It’s not a dirty little secret so much as it is undeniably obvious: professional simultaneous interpreters a.k.a. conference interpreters are primarily women.
The impression has professional association/membership organization statistical basis to it. But it’s also quite simply visible in images that document or target the profession. The Meehan Group has curated an image gallery to this effect. This google image search results page is indeed revealing
The International Association of Conference Interpreters (known by its French acronym AIIC) has published professional survey results (first 2008, second 2010) that do fluctuate (and have varying sample sizes) but nevertheless strongly suggest a 3:1 ratio as quite safely the industry’s back-of-the-envelope figure.
This isn’t shocking or even inherently a problem, for the power gradient runs the wrong way.
Still, it’s striking. And thanks to the work of Rachael Ryan, a recent graduate of the Masters in Conference Interpreting at NUI, Galway in Ireland (towards which this project was her master’s thesis), we now have some survey-based answers that are intriguing (with even the occasional ominous overtone, at least as far as gender equity in the professional world is concerned).
Her snowball sampling methodology ultimately produced 259 male survey participants who shared their experiences and insights through an online survey and select follow-up interviews.
First let’s look at matters of individual preference and interest
Men are drawn to the field for the following reasons
For those with the requisite (which is to say astoundingly impressive) language skills, conference interpreting is less a youthful career vision/destination so much as it is a haven in the flight from meaningless corporate tedium — and one that offers good compensation and lots of travel.
It’s when we turn to structural issues that the male respondents in this survey revealed some intriguing takes and even distressing essentialist reasoning. A bloc of respondents attributed the lopsided gender ratio to correlate with women’s ability to both interpret and be invisible.
Invisibility is something we at The Meehan Group have blogged about before, both in its canonical sense (at the center of power yet sublimated from its structure or meaning) and as an important attribute when it’s not-present and thereby becomes visible (metaphorically speaking).
We found an intriguing illustration of this in a recent Putin-Merkle appearance at the Kremlin where the interpreter broke the cardinal rule of the profession and editorialized on the fly in a way that distorted Angela Merkel’s meaning and intent, a big no-no.
Some of the participants speculated that the gender imbalance in the profession is a result of the educational climate in middle schools around the world.
Boys don’t herd navigate towards language arts (perhaps that phrasing might be revealing in this context). Boys are insecure and crave group affirmation and that translates to not pursuing language with the same passion. (On a practical note, one might argue against this offered assessment with sound logic: most professional interpreters come from bi-lingual upbringing, from which their abilities derive. If you’re studying a language in middle school, you’re likely too late to ever reach the fluency required by the profession). Still, the dynamic cited by the respondents is one all thoughtful citizens should ponder.
To add nuance and complexity, Rachel Ryan acknowledges that the gender disparity in the profession has regional variations that are not insignificant. Furthermore, some respondents felt that despite the imbalanced ratios, men tend towards being more successful at their interpreting careers, because being a man is simply and in general easier, but also because (especially in private sector contexts) clients and recruiters have an implicit bias towards men. Those two notes are opinions and not hard findings. Still, somehow, they seem ominous and would certainly be compatible with the frustrations that arise from the Catch-22 double-bind state of being a woman.