Gender in language services

To say that gender equality is a hotly debated topic is to put it mildly. Claims of rampant pay discrimination and counterclaims that women and men are paid equally for equal work are common. Studies indicate that women who work bear greater burdens at home than do men, and that they are more likely to have to spend time away from work during their careers. In order to obtain perspective on the topic, Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research) collaborated with several industry organizations, including the Globalization and Localization Association and Women in Localization, to launch and promote a survey to gather data specific to the language services industry. After consulting with various surveys and research in the area, CSA Research analysts developed the pro bono survey to explore various aspects of the issue, for both male and female respondents.

This article describes some key takeaways. The complete findings are detailed in the report “Gender and Family in the Language Services Industry,” free and open to the public at

Gender balance

The language industry is a very friendly one for women. The survey found that employees in the language industry are predominately female, consistent with anecdotal evidence. More than two-thirds of the respondents to the survey were women. Even allowing for selection bias among respondents, it is clear that women dominate numerically.

Women in the language industry are much more likely to reach top-level positions than are those in most other industries. However, this result does not indicate that everything is great for women in the language industry — simply that other industries may do much worse. The survey found roughly equal numbers of men and women in upper management positions, but given the overall balance, it shows that men are disproportionately likely to reach those positions, even though CSA Research has found that language service providers (LSPs) led by women are more productive than those led by men. This tendency is found worldwide but is actually stronger in Europe than in North America.

The pay gap

Worldwide, women tend to make less money than men do. Professions that are dominated by women — even highly skilled ones — see pay fall relative to those dominated by men. So how does the language industry stack up?

Discussion about pay gaps focuses on two aspects:

Unadjusted gaps show what the average man or woman earns. This figure simply averages the earnings of men and women and gives a good idea of what typical earnings are. CSA Research found a substantial worldwide unadjusted gap: Women take home about 12% less than men. The figures varied by region, with men in North America actually earning about 5% less than women, but about 12% more in Europe.

Adjusted gaps attempt to balance for individuals’ jobs. After adjusting the figures to compare men and women in similar jobs against each other, the gap closes to about 3%, which is within the margin of error of the survey. In other words, if men and women are in the same position, they usually make the same amount of money. When the adjusted figures are broken down by region, women earn about 7% more than men in North America and 4% more in Europe.

What these figures show is that employers are not — in general — discriminating against women in their wages. Instead, structural issues in the labor market that keep women in freelance and lower-level positions account for their lower earnings. Because European women are far more likely to work as freelance linguists than those in North America, they find their earnings are much more limited.

Note that men tend to perceive that equal pay for equal work exists in their organizations, while women believe that men earn more. The survey figures cannot tell who is right, but other results in the survey suggest that women may reach a point in their careers where they receive additional responsibilities without pay or title increases. As a result, they may observe that they work harder than male colleagues who do receive more or who are given title promotions that women do not obtain.

What keeps women from advancing in their careers?

Even if the language industry delivers significantly better outcomes than some others for women, why don’t women advance to leadership positions more often? Previous research from a large variety of sources has shown that women are more likely to interrupt their careers to raise children. The survey confirms this: male respondents are considerably more likely to report that they have had children during their career (58% versus 48% for women) or that they have had to care for non-child dependents (44% vs. 39%), but women are more than three times as likely to work part-time and five times as likely to leave work during this time. Although almost all male respondents (95%) indicated that they worked full-time while they had children, less than three-quarters of women did.

These figures show that men with children are more likely to be able to work full-time and continue career advancements even as women have to take time off. Note that this difference is not a matter of discrimination: women reported that their employers were slightly more supportive of the actions they took to care for dependents than did men. Even with a workplace that tries to help out, women still end up missing out on opportunities that men get.

Finally, note that majorities of both men and women agree that gender issues are important in general, but only a minority of people believe they are directly affected. In other words, they believe that the issues affect other people more than themselves, although women are more likely to see the effects in their own lives.

The overall picture

The CSA Research survey in Gender and Family Issues explored many other issues outside the scope of this article. The picture the survey results paints is that of an industry doing better than many other industries, but one that still has a long way to go in promoting gender equality. Substantial structural obstacles stand in the way of that goal, but the situation is improving and the results of the survey help shine light on the issues that affect this crucial topic and can suggest ways that employers can work to retain the female talent that helps them be competitive in today’s marketplace.