Gender, Librarians, & Librarianship (A Somewhat Open Thread)

At the end of last month, Roy Tennant wrote on his Digital Shift blog a post entitled “Fostering Female Technology Leadership in Libraries”. It’s worth a read; if you want bonus points, make your way through the comments as well. In the time since (minus the two consecutive weeks of storms), I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post about gender in the library profession. But in trying to step back and get a look at the big picture as I like to do, the possible and potential topics (and pitfalls) have loomed larger than something I could tap out in one or two nights. So I’d like to try an open thread, albeit seeded with a topic area in mind.

In taking the message from the blog post “No One Knows What They Are Doing” to heart, I realized that this topic would quickly break down into roughly three areas for me: what I knew from first hand experience (aka the shit I know, to use the blog’s phrasing), what I heard from friends and peers over the years (aka the shit I know from primary or secondary resources), and (for lack of a better phrase) the shit I don’t know that I don’t know. I felt good about the first two areas since I was confident in my experiences and the shared stories of others but I have to admit that I am quietly terrified about the third.

I’m not afraid to write and be wrong; I’ve certainly offered a mea culpa more than once for what I’ve written on this blog and updated posts with corrected information where it was necessary. Failure is its own lesson and all the sayings and clichés that go along with that sentiment.  But in trying to foster an open and honest discussion about gender in librarianship, it feels like I’m taking a real risk of stepping on dangerous discussion landmines that I don’t know about either because I’m male, I’ve only joined the library scene in the last five years, and/or the experiences that have been shared with me are potentially a microcosm of the larger profession in whole. But, I find my curiosity and desire to learn more are shouting down my fears.

So, here I am: a male in a female dominated profession within a changing-but-generally male dominated society. To be honest, sometimes when I see the 80/20 female to male ratio statistic tossed out I think to myself, “What can be done to attract more men to the profession?” I don’t think it’s an unusual thought since any profession that is dominated by one gender tends to have conversations around attracting the other gender to the field. Ultimately it’s a passing one simply because it really doesn’t matter to me what the gender ratio is; you can thank my parents and progressive education curriculums for instilling that gender equality notion. It’s not that I don’t see gender or that I am incapable of acting in an insensitive manner when it comes to gender or gender topics (I can hear the rustle of affidavit papers being filled out to attest to that fact), it’s that I’ve been taught that there are times when gender matters and when it doesn’t.  In the latter category, being a librarian or working on a library staff is one of those things. However, I’ll still wonder why efforts are not being made to tip the gender ratio a little less skewed.

The one personal anecdote I’ll relate on this subject comes from the first time I went to the New Jersey Library Association Annual Conference. One of the rooms is turned into a organization store to sell items to raise money. After a few minutes of browsing, I realized that the majority of items were not for me. They were designed to appeal to women. The jewelry, socks, throws, dolls, scarves, and whatnot were designed with a female consumer in mind. The only thing in there that was unquestionably male was the tie selection. Table upon table laden with library themed items of all manner and sort… and all I got was a handful of ties. It did cut my browsing time to nothing and switched me over to gift mode for the women in my life. (Please note that this is not a call for more male oriented items in the store, but just an observation that I made. Just load the store with whatever sells since it’s there to raise money (which is probably why items were chosen in the first place.)) It was a subtle reminder that the profession I had just joined was very much female dominated. I have other stories (and not as light as this one), so I may add them as comments as discussion merits. Otherwise, I want to push ahead with starting a (somewhat) open thread.

In opening this up for further discussion, I’d like ask you to share any stories or experience and encourage you to share your thoughts and/or ideas on what the current gender issues and topics that face the profession. As always, you can post anonymously (and if you fear that I’ll trace your IP [which I won’t], then use a proxy server). The only rule I will enforce is civility. I’d like to hear and learn more in this area so please share courageously. There could be people out there reading this who won’t share who could benefit from your comment.

And so, let us start putting things on the table and get a better look at this broad and wide ranging topic.

44 thoughts on “Gender, Librarians, & Librarianship (A Somewhat Open Thread)

  1. Pingback: Gender, Librarians, & Librarianship (A Somewhat Open Thread) | K-12 School Libraries | Scoop.it

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  3. Hm. I look forward to seeing what everyone else writes, but I think the gender balance really varies by what slice of the library world you’re looking at. For example, I work in an academic library where there is a hard split on male/female departments. Reference is almost entirely female (we have two male colleagues, one of whom is a department head). Tech services, circulation, and technology has all male librarians and male staff members in leadership positions (we have two female heads in that area, but the rest of male). I also wonder how this is going to change in the coming decades. In the past, librarianship was one of just a couple professions available to women – like teacher or nurse. But as we become more tech heavy, I wonder if that will change. There’s also the issue of librarianship having more males in leadership positions, even if the profession is mostly female. (Does anyone know if this is still the case? I read it in an article in grad school and it stuck with me. But that was almost 5 years ago.)

    • I’ve heard the thing about more men being in leadership positions. I’d really like to see some numbers on it to see how the data plays out, but I have a feeling that it gets different mileage within different library types. I daresay it is probably true in the academic field, less so in the public library field, and even less so in the school library field (I have no guesses as to special libraries since they usually fall under other institutions or corporate hierarchies). This is just going off the top of my head from my own observations, but it would be my guess if someone was holding a gun to my head.

      Does anyone know about the article that Curious is thinking about?

  4. This is The Shit I Know:

    As someone who’s recently been accused of being unprofessional for using coarse language, I stare at the gender issues in our profession every day, and wonder. The accusations came from librarians and non-librarians, from women and from me. Would a man have been chastised in the same way? I don’t think so. My conclusion is that even in our female-dominated profession, women are held to disgustingly unequal gender standards.

    As a library administrator, I breathed a sigh of relief when the search committee for our fourth consecutive search brought forward two female candidates; I’d hired 3 men in a row because they were the best candidates presented to me, but I was afraid I was going to get a reputation for gender bias. I could hear the critics chasing around my brain: “how could it be possible that That Woman is hiring Only Men? It can’t be coincidence. Not in a female dominated profession!” I worry that it’s irrelevant to that kind of conversation and accusation is the reality that three different search committees presented me with recommendations that I endorsed, and they happened to be men…

    • I hear you on this one: you want to hire the best person for the position, regardless of gender. But it is the appearance of impropriety that makes it a second guess situation. Where are the women candidates? Are they out there at all? Or do they exist and simply do not want to apply for the job you are offering? It leaves a lot of questions on the table, including ones that lead to your own doubt.

      The perspective could be controlled by where people are within the field. If you’re a school librarian and rarely see men at all in the schools, you’re going to think, “80/20? More like 95/5!” whereas if you’re like the poster Curious above and see a more balanced gender equation, you may think that the 80/20 number is a fabrication or myth. My curiosity is now turning and wondering how to dissect the 80/20 number as to how the gender ratio breaks down per library type, followed by a look at the overall numbers in comparison. It might yield additional insights.

  5. Female Dominated Profession and everyone is obsessed with what we wear and how we look. Also isn’t there a disproportionate amount of men in library admin positions across the board?

  6. Also in our Female Dominated Profession where male co-workers feel totally cool talking about Hot Storytime Moms in a professional setting. That reminded ME that even though I work in a “Female Dominated Profession” that doesn’t mean jack crap when it comes to living in a patriarchy.

  7. Andy – great post!
    But I wonder if trying to actively bring more men into the profession is necessary. As some of the comments show, even in this female-dominated profession, we live in a white, male-dominated society (and a society seemingly obsessed with the gender binary model). Even in library land, I suspect, a majority of the top-paid positions are probably still held by men, and men (very generally speaking), have more options when it comes to employment society-wide as well. This is pure speculation on my part, but might expending effort on getting more men into librarianship actually do more harm than good? In other words focusing on a problem that may not really be a problem?

    Perhaps instead, efforts might be made to make all our workplace environments more gender-neutral than anything else? I say all this respectfully as a transgendered individual who thinks we (as a society and a profession) perhaps need to do more problem solving outside of the traditional gender binary and gender-focused models.

    • Do I think it’s necessary? No. But consider this for a moment: if the field was mostly men (like Roy’s gender graph of technology), the call would be for more women to get into the field. To me, it seems natural that the reverse would be true as well. In looking at a female dominated field like librarianship, shouldn’t there be a question as to why men aren’t attracted to the field? I’m not looking for 50/50 parity here, but a slightly less skewed. The gender equality question is not a one way street to simply get women into traditionally male fields, but also to get men into traditionally female fields as well. But as there are not the same barriers for men that women face in other fields, I don’t consider this a pressing matter at all.

      I agree with gender neutrality on its face, but I’d be interested in the nuances.

  8. I don’t think that we need to gun for a 50/50 male/female split in the library field, but I think that there is definitely merit in improving the ratio a bit and bringing more men into the profession as librarians for kids and teens. Female librarians do amazing things, but there’s something to be said for young boys and young men seeing a male in that kind of a library position. Male librarians have a serious chance to model a lot of good behaviours to small male humans and may be able to connect with them in a way that women cannot.

    • Oh, I’m not gunning for 50/50 at all. Possibly 70/30. :D

      I do think there is a role model aspect involved, especially in younger children who are looking to people of the same gender as role models. I didn’t have a male school teacher till I was in 6th grade. It’s not that I didn’t know that men could be teachers, but it’s one thing to know and another to see it in action. You bring up an excellent point and I think it reinforces that both men and women have a role in raising children in society (their own or others).

    • Sorry to stumble into this conversation late, I was doing some research on gender bias in public librarianship and came across this thread in my searches. As a male librarian who has had to overcome many gender hurdles in public libraries (e.g. being passed over for promotions in Children’s & Teen Services, despite being significantly more qualified than my female counterparts), I have found the issue of gender inequality in this profession to be quite real and prevalent. Unfortunately, there are societal and cultural issues simultaneously at play, in which most people will accept the engendered role of woman to be the caregiver of children and be dismissive of men having any valuable influence and contribution. I don’t expect this attitude to change anytime soon, but I do encourage female librarians to look closer at the needs of young boys and men who use the public libraries, particularly in urban environments, in search of the male role models that they invariably do not find in these caregiving, educational roles.

  9. My thoughts here are similar to my thoughts on Roy’s post. While I’m convinced that we need to learn how to have conversations about gender in our profession, I’m not at all convinced that these conversations ought to be initiated or led by men. This is not to say that your post or Roy’s post were out of place, but my personal reaction as a straight, white, middle-class, male in a female dominated profession is that perhaps I should wait with my opinion on gender roles in libraries until someone asks me what I think.

    Even though there are far fewer male librarians than female, this imbalance does not hold true in leadership positions. Male voices are not underrepresented in decision-making conversations in libraries. So, perhaps a good discipline for male librarians to adopt in gender conversations is to indicate that we are willing to listen and then do exactly that: listen.

    I don’t know whether this is my personality or whether I’ve been socialized this way, but I generally assume that my opinion is desired and valued, so I’m not shy about voicing it. When it comes to the gender discussion though, I’m pretty sure that my voice isn’t the most valuable thing I can contribute to the conversation. The most valuable thing may be for me to offer silence, a silence to be filled by other voices, voices who may not have been socialized to believe that others will always want to hear them express their views.

    So that’s my contribution: “Gender roles in libraries: that’s some pretty weird shit. What do you all think about it?”

  10. Great post, Andy. I read Roy’s post and the comments that followed. I am still confused on how to act on this because of the criticism he has received as a male trying to bring attention to this. I’m not saying the criticism is right or wrong, but rather it has made me question, as a man, how do I approach this? What can I do to help? Should I do anything to help. You are doing what I feel is the best thing one can do by continuing the conversation.

    Another point that I don’t hear too many people talk about is the potential relationship between the gender disparity in the profession (on the ground level) and the feedback from the public. I’ve noticed many surveys for the library done in my community that it is about 70/% female. It’s hard to say if that is an accurate portrayal of who is coming into the library, but it definitely shows that males are not being effectively targeted. I’m curious if anyone else has seen this?

    • Thanks Ryan for commenting.

      In talking with someone about this post, I felt there is something akin to the “shit you know” post that I linked above that delves into the concept of help. There are times you need help, there are times you don’t need help, there are times you need help but don’t realize you need help, there are times when you don’t need help but don’t know you don’t need help, there are times when the help you need doesn’t match the help that is offered, and so forth and so on. Where is this gender in relation into that ever expanding possible complex of help? Probably somewhere in the middle, depending on the situation. Some help works, some doesn’t, some is asked for, some is refused, etc. and it’s a matter of perspective as to where a particular gender issue exists.

      Yes, this is a non-answer overall, but I’d like to think that having an attitude similar to what Roy is offering (direct active help as well as offers of additional help) is a better position cooling ones heels and waiting to be asked. It’s the difference between being offered something and having to ask for it.

      I’d be interested in those surveys you mention to see more about them.

  11. A major disparity that came to my attention recently is in salaries. Library Journal’s Placement & Salaries survey of 2011 grads (http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2012/10/placements-and-salaries/2012-survey/explore-all-the-data/#_) shows a significant disparity between the average male and average female salaries. Still. Not 5 years ago, not something I read in library school… This is a survey of people who graduated the same year I did, 2011! At first I tried to give the profession the benefit of the doubt — maybe men tend to enter the profession in higher cost of living areas, while more women are taking jobs in lower cost of living areas… But looking at the chart where they break it down by region, the same disparity shows up (several thousands of $$$ per year difference) in every region.

    I bring this up because it’s pretty disgusting… But I’m not trying to trump your concerns – I think they’re related. Historically, Melvil Dewey championed the idea of hiring women as librarians because he could pay them less… Have our salaries remained low because the field is dominated by women? Do our low salaries perpetuate the gender imbalance?

    • An excellent point on the cost of living differences! My only additional thought on that line of thinking is, traditionally in the public sector, greater benefits are given in exchange for salary increases. If more women are in the public sector (think public libraries and school libraries), it could account for *some* of the wage difference because benefit packages are not factored in. It could be a mitigation aspect to wage difference, but it does not explain everything away. I would suspect that the gender wage gap plays a role as well.

      As to your two questions at the end of your post, I have to think on it. My initial reaction is “probably” and “possibly”, but I’d like to give a better answer.

    • There is a lot of evidence that women simply do not negotiate salaries the way men do. This ties back to a lot of gendered cultural codes and cues. But I would very much like to see a more nuanced salary survey that asked specifically about about whether or not folks negotiated, and what difference the negotiation made.

      • And in some jobs, it’s not possible to negotiate for a raise. Where I work, you either get a raise or you don’t, and if you do it’s at a fixed rate–which on the surface looks fair, but it also reinforces any past injustices: if you were hired at a rate that’s lower than it should be, and you get a raise in any fiscal year it’s possible, you get the same raise offered to anyone else but you still never reach parity.

      • While I don’t doubt that skill/confidence in negotiating salaries is part of the problem, I think there must be more factors at play. Looking at the aggregate averages, male noobrarians are making about $7500 a year more than their female counterparts. Had I done a better job of negotiating, maybe I could have gotten a grand or two higher, but I seriously doubt I could have gotten seven grand more per year.

  12. As an LIS student, I’ve found myself routinely startled by the first day of classes that aren’t LIS (or archives, or preservation)-focused–there are boys at my school! But they’re nearly all in the more tech-oriented tracks, and (from what I’ve seen), most of them are not planning on working in libraries. That’s fine with me, really. But what isn’t is that the school itself frequently holds career fairs and information sessions–but only for those techy professions. Obviously it’s not as easy for a library to send someone to every school career fair as it is for large corporations to do so, and there’s only so much the school can do, but since it’s enough to make me (occasionally) doubt my career choice, I can’t imagine it makes those male students want to join up.

    Not offering any solutions (though I wish I could), just voicing some observations from the pre-career end.

    • Thanks for your comment. I made the same gender observation in my grad school classes, but there wasn’t the technology aspect in my program. As I think of my other male classmates, I do believe most of them went into academic settings afterward. I can’t think of any that became school librarians and I’d have to really think if any (beside myself) became public librarians.

  13. Pingback: Gender, Librarians, & Librarianship (A Somewhat Open Thread ... | Libraries, Librarian in the Knowledge & Information Industry | Scoop.it

  14. Two comments – FWIW I am a woman and I hate all of that stuff they sell at the NJLA Conference. Not all women like the same things. Also, I ran a Reference Department and customers would automatically assume the male librarian I supervised was the boss. Annoying.

  15. Andy–I agree with you re the role model aspect of it. My children don’t perceive librarianship as a “female” profession because both mom & dad are librarians. One of my sons used to use the term “teacher” to describe all adult females when he was in preschool because he had never known a male teacher. There are several male teachers at his elementary school, and he he appreciates the gender diversity.

  16. Our small, specialized academic library has two male members of staff- one library assistant (out of 6) and one librarian (out of 3), so I obviously I see a lack of men in my corner of the profession. However, like Chris I have also seen a lot of people assuming that the two males in the department are in charge. And I don’t see this assumption as being a generational thing either; it comes just as often from students in their late-teens/early 20s, too.

    As an aside, I tried to find some info re: gender and salary for LIS professionals in the UK but couldn’t find anything. I suspect the annual BIALL survey might have some information but I’m not a member and it is limited to law librarians in any case.

    • The boss assumption is one I’ve heard before, but I think it happens in a lot more venues than just libraries. The website Not Always Right has stories about people insisting to talk to a man (aka someone in charge) and being persistent even in the face of being told otherwise. I think it’s an issue larger than simply gender in librarianship.

        • Being at an academic library, I tend to think of this as an issue among all professors, not just in the library. There are plenty of studies out there that show significant differences in how students rate professors by gender. Before switching to LIS, I put in a couple of years toward a PhD in anthropology, and my funding one year was to teach a big intro-level lecture course. In that position, I had to pay attention to what I wore and even how I walked – male professors can shuffle in wearing worn-out jeans and a t-shirt and get respect, whereas a comparably dressed woman will be ignored and/or blatantly disrespected. As a woman, I had to put more effort into dressing the part and putting up a mental shield to help me fake more confidence than I felt!

  17. Just anecdotally, The library I work at has two male employees, both of whom are supervisors.

    Thinking of the guys I went to library school with, all of the ones that I knew and have kept up with since (three), all seemed to find full time jobs right away (even the guy who flunked the comprehensive exam), while 3/4 of the girls languished in several part-time jobs, some not even in libraries. It took me 2.5 years to find a full time job, and by that time a friend of mine was a department head and on track to being a director (which he now is).

    However, many of my female colleagues (myself included, at least at this stage in my career) do not want to be administration, so perhaps we’re as much to blame for library administration being as male-heavy as it is.

    • This brings up a a whole different angle. The related issue I see is that of oft commented on issue of women having to choose between family and career (or feeling like they have to, even if the situation is permissive to a family angle). This can preclude management aspirations.

      • I guess in my case, childless for now but not actively planning, I just want to be a librarian without having to deal with all the crap that comes with being administration. I got into this job to help patrons, not mediate employee disputes and be the final arbiter with crazies. I want to leave work at work, and not have to field emergency calls if something catches fire.

        Also, I feel like I can be more innovative and creative if I don’t have all of that ‘managing’ going on. I see my boss running around all day, constantly playing catch up, and I don’t want that. Sure, more money would be nice, but I didn’t get into this business to make money anyway :)

        A lot of my female librarian friends have said that they feel the same way, whereas a lot of the men I went to school with (again, just anecdotally–nothing scientific here) were highly concerned with moving up the chain regardless of whether the job description of the more prestigious position was something they actually wanted to do.

        Not trying to make it a Mars/Venus thing, but it’s an interesting debate nonetheless.

      • The feeling-like-they-have-to thing…man. I mean, it’s TRUE. It’s totally true and I see people wrestling with that all the time. And even among the highly educated, highly skilled, generally liberal people I know, women are much more likely than men to scale back their careers for a while in order to take care of children (which has impacts down the line in terms of salaries and job titles and so forth). And yet, and yet…

        And yet #1: Women feel they have to make this choice much more than men do, even though men are just as likely to be parents. Why is it that a woman gets pregnant and everyone starts wondering if she’ll still be at her job in six months, and no one asks her husband if he will be? Why is it that when I’m out without my kid people who know I HAVE a kid often ask me where she is (aka who’s with her), yet people NEVER ask my husband that when he’s out without her?

        And yet #2: My career is a million times better now that I have a kid. I’m ambitious and (mostly) focused and I have vision and creativity and a high profile and I had NONE OF THIS before I had her, and a lot of these things are directly traceable to the fact that I’m a mom now. We talk about the ways being a mom makes careers harder (which it totally does, enormously). But we assume it’s all conflict, all down side. It’s not.

  18. As a guy who got a job relatively quickly as a manager and in a tech-related position, here’s my .02:

    Of all the many managers in my system, four are men (two of us tech-related). Reference is about equally split. One guy in children’s librarianship (and they actively seek male floaters in that area as a result). Overall, I’d put our system at 90/10.

    I truly can’t see that I’ve gotten any special shake over my female classmates. Most of them make more than I do — the wages are THE reason I’m leaving the field at the end of the year — but almost all of them are also now married, which makes librarianship a more viable career option anyway.

    I never wanted to get any higher than I got, honestly. Looked like a big series of headaches and rubber-chicken dinners from where I sit.

    The previous head of my unit is a woman. My boss (and her boss and her boss’ boss) are all women.

    There probably is gender bias in librarianship, but it hasn’t been in my favor.

  19. Michael – the bias in your favor that you may have missed seeing may be getting hired so quickly in the first place. Salaries in librarianship are notoriously relatively low, even in hi-tech jobs. Those who make more than have probably been there much, much longer. So the fact that there are fewer men in the field may be because many men will not accept the relatively low pay.

    However, I’ve known a number of hi-tech librarian men who purposefully left the corporate environment (and higher pay) seeking one with less stress and greater security. Of course, with the increase of corporate leaders in our public institutions, this ability to trade high salaries for less stress may be a thing of the past.

    • Karen — Or maybe there wasn’t bias in this case. They’ve shown themselves more than happy to hire women for my position (the two previous coordinators are women). While I got a job relatively quickly, I wasn’t the first in my class — which, again, is overwhelmingly female. I am among the lowest paid, as far as I can tell, among my classmates who got jobs. I’ve stated before that there are many managers in my system and that only four of us are men. The director and all the top folks in admin are women. Seriously, isn’t it at least a little dishonest to push until something is found that could be a problem? And, as a point in fact, “much, much longer” isn’t necessarily the case for those making more; they’re in positions that are valued more in our system, like children’s librarianship and systems librarianship (almost all women in our system). As far as pay goes, I’m given to understand that I’m simply the latest of many who has found the low pay a deterrent to staying in the field, including our webmaster (a woman) who is making several times what she did for us, while traveling the world, working from home and focusing on things she likes to do. I *have* worked in fields where gender is an issue. In my system, I’m not seeing that’s the case.

  20. A little late to this conversation, but something I noticed from these posts is that the very fact of there being fewer males in the profession seems to make male candidates more desirable in efforts to level the playing field. This in turn puts the female candidates just entering the field at a disadvantage due to oversaturation.

    I feel like an easier way to tackle this issue would be looking at it on a micro rather than macro level: what if efforts were made to draw candidates from the scarce gender into specific areas of the field? Encouraging more women to go into tech, more men to go into children’s/YA services, etc. Unfortunately I don’t have much empirical evidence to add to this discussion, just some thoughts I had as I was reading others’ observations.

    Then again I’m not even sure this discussion is necessary given the fact that this female-dominated profession still fits into the general scope of a dominant American patriarchy (as evidenced by the people citing differences in pay, assuming men are managers, etc). At this point it seems the gender imbalance actually works to the advantage of men entering the field…but then again, maybe that’s further reason to even it out a little.

  21. Pingback: Guybrarians and Male Librarians | Pop Goes the Librarian

  22. You’re so cool! I don’t believe I’ve truly read anything like this before. So great to discover someone with original thoughts on this topic. Really.. thank you for starting this up. This site is something that’s
    needed on the internet, someone with some originality!

  23. Pingback: Librarians, Gender, and Tech: Moving the Conversation Forward | Exit, Pursued By A Bear

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