Chartered Institute
of Linguists

A woman's world

Rachael Ryan explores the gender imbalance in conference interpreting from the male perspective

Published in The Linguist, Vol/56 No/1

In February 2013, the US President, Barack Obama, said: “One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent… that is not being encouraged.” The deficit of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has led to innumerable studies and initiatives looking to remedy the gender imbalance. The Executive Office of the President states that achieving gender balance within these fields “is not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do”.

Gender imbalance, which can sway towards either sex, is a phenomenon which affects conference interpreting – a profession with a preponderance of women. Of the 551 staff interpreters at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Interpreting, 69% are women, as well as 74% of more than 3,000 accredited freelance conference interpreters.1 However, while the STEM subjects are striving to remedy this inequality within their professions because it is seen as “the right thing to do”, there seems to be a lack of similar research in conference interpreting.

In order to address this, I decided to explore the perspectives, experiences and motivations of male interpreters in a field that is considered to be ‘feminised’. For my thesis, I used a mixed-method approach, combining qualitative and quantitative research. I interviewed experienced male conference interpreters and conducted an anonymous online survey to explore two principle research questions:

1) What are the motivations for men to become conference interpreters? and

2) According to the opinions of participants, what has caused the gender imbalance in the profession?

The respondents were motivated by four things: remuneration, flexibility, excitement and meaningfulness. Although remuneration motivated the majority, many chose their career for the freelance aspect. According to some participants, had conference interpreting not been a flexible career, they would not have been able to pursue it.

A theme that emerged was that participants had often had earlier career paths, choosing conference interpreting because of the tedium of previous professional work. Respondent G “was getting bored with my career as a translator, and went from translation to interpretation (a natural transition)”. Respondent S explained that he “just wanted to try something different from what I was doing at that time”. Likewise, respondent V wanted to develop on “previous professional work”. According to Ditsa Kafry, tedium can be triggered by “the need for meaningfulness and achievement”,2 so the excitement and meaningfulness found within conference interpreting appear to have been key motivators for many.

Root causes

In response to the second question – what causes the imbalance – many respondents explained that, within the profession, gender is not an issue as long as the interpreter has a talent. However, the majority of the participants considered the gender imbalance to be due to a heightened female ability both to interpret and to be invisible. One participant’s opinion was that “Women are generally better [at] multitasking, so more women have ‘a gift’ or [the] skills required to listen and to speak at the same time.” Researchers at Leeds Beckett University found some evidence of this, but acknowledged that, while their research showed that women were better multitaskers in the context of their study, more research was required to show whether they are better at multitasking in other/all areas.3

Participants also consider the flexibility of the profession to be a motivation for women, and something that may deter men. Women are more likely to be found in part-time, seasonal, freelance and temporary work.4 According to the Women’s Business Council, there are 2.11 million men and 5.85 million women in part-time employment in the UK.5 There was consensus among respondents that men, in general, seem to gravitate towards the stable end of the profession. An example of this is that there is a greater imbalance among freelance conference interpreters than staff conference interpreters.

One participant explained his theory, “I don’t know whether you could say that perhaps more men are more career orientated. They want something that they can start straight away. They can start at the junior post, they can work their way up, they can be aiming at promotions, they can be doing all of these kinds of things and interpreting is kind of flat. It’s quite linear, obviously, lest you join an institution, there is no promotion at all.”

Literature in the area of gender imbalance indicates that women are often clustered into service occupations. Bradley and Healy explain that women are seen as ‘‘naturally equipped” for these jobs.6 Some participants indicated that women’s sense of service may also be a cause of the gender imbalance, one opining 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 […] few men are willing to do that.”

The participants indicated that the situation is rooted in the gender imbalances in the education and subject choices of school children. One explained that boys feel language learning “is a world that they are excluded from”. Almost two-thirds (63%) of A-level language entries come from female students.7 He hypothesised as to why this might be: “When you’re at school, when you’re insecure in yourself […] then you do tend to herd gravitate and if less boys do languages and less boys do well in languages, then unless you’re very confident in yourself […] then you don’t pursue it with the same passion. So, it has been going on for years.”

Male privilege

My research study gathered male conference interpreters’ opinions and experiences to give a small insight into their perspectives on the cause of the gender imbalance. I believe further research is needed to build on this with an exploratory study of female conference interpreters’ perceptions of the gender imbalance in their profession.

Participants also suggested that the imbalance differs from region to region. Although women are thought to have a better aptitude for the work, male participants perceive that they have a privileged position within the profession. According to Parsons, “privilege is an advantage or favour people enjoy from their similarity to the norms operating in a particular situation”. He expands by explaining that being male is the “operative norm” in society at large and therefore in the workplace.8

One respondent commented that, in the private market, he felt he had an advantage over women: “I’m afraid it is much easier to have a ‘successful’ career as a male in this profession than it is for women. I hate to say so, but both recruiters and clients seem to prefer men… The negative consequence being that some bad male interpreters

will get a lot of work when good female colleagues have a hard time being recruited.” These findings could have consequences in the field and, if it is the case that men have an “unfair advantage”, it is crucial that this topic is investigated further.


1 European Commission (2014) ‘Interpretation in Figures 2014’; (checked 16/1/17)

2 Kafry, D (1980). ‘The Experience of Tedium in Life and Work’. In Human Relations, 33 (7), 477-503

3 Stoet, G et al (2013). ‘Are Women Better Than Men at Multi-Tasking?’. In BMC Psychology

4 Bradley, H & Healy, G (2008) Ethnicity and Gender at Work, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

5 Home Office (2012) Women’s Business Council’s second evidence paper

6 Op. cit. Bradley, H & Healy, G

7 Board, K & Tinsley, T (2014) ‘Language Trends 2013/2014’, CfBT, British Council

8 Parsons, E (2001) ‘Using Power and Caring to Mediate White Male Privilege, Equality, and Equity in an Urban Elementary Classroom: Implications for Teacher Preparation’. In The Urban Journal, 33(4), 321-338