Conference Interpreting – a Male or a Female Profession?

Greater than 3 minutes, my friend!

I have been thinking about gender balance among conference interpreters for quite a while, but what really made me get down to this post was a podcast in two parts by Troublesome Terps who decided to thoroughly discuss this topic after a day in an all-male three-person booth, which apparently is an extremely rare occurrence in their part of the world.

An immediate disclaimer from my side: I am against dividing professions into “male” and “female” ones, especially given the fact that no matter how hard neurophysiologists pick the brains of simultaneous interpreters, they haven’t found any gender-based differences in the way we work. Still, it was interesting to compare the way stereotypes function in “western” and “post-Soviet” parts of Europe.

According to Rachel Ryan’s research, in Western European conference interpreting there is significant gender imbalance with much more women than men – a bit less so among staff interpreters and rather more so among freelancers. When asked why, interpreters claim that it is natural for men to want a stable career in an organization where promotion can be expected, and women are attracted by freelance’s flexibility as they have families and children to take care of.  The issue of gender profiling in schools is also brought up, when boys are traditionally pushed towards sciences and girls towards languages. Some statements are outright odious: like about the job of conference interpreter containing “an element of service” and women “naturally more prone to it”.

However, the same article mentions a radically different opinion – that women can become staff interpreters relatively easily, but at private market men overtake them due to greater assertiveness and sometimes sheer arrogance. This is further exacerbated by the fact that clients and agencies also tend to favor men for this service. Another piece of research by Paola Gentile shows that women in profession often underestimate themselves and their work while they have the same or even better education than men. Well, this is closer to our situation, I thought.

So let us come back to my part of the world. In Soviet times, when interpreting was a military profession, simultaneous interpreters were almost exclsively men. If we take current Ukrainian market of simultaneous interpreting from English and French into Ukrainian and Russian (and this is where I work), the male-female ratio there is approximately 50/50. An older generation with predominance of men keeps working or gradually retires, and the younger one (30-40 years of age) already has more women, so this evens it out. This trend is especially noticeable in conference interpreting from English; with French, there are almost no new people on the market, so I stay in the minority. Still, the stereotype of “conference interpreters are men” lives on among clients, especially those of still Soviet formation. In the beginning of my career I even heard the following retort from an agency, “The topic is technical, so we’d prefer a guy.” On another note, when clients require a male voice in the headphones, I don’t take it personally – low voices are really more comfortable to listen to, and mine is very far from a chesty contralto. Another thing I’ve noticed is that female conference interpreters tend to have a specialized degree (interpreting or at least linguistics) and male interpreters frequently used to pursue a totally different study path and sometimes career before entering the profession.

Having asked some colleagues why there aren’t many women in conference interpreting, I heard the following replies (with my comments in brackets):

– women need maternity leaves, so stable employment is a better solution for them (uhh… what? Isn’t freelance more efficient in that respect?);
– the work of conference interpreter often involves long hours, travel and a lot of stress — this is too much pressure for women (what about greater physiological stamina of the allegedly weaker sex?);
– men are simply more arrogant and look more presentable for the clients (no comment).

Well, the only conclusion I can draw is that we all still have a long way to go in overcoming stereotypes. Do you have anything to add?

Anna Ivanchenko

About Anna Ivanchenko

3 thoughts on “Conference Interpreting – a Male or a Female Profession?

  1. Hi, Anna and thank you for this article on interpreting, we don’t see many of them around here 🙂 The way you describe it, it definitely seems that in your part of the world, as you called it, the profession is still subject to (not so) old stereotypes. The variety of excuses made is just another proof of that. But let’s be optimistic: for as little as I have witnessed, a growing number of men in Western Europe choose to be interpreters or translators and the male/female imbalance keeps on reducing itself. Still, there’s plenty of work to do to overcome stereotypes!

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  2. I am an interpreter in Miami, FL-USA. My language pair is Brazilian Portuguese/American English. Just it does like to Anna, classifying jobs by gender seems weird to me.

    That notwithstanding, I have to recognize that, in my generation, there are more female than male interpreters.

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