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Why Are Supermarket Cashiers (Almost) Always Women?

There’s no easy answer.
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It’s something you’ve probably noticed but never given a second thought about. At most supermarkets and grocery stores, cashier attendants are almost always women. Sure, you might see a guy behind the counter at a convenience store or gas station, but those are likely few and far between.

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It’s one of those things that you can just casually wave off and dismiss. Or invent reasons or formulate assumptions for: “it’s always been that way,” or “it’s because women are this or that.” But that doesn’t change the fact that the overwhelming majority of supermarket cashiers are female, and that got us thinking: Why?

“That’s a good question. Almost all are female nga,” says George, a local business owner engaged in retail who hires service staff. “It sounds sexist but women are more meticulous in details, like counting money, etc. If you notice a lot of women in factories like semi-conductor chips, they have better dexterity with fingers.

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“Even in old times, like sewing, etc,” he adds.

But is that all there is to it? How institutionalized is this thinking that, when it comes to checking out stuff that we bought at a supermarket, or even at a boutique or department store, or any other retail establishment, women have to be the ones at the cash register?

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Gender preference

We can’t say for certain in other countries, but in the Philippines, that practice is pretty well-entrenched in the service industry. In fact, a study on gender preferences in job advertisements showed the persistence of sex preference or stereotyping in several occupations.

“Females continued to be preferred as cashiers, household helpers, office secretaries nurses, teachers, waiters, and weavers,” Benedicto Ernesto Bitonio Jr. writes in a paper entitled Labour Market Governance in the Philippines: Issues and Institutions published in August 2008. “Males on the other hand dominated as drivers, engineers, managers, mechanics, messengers, security guards, and supervisors.” 

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The paper quotes a landmark study published in 1999 entitled “Sex discrimination in job ads” by Hector Morada and Lani Santos of the Philippine Journal of Labor and Industrial Relations of the School of Labor and Industrial Relations of the University of the Philippines. 

Morada and Santos’s study notes that, based on declining proportion of advertisements indicating sex preferences for17 occupations selected, there has been a noticeable decrease in pre-employment sex discrimination between 1975 and 1995.

The authors caution, however, that just because there has been a decrease doesn’t automatically mean that sex discrimination has declined or been eliminated for each of the occupations.

“There are occupations that appear to have remained more or less “exclusively female, although the level of ‘traditional’ sex  preference for some of these occupations has gone down over two decades,” the authors note.

“Non-discriminatory job ads do not guarantee that applicants will not be discriminated against on the basis of their sex when they actually apply for jobs,” they add.

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No hard and fast rules 

In the case of hiring for cashier jobs in supermarkets, there are no explicit guidelines stipulating that women are preferred by employers, at least, according to Steven Cua, who is the president of the Philippine Amalgamated Supermarkets Association (PAGASA). 

“Tropical Supermarket hires guys,” he says. “Mercury Drug hires guys. (There are) no hard and fast rules regarding gender of cashiers in supermarkets.”

But Cua does have his own theories about why women naturally end up at supermarket checkout counters.

“From a socio-psychological point of view, I would think that males are perceived to be breadwinners in general and that gives retail operators the apprehension that when his family's in financial need, he MAY resort to drastic (and dark) moves to solve his dilemma by pilfering/stealing from the cash box,” Cua says. “Females are (generally) seen to be more loyal to employers and have less gall to resort to such drastic moves, although, of course, lady cashiers are not exempt from qualified theft.

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“Women as cashiers are also generally seen as more gentle (hindi ma-angas) and their explanations for customer complaints/comments more acceptable,” he adds. 

While employers might gravitate more toward women’s softer, calmer demeanor for a job that requires them to interact with people all day long, Cua says there’s simply more risk in putting men in the same position.

“In general, mas malakas ang loob ng lalaki gumawa ng mga ganung ‘di kanais-nais na bagay compared to women (Men are more likely to commit more unpleasant acts),” he says. “Men rationalize and justify more than women. You may call that a bias/prejudice but AGAIN, this is in general.”

Reality on the ground 

While Cua says there is no explict bias when it comes to supermarket employers hiring females for customer frontline jobs, the reality on the ground says otherwise. In Bitonio’s ILO study, he cites a 2006 study that dealt with qualification criteria for recruitment by the Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics. When it comes to sex and gender, “no preference is expressed across occupations in 66 to 84 percent of cases.”

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However, the study goes on to say that, in cases where preferences are expressed, “males are preferred in all occupations (ranging from 11 to 30 percent) except in clerical work, where females were preferred in 27 percent of cases.

“This seems to validate the findings of the earlier study on traditional employer preferences for females in certain occupations,” which includes supermarket cashiers.

While there’s all this talk about female cashiers and checkout attendants, it’s interesting to take note that, in many supermarkets in First World countries, self-checkout lanes have become standard, eliminating the need for cashiers in the first place. Although that may take some time to catch on in developing countries like the Philippines, the phenomenon of doing groceries through service apps like MetroMart and Pushkart is only starting to take off.

Whether customers prefer their delivery people to be male or female is a question for another day (and another article).

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About The Author
Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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