Focus

Linguistic Blackout

Why does the language services
industry in the United States
have so few Black people?

Susan XU Yun headshot

Michael Reid

Michael Reid is an educator, translator, and language, culture,
and diversity consultant with over 20 years of experience.
He’s passionate about the intersection of language and social justice, and speaks six languages fluently and another seven to basic competency. He also speaks enough Klingon to negotiate safe passage through the Neutral Zone.

Linguistic Blackout

Why does the language services
industry in the United States
have so few Black people?

Susan XU Yun headshot

Michael Reid

Michael Reid is an educator, translator, and language, culture,
and diversity consultant with over 20 years of experience.
He’s passionate about the intersection of language and social justice, and speaks six languages fluently and another seven to basic competency. He also speaks enough Klingon to negotiate safe passage through the Neutral Zone.

A

s anyone following the news from the United States is no doubt aware, the past few months have seen the United States engulfed in a long-overdue reckoning with both its racial past and present. The extrajudicial killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the outright murder of Ahmaud Arbery by his fellow citizens, and the subsequent protests and civil unrest that have rocked cities all over the country have galvanized the country and forced many, both publicly and privately, to confront the ways in which they may be contributing, even unintentionally, to perpetuating a system that privileges white people at the expense of their Black counterparts.

Now, of course, this need to wrestle with the more unsavory threads woven into the American fabric is not viewed with the same urgency by all, and even the above characterization of US society will not meet with universal approbation. The general consensus, though, backed by both anecdotal evidence and the historical record, is that the US, for all its lofty stated ideals, has rarely — and then only haltingly — lived up to those ideals in its dealings with those whose skin color does not resemble that of those who wrote our founding documents.

Counted among this consensus one could surely expect to find language services providers (LSPs). After all, this is an industry devoted to crossing linguistic and cultural barriers, and embracing the beautiful idiomatic diversity of our species in order to ensure that language is not an obstacle to access for anyone. It should be not just a face in the crowd but at the very forefront of the movement to ensure representation. From healthcare to video games to the subtitles on Tiger King, translation, interpretation, and localization have as their stock in trade some of the very diversity that the crowds filling the streets champion.

And yet, in the businesses that operate within and because of the linguistic and cultural diversity among us, racial diversity among the leadership can be hard to come by, and nowhere is that more evident than when we’re talking about Black faces in leadership positions at some of the largest American LSPs. Actual aggregated data on Black/African American diversity within the language services industry is hard to come by, so for this article I looked at upper level and C-suite staffing in the five largest LSPs with headquarters in the US as determined by CSA Research. An analysis of the executive staffs of Welocalize, TransPerfect, LanguageLine, Lionbridge, and CyraCom shows only one Black person appearing in a leadership position. One, out of a combined 44 people, or 2.2% of all executive staff positions. Anecdotally, I can also offer this: in my 24 years as a translator and interpreter, I have never worked with a project manager or coordinator who was Black. When I ask friends and colleagues with even deeper and broader industry experience than me, they report that they’ve worked with maybe two or three Black people in LSPs in their entire careers.

Seeing Black representation in United States LSPs so wildly out of sync with the proportion of the population should give one pause. What are the factors that led to this and help perpetuate it? To explore the possible answer, we need to examine what an LSP actually does, and for whom, and how the case for Black representation has been made in the American business world.

The business (to business) case for diversity

For years, diversity advocates would try to pry open the doors of the C-suite (or sometimes even middle management) by making what was called the business case for diversity. In brief, diversity practitioners and others would try to sell a business on the gains to be realized from greater staffing diversity — either subtly, with talk of how more diverse teams would come up with more creative business solutions driving greater profit, or more cynically, simply touting diversity’s PR benefits. Be they subtle or more direct though, these approaches all had one thing in common: they appealed to the bottom line. “Diversity drives profit” is a likely, if a bit too on-the-nose, motto for the diversity practices of that era.

As the understanding of what diversity actually means has evolved, however, the business case has begun to fall out of favor. More and more, especially given the string of high-profile assaults on the personhood of non-white people in the US, society is realizing that diversity per se means little if historically underrepresented groups are excluded, either explicitly or through the inertia of ingrained practice, from the seats of power. It’s no longer enough to put a couple of stock photos of smiling Black folks on the About page of your website. Black folks (and others) need to be both in the room and heard when crucial decisions are made. This shift in attitude was signaled by the addition of inclusion and equity to the job titles and mission statements of companies around the country.

In the current era, advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusion don’t (as a rule) appeal to the bottom line, but to the moral intuition of the companies they work with. Including the historically underrepresented may or may not drive greater profit, but that’s not the point. You don’t include people because it’s profitable, you do it because it’s the right thing to do.

 

The fact remains, though, that a central consideration for many businesses is the realization that customers being able to see somebody who looks like them in the company’s advertisements and outward-facing communications is going to drive greater profit. Try as they might, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioners still have a way to go to convince companies that their moral health is equal to — or greater than — their financial health.

This profit-driven nudge toward doing the right thing works, after a fashion, for B2C companies, but what about B2B companies? After all, B2C companies have racially diverse audiences rightly eager to see themselves represented in the brands they buy. Bluntly put, B2C companies have Black and Brown people to sell stuff to.
LSPs are not B2C companies, though. Few individuals go out translation shopping and, on those rare occasions when they do, they usually hire a freelancer or a small mom-and-pop operation (and well they should). Big name LSPs aren’t in the market for these small, one-off projects. They’re selling their product — the linguistic and cultural expertise which is ironically usually concentrated in the lower ranks of the company — to other businesses. When the customer is another business, though, as in the case of B2B companies, the dynamic changes.

Always a few steps behind

The increase in Black representation in B2C companies has been halting and incomplete, but it has outpaced that of B2B companies. What it hasn’t outpaced is the actual proportion of Black people with the purchasing power to buy the goods and services these companies offer. And while B2C companies catch up to the reality of their consumer base, B2B companies are playing catch up with the new realities of their clients. In other words, if B2C companies are two steps behind the demographic realities of the country, and B2B companies are two steps behind the B2C companies, then the B2B companies are, generously, four steps behind that reality.

But it’s not just the few-steps-behind positioning that leads to such low Black representation in executive positions in LSPs.

LSPs also tend to pull from the affinity networks of the finance and tech sector, along with occasional forays into the venture capital space, for their executive leadership. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Black people are heavily underrepresented in this space in the US for several reasons, many of which have to do with the structure of these affinity networks in the first place.

While Black representation in terms of those who graduate with a CSTEM or language-related degree is low in proportion to the population, it’s still high com-pared to the rate of represen-tation in the sector. According to the Los Angeles Times, 8.6% of graduates with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2016 were Black, whereas by May of this year only 3.7% of Google employees were Black.

Finance does even worse, with its entire non-white workforce being below the national average. Entrance into the professional ranks of these worlds — at the lower levels but especially at the higher levels — is generally granted through relationships with people who are already highly placed in these companies, or by being able to establish a mentor-mentee relationship with somebody in such a position. This system not only creates a barrier to entry for many Black graduates, it also means that when they do manage to get their foot in the door, they often walk right back out because they find the environment so unwelcoming. If people in powerful positions in these companies want to mentor and shepherd people who remind them of themselves, and by and large they themselves are white men, then there remains precious little chance for Black advancement in these sectors.

If these are the realms that LSPs are cultivating their executive leadership from, majority white spaces that often function as self-sealed networks, then it’s no surprise that Black representation will be lagging. Furthermore, if LSPs see no immediate need to adjust their demographics, they’re not going to. Simply put, the executive leadership of LSPs becomes a group of (mostly) white people drawn from a group of (mostly) white people selling their product back to the group of (mostly) white people from which they were drawn. This isn’t to say that they don’t have good intentions; many of them do. But as the tech and finance sector show us, the insular, in-group nature of the higher echelons of power have a way of creating obstacles to entry for those who may be eminently qualified, but who haven’t risen up through the same social circle.

What can be done?

So, what is to be done about this? How do we break down the barriers that have kept Black representation so low? There are several things that need to happen. One, LSPs need to start actively recruiting from historically Black colleges and universities. They represent an enormous well-spring of dedicated, passionate talent and there is no excuse for not creating a pipeline. LSPs can also begin to look outside of the good old boys-and-girls club and be more open to hiring executive talent from outside of their extended social and professional networks. At the same time, LSPs need to make sure they are creating welcoming environments that foster and support Black talent. A lot of LSPs get lulled into thinking (when they think about it at all) that they don’t need to do any diversity work, that they’re already paragons of diversity. And it is of course true that they are, at least at the lower levels, exemplars of a rich and wonderful linguistic diversity. In the higher ranks, they’ve made impressive strides in Asian and to some degree Latinx inclusion. But we’re talking about Black representation, and it’s in this area where they have fallen woefully short.

All of these measures, though, start with the simple (though not easy) act of simply recognizing the problem for what it is and why things were allowed to become this way in the first place. As James Baldwin famously said, not everything that’s faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. For all their lofty ideals and good intentions many B2B companies, LSPs included, have a long way to go when it comes to creating a truly representative staffing model. End clients may not be clamoring for it (yet) but that means this is even more of an opportunity for LSPs to show leadership in this space and live up to the promise of their brand. Breaking down barriers and ensuring access lie at the heart of language services. What better way to live that mission than to make sure their offices reflect that very ethos? The voice of the people is unmistakable. Let’s make sure it doesn’t get lost in translation.