Macro/Micro: Listen up, translation, women are talking

I am a woman. Hopefully none of you are surprised to read that. But what may surprise you is that this means my business is woman-owned. And I’m in good company. In the United States, more than 60% of language service providers (LSPs) are owned by women. In order to be certified as such — not only in the United States but globally — 51% or more of your ownership must be female and both the company’s management and daily business operations must be woman-controlled.
With so many women meeting this category, one might think that in our industry, this is the age of the woman. It certainly is in general, with more women opening up companies on an international level than any point in recorded history. According to US-based Women’s Business Council, between 1997 and 2013 the number of women-owned businesses (WBEs) worldwide surged by over 100%. In the United States alone, there are 8.3 million WBEs. We account for 16% of all American jobs and employ 40% more people than Walmart, McDonald’s and IBM combined. This is so our age that you might as well call us “Aquarius” and write women a song because, baby, we are dawning.
Women have more purchasing power than we used to, as well. Mine is the first entire generation of American women to believe our parents when they told us we could be whatever we wanted. Our working role models may have been nurse, teacher and secretary but the options presented to us were doctor, principal and company president. As we aged, we started to work in whatever roles we wanted and not just ones that had been stereotypically laid out for us. Even though women in the United States still only earn 77 cents to every dollar earned in a similar position by a man, we still earn more than before. When it comes to purchasing, we are decision makers not just for milk and sugar, but for everything from cars to computers. And with that purchasing power comes a brand new market for a corporate world to target.
One of the ways in which major corporations are trying to target that newly-empowered, female dollar is through supplier diversity. Supplier diversity, for those of you new to the concept, is the formal term for making sure women and racial-minority-owned businesses are included in a company’s supply chain. It began in the civil-rights-submerged 1960s United States as both society and government started requiring businesses to look beyond the white man for where they spent their dollars. IBM launched the first American private-sector supplier diversity program in 1968. High tech seems to be the theme as South Africa’s earliest program was Hewlett-Packard’s, which grew up out of similar government concerns imposed by post-apartheid constitutional and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment regulations.
As women started to gain more purchasing power, what started as government-imposed grew to just plain ol’ good business sense. According to Elizabeth A. Vasquez and Andrew J. Sherman in “Buying for Impact,” studies have shown that upon learning a company has a strong supplier diversity program in place, 79% of women are more likely to try the company’s product or service, and 51% will give the company a second chance if their prior purchasing experience was less than ideal. Basically, women are more likely to buy from companies that we know are open to buying from us.
But what many businesses are beginning to find is that, done right, supplier diversity pays off beyond increased spend from women alone. I am a woman, but the last thing I want is for you to buy translation from me just because of that. As Michael Robinson, director of global supplier diversity for IBM, says in a WEConnect International video (, “Nobody asks why we outsource or do business with male-owned businesses. You do business with the company that brings value to your supply chain.” In other words, modern-day supplier diversity is not about showing favor to women or showing prejudice against men. In this same video, Terrez Thompson, vice president of global supplier diversity for Coca-Cola, says, “Diversity is not what you thought about the 60s. Diversity really is setting up businesses [like Coca-Cola] to compete in the future.”
Women have to earn their clients’ business just like men. And we are, indeed, able to earn it. Theresa Barrera, vice president of supplier diversity for Walmart, calls women-owned businesses “nimble,” saying, “they’re quick to market; they can move at the speed of light and…they can make quick decisions. They have great ideas.” Ansa Yiadom, Pfizer’s director of strategic initiatives, describes WBEs as “organizations that do not have the same level of overhead, that are a little bit more hungry, that bring a certain level of innovation you don’t see all the time.”
Innovation. Now there’s a word you want to see in any supply chain. Before all you men start throwing down your MultiLinguals in disgust, I don’t write this article to be all rah-rah women. I write it to point out this growing global trend of finding innovation beyond where everyone traditionally looked. Supplier diversity used to be about gaining that growing purchasing power. Now it’s about growing brainpower. When we only listen to the same voices, we only get the same answers. And women are the world’s new voices.
But how heard are those voices in our industry? After all, in the United States at least, more than 60% of US-based LSPs are women-owned. But if we’re the majority, then why does our industry still look like we’re in the minority? Look at Common Sense Advisory’s (CSA) list of the world’s largest LSPs, for example. Only four of the top 25 LSPs are owned by women. That’s 16%. So how do we shrink from over 60% to around 16%?
Well, maybe the US figures are higher than world average. I’ll admit I don’t have numbers for outside the United States. My American numbers come from the Association of Language Companies’ annual survey and no one that I’m aware of measures this sort of data for the rest of the world. So if you isolate the American companies on the CSA 100 list and poll them separately, out of 24 total, only four are women-owned. That’s also around 16% — the same number. Can that be right? That’s lower than Cornell’s admittance rate (18%) and Cornell is an Ivy League university. I mean, is anyone else thinking imbalance here? That, statistically, a female business owner is less likely to excel in our industry than she is to be admitted to an Ivy League university?
This women-owned businesses not excelling thing is a problem that is going to bite our industry in the you-know-what if we don’t fix it. Whether we talk about supplier diversity among ourselves or not (hint: we don’t), the rest of the world does. And I’m not just talking about Coca-Cola and other red-white-and-blue American brands. I’m talking about Royal Bank of Scotland. I’m talking about Telefonica; I’m talking about Westpac and Clifford Chance. The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council connects WBEs to corporations in the United States and WEConnect International connects them in every other country in the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe.
As Rick Bowman, supplier relationship management leader for Cummins Inc. says, “[Supplier diversity] helps us find the best supplier. If we’re not looking at all suppliers, how do we know we have the best supplier?” Supplier diversity has begun to reach beyond widgets and gears. Just because our industry has largely ignored procurement — since most translation spend does not yet route through it — does not mean procurement will continue to ignore us. Companies that have committed billions of dollars to diverse suppliers want to see that commitment expand into every aspect of purchasing. More than one translation buyer has already called me because supplier diversity came knocking and didn’t like the all-white, all-male vendors that they found. What these corporations discovered was that because procurement had ignored translation in the past, their company values regarding diversity were not considered during the LSP vetting process. Work had to be redone and evaluation started over in order to make sure diverse providers were, in fact, included.
Putting a new translation partner into place requires time and money. Be it up or down, quality will also be affected. The last thing that should happen to a buyer is for procurement to come in and overturn all of his hard work because in an industry where more than 60% of the vendors are women-owned, he didn’t consider a single women-owned vendor before he bought.
Again, this isn’t about businesses discriminating against men or showing favoritism toward women. This is about a better way of doing things. For buyers, there is the very real and pragmatic issue of having to redo work, but the even greater risk is the threat this current dichotomy imposes on our industry from the inside. When the majority (over 60%) is treated as a minority (approximately 16%), what innovation are we suppressing? Why is this gap so wide?
Allow me to be clear: I don’t think our industry is full of misogynist prigs. Nor do I think men are the devil. In fact, I think we’re by and large a friendly, open lot, and I love men a little more than is right — but you cannot deny that there is a blatant, glaring disconnect here, people. Our industry figures aren’t anywhere even near proportionate. So why aren’t women-owned LSPs financially excelling at the same or a similar rate as LSPs owned by men? This is an answer we had better get to the bottom of. Because like me, women have a lot to say on how to improve things. And so long as translation’s not listening, our industry will never truly grow.