Scrolling through my feed of endless posts about language, translation and interpreting, I came across this title: “Why so few men?: Gender imbalance in conference interpreting”. The feminist translator in me just couldn’t resist it. I had to read that article even when I suspected I was not going to like what I found.
Well, I didn’t. The piece written by Rachael Ryan and published in the website of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) offered, in a very objective manner, an insight into the pervasive misconceptions we all have to deal with on a daily basis, but allow me to share with you what I read into it.
A Female Majority
I don’t know about you, but when I went to university, my language and translation courses were packed with women. Men were few, and everyone, both teachers and students, knew who they were. It’s no surprise to me, then, that there are few men in conference interpreting. In an article about gender and interpreting published by Rosetta Translation, the company points out that 81% of their interpreters are women, while 19% are men. In her master’s thesis, Grace B. Artl points out that the majority of American Sign Language-English interpreters are female as well. Have you ever considered why this is?
You’ve probably heard about the so-called “intrinsic differences” between men and women. A difference in “nature”, whatever that means. For years, this argument has been used to justify the prevalence of women in certain careers (such as nursing or teaching) and the prevalence of men in others (engineering, for example). Few people investigate a little bit further: most of the time, the qualities assigned to men and women come from a long history of sexism and heteronormativity.
Servile and Invisible
When I read the answers and opinions provided by the male interpreters who were interviewed by Rachael Ryan, I was shocked. After a couple of minutes, however, I realised they are just a reflection of current societal views.
For starters, most of the interpreters interviewed admitted that they didn’t choose to pursue a career in conference interpreting. What I personally read into this fact is that few men would even consider such a path, but rather end up in it some way or another and realise they love it. As opposed to what social norms are telling them (interpreting is a female-dominated field), they enjoy and succeed in it. Could it be because those norms are constructed on no empirical basis whatsoever?
The bias can be seen in one of the interpreters’ own comments when they state that “service” is one of women’s talents, something that men fail to do very well. The interpreter even goes as far as saying that women are used to serving their children and their parents, and that’s why they are better at it than men. But, aren’t men supposed to do these things as well?
Where do we draw the line between “service” and “servitude”? Because women have been expected to serve men for centuries. These beliefs, although lessened by years of struggle for social equality, are still present today. Women are seen to be particularly good at serving because that is the gender role that has been assigned to them.
Further along the text, I read that respondents had shared their opinion that there are more women in interpreting because of their ability to “be invisible”. Well, maybe women can finally get something out of years of historical erasure. And by that I mean: I dare you to name two historically significant women and Marie Curie cannot be one of them.
The Male Factor as an Invariable Asset
Something else that caught my attention was how male interpreters pointed out that being a man in this business is actually an asset. They stated that being a successful conference interpreter was easier for men than for women, and that male interpreters were chosen over better qualified female interpreters.
In her thesis, Grace Artl states that men in female-dominated professions tend to thrive rather than be discriminated against as a minority. In her paper, Christine L. Williams points out that it doesn’t really matter what field men choose to develop in, because male professionals are still seen as members of the dominant majority and enjoy the benefits that come with that position within society.
And if you don’t believe me, you can take Rosetta Translation’s project managers’ word for it. In the same article I mentioned earlier, I found out that the company carried out a survey amongst their project managers and it turns out they think that male translators are better than female ones because they are less emotional and defensive when they are offered some feedback, they are better at formatting technical texts, and they are more consistent and accurate.
Can you see the stereotypical implications these statements are based on? “Women are emotional”, because the rational categories are reserved for the male section of society. Men are better than women at anything technical and objective, invariably, and that’s why there is (and there should be) a majority of men in the hard sciences.
A further statistical survey showed that 55% of Rosetta Translation’s preferred translators are female. So where do the project managers’ beliefs come from?
Hint: social constructs we should reflect upon and subsequently fight against, because women deserve to be respected and men deserve to grow up thinking they can be nurses or teachers. Or even interpreters!
What about another explanation: there are fewer men just because men are poor in multi-tasking and interpretation definitely involves doing at least two things simultaneously!
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Well, Betty. I just refuse to believe that the fact that men, ALL men, are bad at multitasking is a real thing.
I mean, I do sometimes joke with and make fun of my male friends and family members, but I know that it can’t possibly be a real thing.
To me, that idea of “multi-tasking” sounds very sexist too. It’s the kind of “super-power” you end up giving to women because they are more frequently asked to do a lot of things at the same time, while men are just poor lads, kind of simpletons really, who aren’t able to open their own bottle of bier while chilling in front of the TV.
You now the concept, I’m sure : ” I won’t tidy the room, baby, because you’re sooooo good at it, so why bother ? “
It has been shown in neuroscience that women do tend to have a more well-formed and better inter-hemispheric connections than men but this is a trend, not an absolute. As a male conference interpreter, I would say that the link between gender and performance would be pretty weak and as a researcher I know that invisibility is a myth.
I doubt that anyone outside of interpreting sees it as a female profession – it isn’t well enough known for that. So, until I see more evidence (and not just from surveys) I would like to reserve judgment on the reasons for the imbalance.
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All very good points!
I do think that people regard interpreting as a female profession, even if many of them are not sure about what interpreting is and even when many people confuse translation with interpreting.
I like your take on the subject. Do let me know if you come across any evidence!
I will keep my eyes out. It could just be something as simple as relative strengths in the linguistic areas of the brain. Would be worth looking at the gender balance of linguistics classes as a comparison. It would also be worth finding data on how interpreting is perceived, Ebru Diriker’s work might be an interesting start – especially if we want to argue that the way we portray our profession makes a difference.
I just finished a PhD on stakeholder expectations of interpreters but I would be wary of reading too much into the work on client expectations as the research done before about 2004 tends to come with quite challenging methodological issues. Ebru Diriker’s work and Seyda Eraslan’s work are more recent, and in my view, more robust, examples. There is nothing much in either to support a feminist take on the imbalance. In fact, there is little to suggest reasons for the imbalance but there may be small clues.
One possible indicator might be to hypothesise that men have a higher drive for achievement and conquering (again, in general and not necessarily in each specific case). Since it is harder to fulfill that drive in a freelance career, that might explain the imbalance. If that is true then you would expect less of an imbalance in the staff interpreting world, where promotion is available. You might also expect to find more male interpreters than female interpreters expressing a wish to interpret at the more high profile meetings. Of course, it could turn out that the hypothesis is totally wrong but that is what research is about.
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Thank you very much, Jonathan! I’ll look into these topics and authors. You’ve been most helpful. If I find something, I’ll let you know!
You are right, it is gender biased. As a man, those are my thoughts, a bit different than yours and maybe quite bolder too.
. Men are socially pushed towards economics, maths and engineering, girls towards humanities – you know, that thing our society think is just useless and doesn’t make money. No social status here. So it’s quite logical they are more women ending-up as interpreters. That said, all my male colleagues wanted to be interpreters – I myself discovered it while studying spanish and fell in love with it. It’s not because we think it’s only for women, it’s because nobody knows about that job.
. Men are not used to disappearing, and having this constant pressure of following, shadowing the opinions and words of other people while having to shut up and never give theirs. This is very frustrating for men, they are not used to this – but it sounds very familiar to most women. In fact, when you get to know your fellow colleagues better, you start discovering that most of men in this job have a life trajectory which explains this mental disposition of “disappearing” and letting the words of other “invade” their inner sphere, becoming their words. Abusive parenting, homosexuality, etc. Most of them have a long experience in wearing masks and shutting down their own personality. Not something that common between men, but gosh, all women are educated to become disguise experts, to change themselves in order to please others (make-up would be the best example to illustrate this radical difference). It’s hard for a man to stay discreet, while it’s something that is socially praised among girls (which explains why guys thrive in our community, we still open-up more easily, we don’t doubt that much when getting in touch with our clients).
. Most of them don’t feel comfortable with the idea that they won’t have a carreer plan. You won’t be the boss of anyone. You won’t shine. You’ll stay at home a lot. For a lot of people, our job is not even a real job, how many times did someone ask me what I do for a living just out of the booth.
And yes, you are totally right, being a man helps a lot in this job, but I really think this is changing. In France, I see that the proportion of men is growing, which makes me think that we are not the exception anymore.
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Thanks for the insight, David. My views are quite bold as well, but when I write I try to be as careful as possible, and avoid offending people and writing things which I know are true but I can’t find objective, reliable data to back it up.
Thank you for sharing your views, as an interpreter and as a man!