Having worked in the language service industry for more than three decades I have witnessed a significant increase in the number of female owned Language Service Providers (LSPs), with the proportion of female directors now significantly higher than in many other professional services.
Of course it hasn’t always been this way. When I established COMTEC Translations Ltd in 1981 I found myself to be the only female on the Council of the Association of Translation Companies (ATC), the sector’s leading professional body. But now, more than 30 years on, I’m proud to say that almost 50% of UK LSPs are run by women, something which is reflected in the current makeup of ATC Council members.
This stands in stark contrast to other industries, with only 15% of all UK businesses owned or run by females*. Indeed a recent Gender in the Law survey** found that three-quarters of firms have a partnership featuring less than 30% women. So what is it about the language service industry which is more conducive to female entrepreneurship?
I believe the primary reason is the business model on which many LSPs are based. COMTEC as an example operates with a Project Management team, that works with more than 1,000 trained translators and interpreters to fulfil clients’ language service needs. By nature, in addition to providing high quality language services, the business necessitates collaboration, intensive co-ordination, organisation and relationship building. Whilst it is dangerous to proclaim any characteristics as sweepingly male or female, experience shows that this can often be a skill set associated more with females.
The proven success of this structure under female leadership, combined with the realisation that you can achieve greater work/life flexibility as your own boss has led to a marked rise in the proportion of women taking control of their destiny and establishing their own translation company. What’s more, unlike other industries, age doesn’t present a barrier to entry, with the sector proving very fertile for older women with language skills and/or backgrounds in international business.
But whilst I can proudly talk today about the vital role which women are playing in driving forward a UK industry which is worth in excess of £1 billion and which employs more than 12,000 people, we must guard against complacency. In my role as the first female president of the British Chamber of Commerce, and as a member of the ATC Council, my focus has remained firmly on raising the profile of languages across all stages of the national curriculum and beyond, and supporting female enterprise.
Latest figures reveal that while more than two thirds of students obtaining an undergraduate language degree are female, student enrolments to language degrees fell by an alarming 5% between 2013/14 to 2014/15***. What’s more, whilst women accounted for 70% of those setting up their own business in 2014****, ‘gender blind’ policy setting has led to insufficient support for female entrepreneurs through enterprise support infrastructure and the tax and benefits system.
This highlights the stark reality of the challenges which our industry faces if it is to continue to prosper; it can only be through a more unrelenting focus by the government on imbedding languages into our education system and supporting self-employed women that the UK can realise the full potential of the language service industry, not only in leading the way in gender parity but supporting economic prosperity and growth on a national level.
* ONS report, Women in Business
*** Higher Education Student Enrolments and Qualifications Obtained at Higher Education Providers in the United Kingdom 2014/15
**** Here to stay: Women’s self-employment in a (post) austerity era, Women’s Budget Group