, it allows you to improve the quality of your workforce now and build a strong pipeline of talent for the future. Having that succession planning works well for the employee and the company.” Jillana Peterson started as a customer advocate at Zendesk in 2013. She helped build the Zendesk Neighbor Foundation for nonprofits, setting up accounts for disaster recovery and the immigration crisis before moving back to Advocacy as a senior operations manager. Like Lobrin, Peterson said female mentorship was critical to her career growth. When Zendesk first started its Customer Success team, the vice president of Support found Peterson’s tickets, pulled her out of the crowd, and asked her to be one of the first success managers. “She saw me and recognized my value, and that was an important turning point in my career," explained Peterson.

Mentorship also means leading by example. Peterson learned from the more senior women on her team early in her career by watching them assert themselves in high stakeholder meetings. “Seeing other women speak up when we’d find ourselves sitting in a room full of men while visiting a big client helped me build my own confidence,” she said. Giving credit to women in your network of champions situates you into broader, more relevant cultural conversations, according to Mary Diaz, an advisor for female leaders and founders. “This culture-making contributes to a healthy ecosystem of co-empowerment, thought leadership, and true feminist embodiment,” she said. “Resist the lie of the self-made woman.”

Make your team into a mosaic

“In team and customer meetings, I have to think about my tone, eye contact, and if I sound confident enough—men tend to not have to think about being judged for these things as much as women,” reflected Delores Cooper, associate manager, Scaled Customer Success, Zendesk. And while many women experience biases at work, women of color experience “even more bias, discrimination, and pressure to perform” and more frequently, according to McKinsey. This can create additional roadblocks to professional advancement. In fact, between entry-level and C-suite, the representation of women of color drops by more than 75%.

Between entry-level and C-suite, the representation of women of color drops by more than 75%.McKinsey research

McKinsey also found that female leaders are up to twice as likely to spend time outside their formal roles on DEI work compared to their male counterparts. For example, they’re recruiting employees from underrepresented groups and supporting employee resource groups.

Cooper worked with her team to make their job application descriptions more inclusive, reviewing for biases in their requirements and responsibilities to get more diverse people in the door. “Now our team is one of the most diverse,” she said. Claire Miller, a premier support engineer who has been at Zendesk for 6.5 years, is a leader in Zendesk’s employee community, Mosaic, an employee resource group for people of color and advocates. “I live in the very White Midwest, and getting involved in employee communities has made a huge difference in my work satisfaction,” she said. Mosaic resources include a DEI-themed book club focused on books about people of color, those living with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community. They also host professional development-focused events, including speed mentoring with C-staff and higher-up directors and peer circles, fireside chats with senior leaders.

“I live in the very White Midwest, and getting involved in employee communities has made a huge difference in my work satisfaction."Claire Miller, premier support engineer, Zendesk

In addition to ensuring all employees feel seen and welcome, hiring a mosaic of people from different backgrounds is critical to providing a better customer experience. “Historically, software like chatbots and other types of AI have sometimes been sexist, racist, or inaccessible to certain audiences because they were programmed by one subset of people,” said Elissa Tikalsky, chatbot CX designer, Zendesk. “Having a diversity of perspectives involved in programming and design cannot be emphasized enough to make something accessible to diverse audiences, and that is so important for customer service. At Zendesk, we have customers worldwide, who speak many languages and have different backgrounds. Having diverse teams helps us support everyone.”

“Having a diversity of perspectives involved in programming and design cannot be emphasised enough to make something accessible to diverse audiences, and that is so important for customer service."Elissa Tikalsky, chatbot CX designer

It’s okay not to feel okay

McKinsey found that women are also doing more than men to help other employees navigate work-life challenges and manage workloads. And with women feeling burned out across the board, this work is imperative. Nearly one in three women have considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career in the past year, according to McKinsey, and this number has only increased since the beginning of the pandemic.

Nearly one in three women have considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career in the past year, an increase since the beginning of the pandemic.McKinsey research

The risk of burnout is exceptionally high for agents. Customer support jobs always required emotional labor. But many customers today are irate and anxious and take it out on service workers. No wonder nearly 70% of agents said they felt overwhelmed.

Minimising burnout requires changes at the job, team, and company levels. But people managers play a key role since they’re so close to their direct reports’ day-to-day. It’s important for employees to feel comfortable sharing personal challenges impacting their work abilities with their manager, and for managers to support employees when they have the courage to speak up.

Minimising personal burnout

  • Speak up to your manager about personal challenges, if it feels safe
  • Prioritise your own health and recharge time
  • Communicate your family schedule

Minimising team burnout

  • Have one-on-one conversations to check in
  • Support teammates through work-life challenges
  • Encourage your direct reports to take time off

Beth Benadum, director of Guest and Employee Experience at Chipotle, leaned on her manager for support when she learned she carried a gene mutation increasing her risk of breast cancer. Over 21 months, she had 10 surgeries, including a mastectomy. Benadum’s manager at the time encouraged her to prioritise her health by giving her the flexibility to work from home and take time off. “For what that employer was doing for me, was how much harder I wanted to work and be successful for them,” Benadum said. Shanté Smith-Daniels, global sales and contact center manager at The Economist, was a single mom of three when she worked on the frontlines at a call center. When she needed time off, she pretended to be physically sick. “Now that I’m in management, I realize how unnecessary that was,” Smith-Daniels reflected. “But it has a lot to do with team culture and managers; they have to make it clear you can take time off for your mental and physical health.”

McKinsey found that mothers of young children face more bias and barriers than fathers and women overall. It helps when managers provide empathy and flexibility to honor requests that make their family arrangement better, if possible—such as allowing them to break out their day as needed and encouraging them to communicate the best meeting times. Overall, employees who can take PTO and breaks to unplug are much less likely to be burned out, according to McKinsey’s research. Initiatives like recharge days outside of vacation time and Focus Fridays for no meetings can significantly impact employee happiness. Smith-Daniels recommends having one-on-one conversations to check in on team members regularly. “As managers, we have to understand a lot is going on, especially when you’re at a contact center and your time isn’t as flexible as management's,” she explained. “We need to have empathy and let agents know that it’s okay not to feel okay.”

“We need to have empathy and let agents know that it’s okay not to feel okay."Shanté Smith-Daniels, global sales and contact center manager, The Economist

Female leadership is critical to the future of customer service

The work female leaders are doing to champion other women, support DEI initiatives, and resolve burnout is critical to the future of customer service—and the workplace at large. And with over 60% of customer service representatives identifying as female, it’s about time companies started thinking about how to empower women on these teams to rise to their full potential.