Love, Sex, and Tech in the Global Workplace

Nikki Townsley. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006.

New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman (2005) recently declared, “The world is flat.” Friedman was struck with this epiphany while interviewing Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Infosys Technologies, for his documentary on outsourcing in Bangalore, India, one of the world’s high-tech capitals. While the two were conversing in the Infosys video-conferencing room complete with a wall-size, flat-screen TV capable of projecting all members of the company’s global supply chain simultaneously, Nilekani proclaimed, “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.”

This statement led Friedman to explore further how globalization has opened business opportunities to nonwhite, non-Western, Southern, or third world populations. Since 2000, he contends, a variety of “flatteners” such as outsourcing, “offshoring,” and “supply-chaining” have facilitated a “global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration on research and work in real time, without regard to geography, distance, or in the near future, even language.” According to Friedman (2005), the globalists’ dream of open access has been fulfilled: “You can innovate without having to emigrate.”

Proponents of globalization repeatedly espouse tales of a newfound, global prosperity. Multinational firms operate in foreign locales in abundance, providing jobs and wages where there were none. Traditional state-run services are increasingly becoming deregulated and privatized, opening formerly sacrosanct public institutions to new market players. Services and knowledge-based work are replacing manufacturing, facilitating more innovation in work design and meeting consumer demands. Information technology communications continue to dismantle time, space, and even cultural boundaries, allowing faster, more responsive, and ultimately more effective business cycles. Yet, while some scholars and lay authors alike point to these neoliberal arguments as proof the digital divide is dead and the market is a panacea, the extent to which globalization actually flattens power relations and facilitates equal access and opportunity remains questionable. In fact, some scholars suggest just the opposite.

Critics argue that the rise in high-level professionals in service-related firms, for example, contributes significantly to socioeconomic inequality among workers and nations alike (Sassen, 2000). The free-agent professional sector full of individuals who travel from firm to firm across the globe, sharing their continually refined “portfolio” of knowledge has grown in concert with the “informalization” of production activities necessary to support the former (Sassen, 2005). Globalization entails a “whole infrastructure of activities, firms, and jobs which are necessary to run the advanced corporate economy” (p. 31), including networks of subcontractors, home workers, and night workers whose contributions underpin the more trendy and talked about shifts in today’s global workplace.

In this chapter, I explore three oft-neglected work industries that make up the behind-the-scenes work of globalization. I hope to reiterate the importance of a gendered lens for studying changes in the global division of labor. Whether global commerce embodies, maintains, and/or contests discrimination based on gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and nationality continues to motivate my own thinking about the relationship among gender, work, and globalization. Who benefits in the global labor market? Whose interests dominate? How are those interests gendered? And while the limited scope of this paper prevents any definitive answers to these questions, scholarship has begun to provide insight into the complex processes and practices that constitute the popular yet misunderstood subjects of globalization and global work trends. By examining this interdisciplinary research, we begin to see globalization and the global division of labor as a set of relationships among institutions, states, organizations, and populations— relationships that clearly draw upon longstanding, traditional assumptions of gender in their shaping of new forms and types of work as well as newly articulated representations of it in what is being called the New Economy. I will review some of the recent, compelling research on gender, work, and globalization in the hope of expanding the scope of gendered organizational communication studies to include what I refer to as love, sex, and tech in the global workplace.

Globalizing Gendered Organizational Communication Studies

The long-standing tradition of treating organization as a composite of hierarchy and distinct job roles within a constant sociohistorical context has led organization scholars to rethink the term. Wanting to dismantle the bricks-and-mortar metaphor whereby organizational communication is “contained” within four walls, scholars have started to “bring work back in” (Barley & Kunda, 2001) and to refocus attention on occupation (see Ashcraft this volume). Yet, as Ashcraft notes, when occupation has been the starting point for analysis, our attention has been primarily limited to professional work in traditionally male-dominated fields. Even the most recent analyses of occupation assume a professional self for whom choice is a given and not a product of changing institutional, economic, and cultural conditions.

Other research points to the contemporary rise in alternative work arrangements that traverse traditional conceptions of organization, occupation, career, and work history (see Buzzanell, 2000). Contingent labor, an umbrella term that refers to a continuum of employment contracts and relations, provides an apt context in which to examine substantive changes in work organization. The term references a range of employment relationships: part-time, temporary, leased, contract, and outsourced contracts. Yet while the label provides a useful linguistic handle to help grasp the elusive nature of contemporary work, it also obscures the complexities of it, particularly the gendering of emerging trends in labor and work organization.

Much scholarly attention has been given to the global economy, particularly from an economic or managerial framework. As feminist scholars have noted, globalization studies have overwhelmingly focused on the economic restructuring of global capital in universal markets or the primacy of information technology in a global economy (Susser, 1997). Sassen (2000) notes the overwhelming focus on upper circuits of capital. Drawing on Spivak’s “capitalocentrism,” Bergeron (2001) challenges “globalocentric” perspectives that take the inevitable, deterministic, and unified presumption of globalization for granted. In response, many feminist scholars are reasserting the centrality of gender to globalization studies (Acker, 2004).

While there has always been diversity within feminist theory, early theorizing often drew upon woman as a construct as part of the effort to establish solidarity as well as credibility in the academy. However, as women of color as well as multicultural and global feminists have pointed out, Woman as a rallying cry has actually been politically divisive and exclusionary. They argue that the power of gender relations is precisely that—relational. We can only understand gender oppression in relationship to other axes of power such as race, ethnicity, religion, class, occupation, marital status, education, and nationality. Furthermore, these interlocking systems must be analyzed within their specific political, social, economic, cultural, and historical contexts. They must be understood in relation to the multinationals, nongovernmental organizations, nation states, and regional networks of which they are a part. Astute analyses even question whether the concept of the nation state holds water at this historical juncture as compared with other conceptual boundaries, such as North-South, developed-developing, or first world-third world, and their relationship to gender (Kim-Puri, 2005).

We can trace an evolution within gender studies. Its focus has shifted from gender as a sex binary to its being dynamic and communicatively constructed through interaction with others (Townsley, 2003). Gender relations are produced and sustained at multiple levels of production; the cases that follow show that they produce global divisions of labor that reflect local and regional meanings. The complex networks within a gendered political economy are continually being remade, and the dimensions of these transformations can be globally mapped as well (Steans, 1999).

It is important to note the limits of a structural approach to the emerging gendered, global division of labor, an approach that minimizes actors’ (women’s) agency and ability to fashion (or refashion) transformative identities and subjectivities in otherwise constrained conditions. Feminist scholars in particular have shifted their focus to places where women are both actors and beneficiaries of globalizing processes, including, for example, informal-sector work that challenges or disrupts multinational capital (Bergeron, 2001). From their perspective, the discourse and practice of flexibility so prevalent in contemporary work organization provides both risk and opportunity for the workforce (Smith, 1997). The integral flexibility of contingent labor may indeed benefit one worker yet displace another; thus, ourtheorizing about it must be flexible enough to account for the mixed and uneven results of processes of globalization that unfold across and within continents, countries, and constituents.

In what follows, I explore three areas of so-called women’s work, conceived through the frame of love, sex, and tech. To do so is to risk reifying global femininities. Mohanty (2002) warns of reproducing clichéd representations of the

ubiquitous global teenage girl factory worker, the domestic worker, and the sex worker. There is also the migrant/immigrant service worker, the refugee, the victim of war crimes, the woman-of-color prisoner who happens to be mother and drug user, the consumer-housewife, and so on. There is also the mother-of-the-nation/religious bearer of traditional cultural and morality. (p. 527)

My goal is not to reify accounts of globalization that stymie the complexity of “woman”. I agree with Mohanty (2002) that “all women are workers, mothers, or consumers in the global economy, but we are also all those things simultaneously” (p. 527). Rather than simply theorizing about sex work as women’s work, it is important to map the power relations that constitute the networks of these gendered industries whereby divisions of worker/consumer, public/private, local/global, and masculinity/femininity are problematized.

Postmodern feminists have actively resisted the binaries of public/private, third/ first world, global/local, and Western/non-Western by mapping circuits of power in global politics. Their work seeks to undermine the conflation of the global with the masculine and economic, the local with the feminine and culture (Freeman, 2001) by analyzing the interrelationships between and within these categories and focusing on the flows not just of capital but of people. Sassen (2000) refers to cross-border circuits or flows of migration and illegal trafficking in people as “counter-geographies of globalization.”

By counter-geographies, Sassen suggests that networks of workers are simultaneously a dominant, even institutionalized component of the global market and part of the unassuming shadow economy as well. Sassen would shift the focus away from the mobile professionals who jet around the globe to the reproductive work that is necessary to support their time-space flexibility (Willis & Yeoh, 2000). Immigrant and migrant women, for example, move to what Sassen (2005) calls the “global cities” to provide the food, clothing, hotel, dry cleaning, child care, and sex services that professional workers demand. According to Sassen, it is precisely these circuits or flows of persons and services that need to be examined, right alongside the knowledge workers, as the work of globalization. Not only are these circuits underrepresented in discourses of globalization (as well as organizational communication research), but women’s strategies for survival actually constitute major dynamics within the context of economic globalization. For example, in the Philippines, state-sponsored emigration programs abound as a means to address foreign debt and unemployment, and women’s remittances from work abroad (both formal and informal) as domestic workers, nurses, entertainers, and even mailorder brides represent well over a third of the state’s revenue (Sassen, 2005).

We are witnessing the expansion and development of a new, international, gendered division of labor. What the United Nations Human Development Program has termed the “globalization of care” (see Ehrenreich, 2002) demonstrates the gendering of work and the globalizing of gendered work. Multiple actors (institutional and informal) at multiple scales—the home to the supranational organization—continually interact to produce circuits of survival. Rather than focus solely on the effects of globalization, such as how men and women are treated differently in global restructuring, more interesting analyses are shifting their lenses to discourses that themselves constitute the practices and processes of globalization. Rather than taking globalization (or gender) as a given, static reality, Larner (2002) refocuses toward discursive analyses of “the forms of expertise and practices through which new political-economic objects and subjects are constituted … [and in particular how] feminized labour forces are constituted in the name of ‘globalization’” (p. 651). She elaborates further, “the globalizing of economies, and the labour forces that emerge, are likely to involve multiple actors, novel techniques, and more idiosyncratic processes than is often recognized” (p. 655). It is precisely these communicative processes that I explore in the following cases of love, sex, and tech in the global workplace.

Commodifying Love: The Growth of a Global Industry of Care

“Oh, congratulations!” a friend exclaimed. Sarah, a white upper-class American professional, grabbed my arms and urged, “You must consider hiring a nanny now that you’ll have two babies under 2 years old!”

“Ah, I don’t know if I want to be a part of a system that…,” I interjected while backing up slightly.

As if on a crusade, Sarah moved forward and continued, “First of all, you need time to write. You need to think of your career. Try an au pair. These women are looking for sponsors to come to the U.S. to earn a living and get an education. And you can hire one for less than the cost of day care for two kids!”

“Perhaps, but the idea of hiring another woman to care for my kids is, well, unsettling for me, particularly as a feminist,” I countered, wishing she’d hear my concerns.

“Hogwash,” Sarah admonished, “you need the time to work, and they need the work. It’s a win-win situation. Look at my friend Elsa who hired an older Mexican woman to care for her three kids. Elsa wanted her children to be bilingual, and the nanny, I think her name was Esmeralda, helped teach the kids Spanish. Elsa also paid Esmeralda to return to Mexico several times a year so she could visit her own family. It was so clear when I visited that Esmeralda loved Elsa’s babies as if they were her own.”

As Sarah continued to extol the benefits of employing an international nanny, I found myself confronted with the politics of globalization in my own living room. The discourse of global care work had become so naturalized that even my progressive friends were parroting the arguments. Nannies earn more money working abroad than they ever could at home. Their birth children depend upon their wages for food and shelter. Employers’ children benefit from special nanny love, and they learn a foreign language. And the nanny’s presence allows the employer to pursue career success without the constraints of daily child care. In this discourse, both women—the employer and the nanny—are discursively positioned as beneficiaries in a global exchange. Yet, racist and essentialist claims about women are reified. While some women may indeed benefit, the discourse of global care work obscures the larger politics of global migration.

Global neoliberalism is often described as a dualistic system of Northern creditors and Southern debtors in which the “global indentured servitude” of the South to the North is produced and maintained, often through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Southern women may leave their families to work as paid domestic laborers for Northern women and their children. These care workers often migrate through informal networks of acquaintances, friends, and family, or via state-sponsored programs that seek to maximize remittances from female migrants to develop otherwise stagnant national economies or fill weak labor pools. Indeed, both home families and nation states alike wait in anticipation of the growing wealth to be made from this form of global servitude.

Labor migration is not new, and the growth of female migrants is astonishing.

Females now are 60% to 80% of legal migrants deployed to other countries from, for example, the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka (Asis, Huang, & Yeoh, 2004, p. 203). Female Filipino migrants have risen from being 12% of those deployed in 1975 to being the majority today (Asis et al., 2004). Because of national initiatives meant to ameliorate labor shortages, some East and Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong (along with Canada and the United States) have become top destinations for Filipino migrants. Overwhelmingly, the specific jobs taken up by migrant women are domestic and care-based.

Lan’s (2003) conception of domestic labor is particularly helpful here. She urges scholars to reconsider the feminization of domestic labor across public and private spheres by treating unpaid household labor and waged domestic work as existing on the same continuum. Her research on Filipina migrant workers in Taiwan demonstrates the fragility of treating both paid and unpaid labor as binaries. Filipinas work as paid domestic laborers but must also fulfill strict gendered responsibilities in their home family in the Philippines as well; they traverse the roles of housewife and breadwinner. Even single Filipinas who migrate for work are faced with familial responsibilities such as the sponsorship of their younger siblings’ education. These women also must weigh and evaluate the roles of unpaid labor and waged work when contemplating marriage proposals from employers. Fully aware that they will be required to do domestic chores as a wife, as they did as a maid (or nanny), without an income, many still choose marriage because of the social or nonmaterial benefits of international marriages. The women shift from waged labor to a labor of love. As Lan notes, “migrant domestic workers not only travel across national borders but also march through the public-private divide of domestic labor, struggling with the unsolvable equation of money and love” (p. 205). Thus, the global care industry depends on both the geographic mobility of

Southern women and the commodification of love for its continued success.

While many industries market care, be they major health institutions or local day care centers, nanny work is differentiated by its occurrence within a private home and its status as an ongoing relationship of pseudo-maternal love and intimacy (Tronto, 2003). In this sense it is sequestered from the work-a-day world of the marketplace by its geography and its normative rules for engagement. Whereas the market demands alienation and competition, nannies’ work is the fragile performance of love and devotion, performed as a family member, as it were. As Hochschild (2002) demonstrates in her research on Filipina nannies in California, nanny love, particularly in the United States, is not the imported resource of “happy peasant mothering” often described by Anglo American women. It is “a love that partly develops on American shores, informed by an American ideology of mother-child bonding and fostered by intense loneliness and longing for their own children” (Hochschild, 2002, p. 24). As one of her participants in the nanny study, María Gutierrez, says about her employer’s child, “I love Ana more than my own two children. Yes, more! It’s strange, I know. But I have time to be with her. I’m paid. I am lonely here. I work 10 hours a day, with one day off. I don’t know any neighbors on the block. And so this child gives me what I need” (Hochschild, 2002, p. 24). María’s narrative contextualizes the production of nanny love and challenges the very gendered and racist assumptions built into the discourse of global care work. Maria’s mother, having lost four babies to miscarriage and death and having worked on a farm all her life, was less than warm. Maria didn’t know the tale of maternal love until she manufactured it herself in America. According to Hochschild, imperialism resurfaces in this exchange, whereby “love and care become the new gold” (p. 26).

Geographers are also unearthing the politics of the growing mobile-care industry. Pratt (1999), for example, applies a poststructuralist lens to the enduring question of choice; namely, what occupational options do women have in the global labor market? She examines how university-educated Filipina nurses who travel to Vancouver, British Columbia through the Canadian Live-In Caregiver program end up occupationally segregated. Pratt identifies three particular discursive constructions—“supplicant, preimmigrants,” “inferior housekeepers,” and “husband stealers”—which, in addition to the “historical geographies of colonialism and racism” (p. 229), coalesce to circumscribe particular subject positions of marginality for Filipinas in Vancouver. That is, despite their training as registered nurses, domestic work was immediately inscribed on Filipina bodies by employers and the state alike. As one of Pratt’s research participants, Joergie, states, “It’s really difficult to integrate …. So at the bus stop, because we’re people of color … they’ll ask you: so you’re a nanny, right? … I find that racist, really” (Pratt, 1998, p. 289).

Pratt (1998) reveals counter discourses that “disrupt and repair” these imposed identities, including those of martyrdom and consumerism. She argues that the practice of Filipina domestic workers’ remitting substantial portions of their income to their families in the Philippines helps detract from racist treatment by reaffirming their self-identity as martyr, or one who endures condescending, racist treatment by employers and society for the sake of others. She describes the martyrdom in terms of “the cultural norm of utang na loob,” debts of gratitude paid to kin caregivers to watch the household while the woman is overseas (Lan, 2003). Pratt (1998) also argues that other Filipina women assume confidence and self-assurance through discursive practices of consumerism, using earned income to partake in the spectacle of weekend mall shopping. While the practice of shopping could be easily be interpreted as reaffirming dominant cultural and gendered identities, Pratt’s focus on resistant strategies affirms the varied and complex ways by which women simultaneously affirm and rewrite discourses that shape labor market segregation across the globe.

Clearly the migration of female domestic labor challenges conceptions of what constitutes work in the so-called New Economy. As discussed above, migrant women traverse a variety of work and family roles, complicating traditional, bounded notions of both workplace and family. They perform family across borders and space, and for a variety of others, such as their birth family and their employer’s family. They also negotiate a complex range of gendered, cultural, and raced identities along with their dual roles of breadwinner and mother. But it is not just their performances that must be considered when we examine the larger discourse of global care work. Indeed, this discourse relies upon and reflects longstanding meanings of woman that are classed and raced, and these meanings are produced in local contexts. Southern women hire nannies themselves and/or pay family members to care for their own children. And implicit throughout the framework are the absent-but-always-present fathers who contribute to the taken-for-granted gendered division of labor—in the home and the workplace. Thus, global care work must be examined through all of its networked links: the households who produce and employ care workers; the organizations that demand so much of professionals’ time that they need help to balance work and family responsibilities; the nation-states that promote global migration; and the international organizations that govern global trade and regulations. All are implicated in the production and maintenance of the discourse and practices of gendered global care work.

Manufacturing Desire: Mapping the Global Sex Work Industry

“Slim, sunburnt, and sweet, they love the white man in an erotic and devoted way. They are masters of the art of making love by nature, an art that we Europeans [Whites, Westerners] do not know” (Life Travel [company], as cited in Bales, 2002, p. 226).

Viola, a young Albanian, was 13 when she started dating 21-year-old Dilin, who proposed to marry her, then move to Italy where he had cousins who could get him a job. Arriving in Italy, Viola’s life changed forever. Dilin locked her in a hotel room and left her, never to be seen again. A group of men entered, and began to beat Viola. Then, each raped her. The leader informed Viola that Dilin had sold her and that she had to obey him or else she would be killed. For seven days Viola was beaten and repeatedly raped. Viola was sold a second time to someone who beat her head so badly she was unable to see for two days She was told if she didn’t work as a prostitute, her mother and sister in Albania would be raped and killed. Viola was forced to submit to prostitution until police raided the brothel she was in. She was deported to Albania. (U.S. Department of State, 2005)

My juxtaposition here of an advertisement for Swiss sex tourism and a personal narrative of trafficking demonstrate the complex and varied positions within another gendered, global discourse—sex work. Also referred to as trafficking in women, global sex work involves both the forced and voluntary movement of women and children within and across borders. Although some form of prostitution has always existed whereby an actor exchanges a sexual service for money or other valuables, the growth, magnitude, and the dispersed yet interconnected form of the contemporary global sex trade is unprecedented. According to U.S. State Department’s 2005 Trafficking in Persons report, over a million children are exploited in the global sex trade. It is anticipated that hundreds of thousands of women and children will join the 10 million who are already caught every year in a global web of prostitution, sex slavery, and other forms of commercialized sexual exploitation. While some women and children find themselves trafficked unwillingly or unknowingly, others migrate in search of sex work in order to survive in otherwise failing economies. The practice of having to pay escorts to help them cross borders often binds these women to an unforgivable debt. Traffickers then demand payment by forcing the women into a brothel or street prostitution.

The geography of the global sex trade is far-reaching. Every continent and region has ties to it, with most nation states serving as sources, transit places, or destinations for sex workers. At the same time, parallels between the supplier and consumer states mirror larger divisions of global inequity. Central and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand remain dominant sources while Westerners remain leading consumers of sex tourism. Further, gendered and raced discourses about Southern women (e.g., they love in an erotic and devoted way; they are masters of making love by nature; they are sweet) also shape and are shaped by the production and maintenance of the global sex industry. Nevertheless, the women themselves resist classification. Their choices and navigation of the sex industry demonstrate the communicative tensions between what is considered voluntary or forced, prostitute or wife, local or global.

Yea’s (2004) ethnographic research on Filipina entertainers in U.S. military camps in South Korea demonstrates the dynamic tensions that women cope with as they attempt to transition from identities as trafficked entertainers to runaway brides. Yea contends that research on transnational migrants, particularly Southeast Asian women, must “[re]focus on transformations and negotiations between migrants’ roles, positions, identities and identifications” (p. 182). Trafficked Filipinas are more than a part of a particular labor regime (illegal, legal, and so on) or a particular role (bride, entertainer). Rather, they are women who face “anxieties of identity” as they continually traverse multiple subject positions globally. Filipinas do not want to return to their country of origin for fear of being stigmatized as sexually trafficked. At the same time, being labeled trafficked entertainers in Korean camp towns enhances their opportunities to develop relationships that could lead to marriage and a visa by encouraging GIs to enact the masculine ritual of the knight in shining armor. This identity, however, threatens these relationships because of the contradictory meanings that GIs hold of entertainer and bride.

Yea’s (2004) research demonstrates the importance of local context in understanding the meanings and practices of global sex work. It shows how women are both subjugated and empowered by sex work discourse. Tambiah’s (2005) research confirms women’s tendency to be both objects and agents of gendered behaviors and sexualities. In response to a call by the women’s wing of an authoritarian guerilla army to preserve Tamil culture through appropriate women’s dress, Tambiah found that local women supported nationalist struggle, but some chose to resist rigid gender performances. Women simultaneously drew upon discourses of motherhood and domesticated femininity, transgressed these discourses through sex work or work as combatants. At the same time, the state stepped up its surveillance of brothels and sex workers in the name of protecting the morality of its culture, while also turning a blind eye to the use of prostitutes by the Sri Lankan armed forces. Multiple tensions contribute to the contradictory meanings and practice of sex work in Sri Lanka, demonstrating again the importance of local context in shaping global discourse.

Indeed, one of the greatest challenges in researching abstract forces or broad trends associated with globalization is localizing the discourse (see Burawoy et al., 2000). In an exemplary study of global sex tourism, Wonders and Michalowski (2001) demonstrate how “the actual practice of sex work reflects the positionality of each city within the global economy” (p. 565). Rather than focus on women as the problem, they trace the global connections among migration, tourism, and national economies to illustrate how these links facilitate “the commodification of both male desire and women’s bodies within the global capitalist economy” (p. 546). Mobile sex workers (largely poor, Southern women) meet mobile sex consumers (mostly privileged Northern males) in global cities, reflecting and reconstituting (male) desire in moments of emotional, sensual, and sexual labor. Wonders and Michalowski adeptly illustrate the ways that mediating institutions, such as culture, tourism, the labor market, public policy and law, coalesce to shape local instantiations of global sex work. Their analysis leads them to suggest that

what is new and noteworthy about global sex tourism is not “sex,” “sex work,” or even the commodification of bodies, but the extent to which sex work in specific locales is over-determined by broader global forces… [L]ocal infrastructures that shape the possibilities for sex tourism in Amsterdam and Havana increasingly reflect global, rather than local forces. (p. 565)

While sex work may appear different in practice and ideology depending on its location, identifiable, consistent global forces converge at these sites, including gendered and raced discourses of sexuality.

Although organizational scholars have examined the sexuality of organization, gendered global labor flows reiterate the need to expand the scholarly lens to include research on the global organization of sex work. Just as nanny work relies upon and is constituted through informal and formal networks at multiple scales, sex work has expanded owing to global forces of economics, labor, and law. It serves as a developmental strategy for states and households eager to generate revenue and/or foreign currency flows. Nations and supranational organizations such as the IMF also encourage particular practices as a solution to debt relief, indirectly increasing sex trade production. At the same time, nongovernmental organizations such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women work with other human rights as well as supranational organizations, such as the U.N., to combat sexual abuses and trafficking. Thus, the development, maintenance, and transformation of the global sex work industry clearly involve many actors, organizations, and nations and rely upon longstanding, taken-for-granted gendered and raced discourses of sexuality. Thai sex tourism provides an interesting sociohistorical example.

The sex trade in Thailand has grown out of collaborations between the United States and Thai militaries, the IMF, the World Bank, and the United Nations. The signing of the 1967 Recreation and Relaxation Contract, also referred to as the R&R, by Robert S. McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense at that time, has been cited as a key step in the development of the Thai sex industry (Rogers, 1999). According to Rogers, the contract provided vacation furloughs for American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, resulting in Thailand’s first sex-tour agency, Tommy Tours. Rogers explains that although the U.S. military did not cause the Thai sex industry to come to be; it contributed to the expansion of an already established, legal, localized practice. When the United States made plans to withdraw from Vietnam, the Thai government sought assistance from the World Bank to assuage economic collapse from the disappearance of tourist monies. When McNamara later became president of the World Bank, Thailand, with aid from the World Bank, the IMF, and private investors, became a global, tourist hotbed complete with its own airlines, hotels, and sex industry brokers. The prospect of dark, exotic women available to serve hardworking white men raised tourists’ expectations. When the state became dependent upon dollars as a consequence and its economy collapsed in 1997, sex tourism became even cheaper for foreigners, leading to lower wages for workers.

In an interesting dialogue among an academician, policy advisor, agency coordinator, and sex worker representative, concepts involved in the organization of sex work were explored (see Brewis & Linstead, 2002). Types of work sites (parlors or brothels, street work and curb-crawling, and toleration zones) were discussed, and the identity of prostitute as worker was explored. They questioned whether prostitutes should be theorized as employees, asking how prostitution could be a job if workers’ freedom and choice were limited? I find the question both interesting and disturbing.

Critical scholarship has long tried to understand how workers negotiate their identities and needs in relation to organizational interests and demands (Ashcraft, 1998; Ashcraft & Pacanowsky, 1996; Holmer Nadesan, 1996; Trethewey, 1997). Prostitutes are among those who negotiate their identities and struggle over the meanings of their work. But as much of the research attests, not all Southern women feel constrained by the conditions or available means of employment. In fact, many see the newfound global opportunities as simply that—opportunities in an otherwise economically constrained environment. Sex workers engage in practices and counter-discourses that challenge dominant perceptions, including, for example, discursively constructing sex work as simply a means to provide for their families, not as immoral or unjust (Steinfatt, 2002). As Sanders (2005) argues, sex workers “capitalize” on their sexuality for their personal economic gain through “calculated” efforts to manufacture the hetero-erotic identity that male clients seek. In the words of one of her participants, “It’s just acting.” Indeed, it is the gendered performances of the self, evinced in global nanny and sex work, that reappear yet again in global “phone work.”

Giving Good Phone: Organizing Gender in the Global Call Center

“Does she give good phone?” he asks nonchalantly.

I look up from my bowl of pasta with surprise. “Did he really just say that?” I think to myself. “I’m sorry. I was engrossed with my meal. Would you mind repeating that?” I ask the American software industry executive, John, sitting across the table from me.

“No problem. I was saying that we have a common question that we use in the industry to evaluate a person’s ability to work as a telesales representative,” he explains.

“And that question is, does she give good phone?” I offer, hoping to be wrong.

“Correct!” John shouts a little too loudly for the restaurant patrons nearby. “That’s it. Does she give good phone? After all, if she doesn’t sound nice on the phone, she won’t be able to woo our customers, and we’ll lose money. It all starts with that first call.”

I place my utensils down so I can give full attention to the man across the table. John explains that the expression she gave good phone refers to women’s unique communication style.

He elaborates: “Women sound nice on the phone. Women talk with a lilt. They have a song-like quality to their voice. They have a softer approach, a softer language than men, and as a result are better able to establish a rapport with their audience.”

I had asked John to dinner to discuss his firm’s use of contingent labor, but I found myself engrossed in his gendered tales of recruitment. His reference to bottom-line business results (e.g., rapport with customers) seemed to justify the explicit practice of hiring women for telesales positions. Rather than being embarrassed or worried about the organization’s blatant sexism, he naturalized the norm by essentializing women as naturally sweet-sounding and empathetic, and thus profitable. However, when pushed further, John assured me that he never asked women directly whether or not they gave good phone; this shop floor talk remained within the boundaries of the boys’ club at work. Thus, while he reifies women in pursuit of profit, he also recognizes that this discourse ought to stay “in the company of men.” In that way, organizational goals are furthered as they are hidden so that the firm is protected from lawsuits based on gender or sexual harassment.

Giving good phone clearly extends the gendered meaning of smiling down the phone to include sexuality. The linguistic efficiency of this second phrase simultaneously confers a persona of women as naturally nice (virgins) and permits men’s fantasy of the naughty female (the whore on the 1-900 line) to exist simultaneously. Hence, normative heterosexuality is confirmed in the business setting. As John told me, “I have a man as my telesales rep, but I would never ask, ‘Does he give good phone?’” The question would never arise, for it would shatter the natural imagery of female-to-male sexuality and threaten organizational masculinities with unnatural homoeroticism. A seemingly simple question discursively produces and reflects the gendered and (hetero)sexed meanings of telesales work—a newly expanding work trend illustrated in the global call center organization.

Global call centers have only recently begun to receive both academic and lay attention. They can be described as technology-intensive offices where customer service is done over the phone instead of in face-to-face interactions. Call centers are part of the spectrum of services associated with a range of industries, including health care, tourism, and sales, in both public and private sectors worldwide (Glucksmann, 2004). Call centers are diverse in their operations, though scholars note the uniformity of their organization (Frenkel, Tam, Korczynski, & Shire, 1998). These researchers address how call centers exemplify the rise of services over production, and some praise them as “nurseries of a new form of work,” particularly in their technological applications (Wickham & Collins, 2004, p. 1). The Automated Call Distribution System (ACDS), for example, routes customer calls to available call center operatives, also called agents, in a computerized effort to minimize customer waiting and regulate agents’ use of organizational scripts (Frenkel et al., 1998). We are familiar with ACDS routing: “Welcome to [X corporation]. If you would like to speak to a customer service representative, please press 1” as we seek help in making reservations, fixing computer glitches, and even disputing parking tickets!

While the U.S. media debate the off-shoring of American labor, Western multinational organizations continue to move more telephone customer services to remote sites. Taylor and Bain’s (2005) analysis suggests that cost reduction and language are driving the rise of offshore call center organization. They argue that India has become a popular call center relocation destination in part because businesses save 40% to 60% after migrating work processes to cities such as Bangalore or Mumbai. English language education through their primary and secondary schools prepares Indians to manage customer service interactions with other English speakers. Taylor and Bain also note, however, that recent research contradicts the notion of seamless communication based on a shared language between Indian call center agents and Western or Northern customers. Nevertheless, the business mindset favoring offshore customer service captures multiple elements of work in the new economy.

Call center work demonstrates the fragile boundaries between consumption and production, space and place (Glucksmann, 2004). Customers communicate with call center agents in different lands, languages, and time zones, breaking down the boundaries of time and space. Phone performance involves interactive service work that sells the self. Both the process and the product are being sold, much like nanny and sex work performances. Agents often adopt an American accent, an American name, and perform a script to construct a particular service identity sought by Western customers. Some go so far as to suggest that their ability to smile down the phone is more paramount than skill or product knowledge in call center work. Personality, emotionality, and sociality are cited as requisite traits for service positions and are operationalized by management in order to measure sales effectiveness (Taylor & Bain, 1999). Yet, although the emotional labor necessary for these performances may appear natural for women, this construction requires extra emotion work for all call center agents, male and female. Heavy workloads and the banality of work tasks are part of why customer service interactions have been found to contribute to emotional stress and exhaustion in call center work (Deery, Iverson, & Walsh, 2002). While they place great emphasis on providing emotional support, organizations continue to devalue the skills in customer services compared with the technical skills in support jobs typically held by men (Belt, Richardson, & Webster, 2002).

Research confirms the gendering of recruitment in call centers discussed earlier. Women are indeed sought and hired for agent positions due in part to the perception of feminine abilities (Belt et al., 2002; Collinson, 1987). According to research by Belt et al. (2002), managers and workers both report highly gendered assumptions about females’ and males’ abilities to communicate and handle highly controlled and routinized jobs. Despite the gendered meanings that are embodied, practiced, and even manipulated in this global trend, little research has examined the gendering of call center work organization (for an exception see Belt & Richardson, 2000). Research on power and control and on the dialectic of power and resistance could prove fruitful for future gendered analyses in call center organization.

Tayloristic or traditional control methods have been cited as central to call center organization. Using panoptical forms of surveillance, management watches the open office and listens in on service calls (Bain & Taylor, 2000; Wickham & Collins, 2004). Scholars note the use of point systems and even standardized tests to measure agents’ product knowledge as other forms of control at work (Winiecki, 2004). Just as we are familiar with being asked to press a number on our telephones to receive a service, we also know the warning that “your call may be monitored,” supposedly to improve customer service. The agent’s “footprint” on a call is measured for target times and results, which are then tallied and publicized on an electronic call center wall-board for all agents and managers to see (Wickham & Collins, 2004, p. 5). The work can be likened to a virtual relationship between caller and agent that occurs “down the telephone” and is mediated by high speed data links that collect information to be used by management to refine service and discipline workers (Marshall & Richardson, 1996).

Recent research on call centers has shifted from a focus on power as surveillance to studies of concertive control. In this sense, control is achieved as agents come to positively identity with organizational goals and objectives, while some go so far as to regulate call quality by monitoring peers as well (Knights & McCabe, 2003). These studies illustrate how traditional command-and-control practices work with teamwork and other forms of concertive control in the post-bureaucratic call center organization (Callaghan, 2001; van den Broek, 2004). These studies may shed light on the omnipresent question in organization studies: what is new about New Economy work? From a power perspective, traditional and concertive forms of control coexist and even work in concert in contemporary call centers. What is old continues but in new and complex forms. At the same time, workers are not mere cogs in the machine. Research suggests that call center agents actively resist the attempts of organizational control at the individual, even collective level.

Mulholland’s (2004) study explores how Irish call center workers engage in a variety of everyday practices to resist inequitable structures of the organization. Called scammin,’ through tactics of work avoidance such as smoking, absenteeism, and faking sales calls (by simply talking to answering machines and recording these as sales), workers resist the amount of value that management might otherwise seek to extract from them. Their informal, collective actions therefore challenge contemporary theories that stress the “increasing individualization of worker experience” in new economy work (p. 720). If they are fined for straying too far from the scripted sales formulas even in, ironically, successful customer calls, workers reacted by “working to rule” or withdrawing their emotional labor and giving perfunctory performances (p. 717). Callaghan and Thompson (2001) also document how call center agents resist organizational control through customer communications. In each of these studies, one can see that a dualistic understanding of control and resistance is tacitly maintained. Acts of resistance are heralded, while call center work organization continues and larger power relations remain intact. As Mumby (2005) states, current research on control and resistance tends to “adopt an incipient functionalism” that depicts subjects as pseudo-heroes in their subordinate roles while still ineffectual in their ability to efface changes to dominant systems of power (p. 37). Given the growth and ubiquity of control and surveillance in new economy work regimes as exemplified in call center organization (Wickham & Collins, 2004), Mumby (2005) calls for “the study of resistance as a set of situated discursive and nondiscursive practices that are simultaneously enabling and constraining, coherent and contradictory, complex and simple, efficacious and ineffectual” (p. 38). For example, Ashcraft’s study of commercial airline pilots demonstrates how male professionals negotiate narratives of decline in a changing industry by actively maintaining historical images or identities of pilot as (hyper)masculine. They simultaneously resist control through the masculinization of their work as they consent to contemporary industry mandates. Ashcraft’s study reveals not merely the ways professionals (a seemingly privileged occupational group) resist, but how gendered discourses of work are always malleable and unstable, and thus subject to change.

While call centers have been defined as nurseries of work innovation that utilize combinations of Tayloristic control through automated distribution technologies, surveillance through visual as well as technical panoptic tactics, and market-supervision and emotional labor through customer call performances (Wickham & Collins, 2004), analyses of the gendered discourses of call center work remain largely absent. As I outlined, this omission is odd given the prevalence of women in the field as well as the gendered assumptions that constitute service work in the first place. Rapid growth and global expansion coupled with the travel or export of gendered beliefs of women’s abilities demand further attention. What has been studied confirms the former software executive’s narrative. The intensity of recruitment processes that target particular social skills, such as bubbly personalities, reflects the feminized trend of seeking and hiring women to give good phone in call center work—despite national place! Women agents themselves have come to internalize and reproduce these gendered assumptions of skill and ability: they confess to invoking “femininity on the phone” in order to manipulate customers (Belt et al., 2002). Management and agents alike maintain the value of women’s superior “people skills,” and at the same time report frustration with their limited ability to use such skills in a fast paced, neo-assembly-line call center environment (Belt et al., 2002). Thus, women are simultaneously rewarded in the new economy with the opportunity for new (call center) jobs, only to find themselves pigeonholed into highly constrained, routinized work that offers relatively low financial rewards (compared to other avenues of new economy work). One is quickly reminded of the claim that the global playing field is now level. Indeed, in all of the aforementioned forms of women’s work, possibilities are held as the proverbial carrot. Upon further analysis, the contradictions embedded within these opportunities reveal themselves, demonstrating the promise and peril, risk and opportunity, and infinite contradictions for contemporary women workers.

Considering the Future of Global, Gendered Organization Studies

The literature review suggests a need for further analysis. Glucksmann (2004) calls for a new perspective on call centers that “can position and contextualize them within the overall configuration of production/distribution/exchange/consumption of which they are a part” (p. 798). I would argue that the same perspective could and should be adopted for all New Economy work relationships. While I have focused on three particular occupations, more research is necessary to understand the political, social, cultural, and economic interconnections and interdependencies between and across categories of exchange. If gender and other axes of power are to be understood relationally, an explicit focus on the men and masculinities that co-constitute love, sex, and tech work must accompany studies of global gender-divisions of labor. As Jackson (1999) notes, the Western ideal of a unitary individual with rights to work fails conceptually in societies where work and the lack thereof is conceived and enacted in more social terms. For example, how do Southern men negotiate a sense of work identities when their wives and mothers leave the birth family to care for Northerners’ children, particularly when economic conditions leave them with fewer opportunities for employment than the women? What Northern masculinities contribute to the demand for Southern nannies in the first place? Does women’s and/or men’s enactment of agency contribute to the maintenance and/or challenge of traditional gender divisions of labor (Connell, 2000)?

Clearly, women’s work is a highly contested category. The phrase has served to reify particular tasks as more feminine and subsequently less valued in the overall political economy of work. One of the major problems of categorizing work by sex is that the labels mirror the larger hierarchy whereby men and men’s work are more highly valued societally and financially. Yet, even the gendered hierarchy of power so taken for granted in Western theories of dominance becomes unstable in global accounts. This is where gendered organization scholarship offers particular value in being able to parse out the locally situated discursive practices that constitute larger global discourses of hope and despair in the New Economy. At the same time, organizational scholars must heed the call to frame their analyses within the larger political economies, societies, and cultures of which their studies are but a part. Only then can we explore the interconnections of power, context, and histories that constitute a range of contemporary alternative work arrangements in both the dominant global economy and the shadow infrastructure that supports it.

Several interconnections have been identified in this chapter on love, sex, and tech in the global workplace. The gendered discourses of care, desire, and communication arise not only out of local contexts and practices but from traditional understandings of women’s work and from contemporary shifts in the global labor market and economy. These insights provide distinct challenges (and opportunities!) for future studies. I want to focus on two scholarly avenues—communicating gendered economics and gendered (in)visibility—that should be further pursued.

Throughout the studies of global nanny work, sex work, and call center labor, economics continues to be a central shaper of occupational choice. Women are migrating in search of work and are leaving their families, becoming indebted to smugglers and/or being subjected to Western cultural mores. The material experience and talk of money clearly shapes how individual women as well as their respective home communities make sense of migration within the larger global economy. Yet these narratives are often lost in (scholarly?) translation, or simply minimized as opportunity. How women (and men) experience dislocation or relocation, however, must be understood within the larger economic and often state-sponsored relationships that facilitate and encourage such migratory shifts.

In addition to the materiality of capital, physical geography plays another key role in the gendering of global work. As I was reading and rereading the literature used for this chapter, I was struck not only by the invisibility of these forms of work in discourses of globalization or even in the scholarship in organization studies but by the sequestering of nanny, sex, and call center work geographically. Nannies work in private homes. Sex workers take to back alleys and perform nighttime economies. Call centers are located in remote, often rural locations. In this sense, these jobs represent Sassen’s (2000) “counter-geographies of globalization” twice removed. Not only do they constitute the backdrop of services that maintain the infrastructure of global cities, they are mobile and transient as well. As Larner (2002) explained, new labor forces are comprised of multiple actors, for example, the informal networks that foster off-the-map work choices such as nanny and sex work. Not only is the work they do invisible, the gendering of these counter-geographies is missing as well. As Acker (2004) states, gender is a “hidden commodity” in globalization, masked by the implicit masculinization of macro-global structures (p. 19). Unexamined in the focus on the high-capital professions in global cities are important discussions of capitalist globalizing processes, and our understanding of gender processes is biased as a result.

By refocusing on the gendering processes that shape global work, organization scholars begin to “expose the discontinuities between the realities of women and men’s lives and mainstream scholarly work about global processes” (Acker, 2004, p. 20). We then problematize the Western construct of choice that pervades occupation, work, and organization studies, as well as extant understandings of agency so often framed in terms of either-or. We begin to see women’s identities as multiple, shifting, and even contradictory; and as outgrowths of how economics and place are communicated and internalized across workers’ life spans. And we begin to empirically explore whether or not the global playing field is indeed being leveled for men and women alike.