Gender bias and project management

When I returned from four years of studying in France, everyone back home in the United States was quick to ask me the same question: “Did you just love Paris?” Unfortunately, if I was being honest, my answer was no. I did not love Paris. 

Don’t get me wrong; Paris is a gorgeous city brimming with culture and delicious food (even for a vegetarian) and, had I simply been a tourist, I think I would have returned with nothing but praise on my lips. So what, everyone invariably asks, was my problem with Paris? I was shocked to find that my biggest problem was not my being an American; Obama was elected shortly after my arrival, and most of France’s Bush-era misgivings seemed to evaporate overnight. My most heinous crime, the one that I often felt stripped me of any claim to the respect and kindness of those around me, was, simply, being female. 

I have had to deal with catcalling before and even assumptions about my intellectual and physical abilities due to my gender, but never so directly and from so un-self-conscious a source. Many people I have spoken with have assumed I would encounter this type of prejudice primarily with immigrants from the Maghreb living in Paris, but much to their surprise the verbal abuse came in equal parts from both native and nonnative French people. So why was this hurtful, demeaning and frankly rather aggressive behavior deemed appropriate in both native French and immigrant culture? 

Cognitive scientists such as Daniel C. Dennett have suggested that language drives cognition, not the other way around, though many are resistant to this claim. For linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky, language is part of a person’s cognitive psychology. In an April 8, 2011 lecture at Carleton University, Chomsky described language as “a module of the mind and body, mostly the brain.” In this same talk, he quoted N.J. Enfield, a Max Planck Institute scholar, who asserts that those who take language for granted are ignoring the social context when they seek to determine the functioning rules relating form and meaning, determine conditions of language use and so on. Communication is beholden to, and often a function of, its social context. Chomsky himself claims that society drives language and that our assumptions about gender inform language, not the other way around. However, that invites the question: what is society if not a complex system of communication between individuals?

Perhaps the French are destined to imagine gender as something set in stone because that is the way their language is constructed. While it is true that the French have often led the world in re-thinking erstwhile inflexible ideas like sex and gender, living in France I was disappointed by how little these fresh ideas had seemed to actually take hold. We can only imagine what Simone de Beauvoir would say had she known that in 2012 the Western world would still be struggling to pay women the same wage for the same work done by their male counterparts. But my problems were not career-related, as I was principally living there to complete a master’s degree in French literature. Incidentally, I completed an internship there as well with an all-female language service provider (LSP). The real problems I encountered were mostly in the streets, an anonymous setting in which people seemed to feel freer to unleash their personal anxieties and preconceptions on others. 

Like French and many other languages across the world, Arabic is also very gender-marked. This makes it unsurprising that, like the French, Arabic-speaking peoples might also see the world as innately divided between two clearly defined genders, with no room for flexibility in the definition of either. Of course, language does not cause gender roles, but it could perpetuate them. David A. Zubin touched on this idea in his colloquium lecture “Personification and Grammatical Gender.” Conversely, we have the controversial gender-neutral preschool that recently opened in Sweden. Where in French they are still always either masculine or feminine, Swedish pronouns have developed an ambiguity that may contribute to the Swedes’ ability to think outside the gender box. Various languages observe gender differences in different ways, and some, such as Japanese, have softer or more deferential sentence constructions and words for female speakers. A similar strategy is used in Korean, though one does not employ pronouns or gendered job titles in everyday language, relying primarily on context. Whether or not this kind of verbal division does cause a mental one, it can be useful in gauging a culture’s increasing gender parity. In English, things appear to be moving toward a more egalitarian plane. Interestingly enough, a study of one million texts spanning 1900 to 2008 shows that since Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique saw publication in 1963, the pronoun she is now used with the same frequency as the pronoun he in English.


Dealing with the gender gap

The gender divide still exists, however, and whatever its origination, it could potentially prove to be difficult in my position as a translation project manager. If my translator is a man, depending on his culture and perhaps his language, he will be fully aware of my femaleness and might respect me less for it. He might try to snatch the reins from my hands, assuming that he is more qualified to lead. He may not even know how he knows, but on some level he just knows that I will be too timid, too emotional or perhaps even too feeble-minded to complete my job in a professional manner. All this without even knowing me. After all, a 2002 study by the Work Life Law Center at University of California Hastings showed that women have to work about twice as hard as men to receive the same recognition. The study found that there were three main biases women suffered in the workplace: Attribution Bias (gender stereotyping), Recall Bias (people’s tendency to remember stereotype-confirming information better than stereotype-inconsistent behavior) and Leniency Bias (when rules are applied more rigidly to women than men). Why should remote office behavior be any different than in a physical office building? It appears that we may not be able to escape these biases by virtue of working with a translator thousands of miles away. 

Since becoming a project manager in the United States, I have heard several damning anecdotes about female project managers experiencing vastly different treatment than male project managers, even within the same company. My boss, Terena Bell, recounted to me an instance in which her female project manager could not get an Arabic translator to respond to a relatively simple question. When Bell stepped in as CEO to get some clarity, she found she could not get a straight, timely response. On a hunch she asked two of her male project managers to contact the linguist with the same question. Lo and behold, the translator got back to them the same day with a direct and clear answer. Another time, an In Every Language project manager overheard a Rwandan man at a party say what a pity it was that our female boss was not married and had to work for a living.

Because I work in translation, not interpreting, I operate out of In Every Language’s New York office. But in Louisville, Kentucky, where our interpreting office is located, there is a relatively large population of Somali refugees. Naturally, our company works with some Somali interpreters in order to ensure these refugees’ access to information and medical care. Contracting Somali interpreters who happen to be women has occasionally proven problematic: traditionally, Somali women do not work outside the home, as it is unacceptable for the husband to be perceived as not in charge of his household. But in a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult for only one member of a household to be responsible for a family’s survival, women have realized that they must also seek careers. Many women in Somalia now work outside the home. 

But the fact that these women have overcome traditional boundaries with apparent success seems to indicate that sexism, even in communities where men and women are so separate, is beginning to buckle under the pressure of poverty, which has become an unfortunate yet undeniable gender equalizer. Perhaps our impression of being judged is only partly true. The numbers certainly show that sexism still exists in abundance, but this is also informed by old prejudices we carry with us from previous times. Rather than decrying every interaction that can be theoretically construed as sexist, I’m all for pinpointing the direct examples and working to correct the assumptions that caused them. Granted, some of the most dangerous instances can be the most insidious and underhanded; there isn’t a lot of direct recourse for that kind of deep-seated prejudice, other than to do our job to the best of our abilities without allowing those assumptions to color our view of ourselves. 

There is no better learning experience than bumping up against someone else’s assumptions. Returning to the subject of being a female project manager, just the other day a Chinese translator sent me an e-mail beginning with “Dear Mr. Hannah Berthelot.” I’ll admit that I laughed out loud. Even if his English was superb, if he had lived his entire life in China it was entirely possible that he had never encountered the first name Hannah before and simply assumed I was a man because I am in a managerial position. But there it is again — whose assumption is the most telling? His assumption that I was male, or my assumption that he only considered men capable of managerial work? After all, it could have been as harmless as a guess with a 50% probability of being correct. Although, puzzlingly enough, shortly after the “Mr. Hannah” e-mail, I received another message from a Chinese translator calling me “sir.” Go figure. 

In a Smith alumnae group on Linked-
In, I recently created a poll asking “If you feel you are being judged on the basis of your gender in your professional life, who do you feel is most displaying this prejudice?” The poll only saw ten respondents, but even with that small sample size the numbers proved interesting. Nobody felt demeaned by clients and/or colleagues from Latin America or Africa, but two respondents indicated that contacts in Europe were the source of their discomfort. Three women felt the prejudice they experienced came mostly from contacts in the United States, which I did find surprising: more than Europe, Africa and Latin America combined! Although perhaps Africa and Latin America were simply not represented as colleagues or clients among those polled.

The fifth and final option was the “winner” by far: five women indicated that contacts in Asia and/or the Middle East were the source of sexism in their business life. These results seem to corroborate this idea that we have about countries that are distant both culturally and physically, the ones we hear about in the news in a mostly negative capacity. But as professionals in the localization business, we have access to individuals all over the world, be they clients, contractors or competitors, all of them living their everyday lives, not necessarily the ones we see twisted with suffering every day in our news media. While professional relationships are not always conducive to more personal cross-cultural learning opportunities, it is my opinion that we should approach our interactions with as open a spirit as possible, mindful of all the assumptions we may not have even known we carried. This includes, of course, our interaction with the opposite gender; we all possess a unique world-view and the simplest way to harmonize them appears to be through mutual respect. 

While mutual respect is a wonderful concept, the fact of the matter is that, while the Association of Language Companies (ALC) reports that 60% of American and 57% of foreign LSPs are women-owned, these tend to be the smaller LSPs, while the largest-grossing LSPs are typically owned by men. This would seem to indicate that, unfortunately, language service clients still have a general tendency to entrust their business to male-run companies. This respect thing is starting to feel rather one-sided, isn’t it? So the question becomes: how do we, as female project managers, not only maintain control over projects involving male linguists, but maintain a professional relationship with clients who, consciously or not, may fall prey to the Attribution Bias and assume we are less than capable because of our gender? We could become militant and berate those who appear to show prejudice toward us, but then we only come off as negative and brow-beating, throwing fuel onto the Recall Bias fire. In my experience, the best way to open the door to respect is to remind the other party that you are, in fact, still a human being. This sentiment may be more difficult to convey through e-mail, as we humans rely very heavily on facial cues to discern each other’s emotions and our own appropriate reaction to them — this is often the mechanism that gets “turned off” when one suffers from autism. We need to keep the internet from becoming an autistic mechanism. Going forward in a mindful way, then, project management tips for the female project manager may include increased use of more personal technology such as Skype and Apple FaceTime. Whatever the technology we use to aid in maintaining an atmosphere of mutual respect, our ultimate goal should be as it ever was: to facilitate communication between people. Our industry is unique in being able to view the differences that can make communication difficult not as barriers, but as worthwhile challenges to be worked with and not against. Let’s work with those who suffer from gender bias and see to relegating those stereotypes to the history books.