In their recent book Shopgirls, Cox and Hobley illustrate that the connection between retail and qualities traditionally associated with femininity developed in conjunction with women’s gradual entrance into the service sector labour market from the late 19th Century. Alongside their association with femininity, customer-facing forms of service sector employment have also had a historical association with glamour, and in turn, with possibilities of social mobility. This is despite the fact that, as Cox and Hobley document, workers in the retail sector experienced dire working and living conditions well into the 20th Century.
In the early 21st Century, while conditions have improved, this contradiction continues. As Valery Walkerdine has argued, in a context in which working-class people are increasingly denigrated as flawed workers and flawed consumers, service sector employment, alongside the expansion of previously inaccessible educational opportunities, ‘appear to offer possibilities and lifestyles which are tied up with what is traditionally regarded as middle-class status’ (2003: 240). However, in reality, low pay and non-standard contracts continue to be the norm for many in service sector employment. Thus, what has been seen as the cultural feminisation of the economy, with a growing number of jobs that require workers to be customer-focused, communicative, caring, and flexible – qualities traditionally associated, rightly or wrongly, with femininity – should not be assumed to have brought greater gender equality. Indeed, as Lisa Adkins has argued, since women appear to ‘embody’ rather than ‘perform’ femininity, they are less likely to be rewarded for it, and instead, may more easily be positioned as ‘gendered workers’.
The demand for and utilisation of the feminine in service sector employment are central not only to western economies, but also, to emerging economies such as those of Eastern Europe and the BRIC countries. In China, for example, Eileen Otis’s work explores the ways in which women and their bodies have been used as a vehicle for the mobilisation of global corporate capital as the public face of high-class hotels for international businessmen. My own research has explored a similar context in Russia, where images of women also indicate a shift towards a more ‘emphasized’ version of femininity in line with the building of post-Soviet capitalism. My interest, however, has predominantly been in questions of social inequality and social mobility – what sorts of prospects do new forms of interactive service work hold out for working-class young women in contemporary Russia?
I recently published the results of a study conducted in the rapidly developing metropolis of St. Petersburg, which involved interviews with thirty-four young women who were either training for or already working in various forms of interactive service work such as hospitality, tourism and the beauty industry. It was immediately apparent that the young women in the study were very attracted to the work roles they had chosen, and that they distinguished these roles strongly from older forms of employment in, for example, manufacturing. The attraction of service sector roles was rooted in part in their substantive content, including the possibilities it offered the young women to engage in communication-based work, and in what they regarded as creative tasks, as opposed to the ‘monotony’ of employment in the industrial sector, where many of their parents had worked. In addition, employment in hospitality and tourism, and the newer parts of the beauty industry, often held out forms of symbolic capital through their connection with the West, either in the form of western-standard hotels or possibilities for future travel, or simply western-sounding job titles such as menedzher and vizazhist. Finally, the attraction of service work stemmed from its aesthetic dimension, namely, the requirement to perform an idealised version of middle-class femininity, which held out significant appeal for working-class young women.
However, taken together, these factors only made up a symbolic form of social mobility. In material terms, none of the young women in the study expected to earn more than they would have done had they chosen to work in industry, and all expected to earn significantly less than their boyfriends and future husbands. This was a realistic reflection of a gender pay gap that, according to Rosstat, stood at 37% in 2008.
Thus, the contradiction between notions of social mobility and the reality of poor prospects in feminised forms of service work appears especially stark in some of the newer contexts of global capitalism. In all of its contexts, though, it is important to unpack the significance of employment shifts that appear to favour a particular gendered worker.
The expansion of service sector employment has been at the heart of the apparent cultural feminisation of the economy, which has often underpinned discourses proclaiming that ‘the future is female’, and that men, or at least working-class men, are becoming increasingly ‘redundant’, as deindustrialising economies offer fewer jobs requiring skills associated with masculinity.
However, as the experience of the young women in the St. Petersburg study indicates, it is crucial not to mistake shifts in the gendered performances demanded by employers with shifts in gender equality.
Charlie Walker’s article ‘“I Don’t Really Like Tedious, Monotonous Work”: Working-class Young Women, Service Sector Employment and Social Mobility in Contemporary Russia’ appears in the journal Sociology