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!