It is said that interpreting is the second oldest profession in the world. There are records of interpreters alongside pharaohs, kings, and conquerors. They even appear in the Bible and in Greek mythology.
Despite its historical tradition, conference interpreting only became professionalized around the time of World War I. In these early days of the profession, interpreters were almost exclusively male. Today, the vast majority of conference interpreters are female. In fact, they now outnumber men at a ratio of roughly three to one.
Whenever a gender shift occurs in any profession, it usually comes with wider implications, such as a change in working conditions, remuneration, and reputation. We dug deeper to understand what led to this demographic change in conference interpreting and what the consequences are.
Research shows that the current gender imbalance could have serious implications on the profession – some of which can already be felt today.
To explore the gender imbalance and its implications, Nimdzi’s interpreting researchers Rachael Ryan and Sarah Hickey conducted two separate studies. First from the perspective of male conference interpreters and then from the perspective of female conference interpreters. The studies aimed at discovering what motivates men and women to become conference interpreters and what their views are on the gender imbalance in the profession.
The two studies gathered data via an online survey and individual interviews with conference interpreters. The surveys received valid responses from 259 male and 161 female conference interpreters. To protect their anonymity, all participants’ names were changed to letters and numbers.
The results show that while similar factors motivated men and women, they have partially different views on the reasons for the gender imbalance.
The first study found four main motivating factors for men to become conference interpreters:
The excitement granted and meaningfulness found within conference interpreting were motivators for many male participants. In addition, 52 percent said that the remuneration motivated them. Almost 54 percent indicated that the flexible nature of the profession drew them to it.
Men further indicated that tedium in previous occupations motivated them to switch careers and become conference interpreters. Respondent G said, “[I] was getting bored with my career as a translator, and went from translation to interpretation (a natural transition)”.
When asked directly, women only partially agreed with these motivating factors:
The second study found the following four motivating factors for women to become conference interpreters:
Women expressed a desire to use their passion for languages in a tangible way. Many found the skill-focused aspect of the profession motivating, and several also wanted to challenge stereotypes associated with language degrees.
The second factor was a search for stimulation and personal development. Fear of stagnation and a hunger for knowledge motivated participants, with many describing the profession as exciting, challenging and satisfying their sense of curiosity.
The third factor was a perceived sense of importance due to both the meaningfulness and the prestige of the profession. Women wanted to use their communication skills to help others and described this service as playing an important role.
Finally, participants expressed that interpreting gave them a sense of freedom, which they linked to the travel opportunities and the flexible nature of the profession.
The results demonstrate that each gender has slightly different motivations for entering the profession, stemming from different perceptions of the interpreting job. Can these different perceptions and motivations explain the gender imbalance?
When it comes to the reasons for the current gender imbalance in the profession, women only partially agreed with their male colleagues’ hypothesized reasons:
A majority of male participants said they think the gender imbalance in the profession is due to heightened female ability. They believe women have a superior aptitude for languages and communication. They further suspect that women might find it easier to be invisible and to set aside their own thoughts.
Most women in the second study disagreed with this view. They believe that it rather comes down to gender biases. They explain that society expects women to be chatty and tends to push them behind the scenes. Participant A said: “You have to learn to put your ego and your opinion aside, but I think that’s a struggle for men and women. (…) I think there is a bias that people think that somehow, we find it easier, or maybe we’re just doing it more.”
Some male participants explained the gender imbalance with women having a sense of service. Participant 34 stated: “One of the reasons […] why more women are in our profession […] is that interpretation involves an element of service – this is a talent women are definitely better at than men. Women serve their children, their parents, etc.” He continued to express that “few men are willing to do that [serve]”.
The female participants agreed that conference interpreting is a service profession. However, they do not think that women have a natural predisposition for service. They rather saw these tendencies rooted in societal expectations again. Participant B said there is “a collective idea of women being brought up towards service, helping others, and caring.”
Both male and female participants think that gender stereotyping plays a significant role in the gender imbalance in the profession. Many saw it rooted in the different upbringing of boys and girls, which is then enhanced by educational segregation – humanities vs sciences – in school and the bad reputation of language degrees. They further think that different career orientations play a role.
The male participants hypothesized that the freelance aspect attracts women because the flexible hours are more compatible with family responsibilities. Female conference interpreters disagreed with this perception. Many expressed that on the contrary, the volatility of income and the travel requirements make it hard to combine work and family in this profession. The women also suggested that the flexible element deters men from entering the profession. They believe it is too unstable for a provider.
It is interesting to note that both genders saw the flexible nature of the profession in relation to family responsibilities as a reason for the gender imbalance. Men saw it as encouraging women to become conference interpreters, and women saw it as discouraging men.
Taking a look at the wider research, we found a few other hypothesized explanations for the gender imbalance.
Some researchers suggest, for example, that the introduction of simultaneous interpreting influenced the gender shift. The first generation of conference interpreters was very visible, standing right next to important politicians. They were public figures and enjoyed a lot of prestige. Once simultaneous interpreting was introduced, however, the interpreter became increasingly invisible, and the prestige of the profession dropped.
Research shows that once the prestige of a profession declines, the profession often becomes less attractive to men and allows for more women to enter the profession.
Book editing, for example, used to attract both men and women. However, once multinational conglomerates entered the market, offering better jobs to men and robbing book publishing of its autonomy and cultural aura, it became less attractive for men. Women’s career choices, on the other hand, were still limited, so the occupation became feminized.
Another example that illustrates the same pattern, just the other way around, is computer programming. Early computer programmers were women, but once the computer’s importance rose, it became associated with science, rationality, and masculinity.
These examples illustrate that the gendering of skills and professions is more flexible than often assumed.
During both studies, two additional themes emerged that outline the impact of gender imbalance on the industry.
The first theme was “perceived male privilege.” The male participants pointed out that they feel they are in a more privileged position within the profession. It was their perception that recruiters and clients often prefer male interpreters, that entering the market is easier for men and that more men achieve higher positions.
The women in the second study expressed similar views. Respondent 73, for example, remarked that “the real imbalance in our profession is not in the numbers, it is in the power structure.” While some explained this with men being more career-driven, others were notably bothered by this imbalance. Respondent 73 concluded: “There is something very wrong with that picture.”
Perhaps this sounds familiar. In our article, The Feminine Genius, we already highlighted a number of other professions that have a larger number of female employees but more men in leadership positions.
This shows that even though progress has been made, we still see a horizontal and vertical segregation of men and women on the labor market. Men and women are predominantly clustered in gender stereotypical occupations (horizontal) and within both male and female-dominated fields, men hold higher status positions than women (vertical).
This discovery directly correlates with the second overarching theme – the effect of feminization.
Both men and women stated that the working conditions and the prestige of the profession have declined. Participants explained that at the European institutions – the largest employer of conference interpreters in the world – freelance days have been cut, the number of staff positions have dropped, and freelancers no longer receive recuperation the following day after working late.
These remarks are coherent with recent protests by interpreters at the European Parliament over diminished working conditions.
While participants did not want to blame women and also questioned whether the conditions would not have deteriorated anyway, they pointed out that “once there are already more women than men in a profession, it becomes subconsciously seen as more of an option for women” (Respondent 26) and that this affects the image and prestige of the profession as well.
As outlined above, the gender ratio of an occupation influences how this occupation is perceived. Research by the International Labor Organization (ILO), for example, shows that female professions are often viewed as unskilled. It was found that the more feminized an occupation, the less it is seen as skilled – and the less an occupation is seen as skilled, the lower its prestige and remuneration.
The main reasons participants proposed to explain this trend were a lack of confidence and assertiveness in women and societal gender biases. Participant D points out that in most professions rates tend to go down once more women enter because women “usually would ask less or would tend to not sell themselves too much”.
Other participants agree that women tend to accept worse conditions more. Participant A concludes that while “it should come down to skills,” she thinks that, unfortunately, the existing bias will continue to exist until more men enter the profession. She thinks that “an overall balance in the profession (…) is to the benefit of both genders.”
The studies show that gender stereotyping has a significant impact on people becoming conference interpreters, as well as progressing within the profession. In addition, there is a possible link between gender stereotyping, the feminization and the declining prestige and diminishing working conditions of the profession.
Well, let’s put it this way – becoming a conference interpreter takes a lot of time and effort. After studying languages for years and living in foreign countries to fine-tune the linguistic and cultural nuances, candidates have to also earn a degree in interpreting.
These courses are tough, and some of them have fail rates around 50 percent. But even after all of that, interpreting requires continuous learning, constant practice, long hours, and stamina. It can even lead to burnout or vicarious trauma.
So if working conditions, prestige, and remuneration continue to drop, then one must ask: Who is going to be willing to go through all this, if the outcome is no longer worth it?
The reward should justify the effort. If that’s no longer the case, then the profession might be at risk of reverting back to its non-regulated days before World War I. Who stands to benefit?
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