Gender, Librarian Commentary, and Organic Chemistry II

When I was an undergraduate, I majored in biology. I wrote a ton of lab reports in my time that all followed a basic outline: abstract (sometimes), introduction, hypothesis, method/procedure, results (a.k.a. raw data), discussion, and conclusion. The first sections are rather rote in their formulation as it is merely a restatement of the experiment’s grounding. The last section (conclusion) was just a summary of the previous sections, carefully remixed so as to avoid looking like a complete copy/paste job. The critical thinking skills, the actual learning process, came into play when you were writing the discussion section. This was where you talked about what went right and wrong with the experiment and offered suggestions on what could be changed the next time around.

For my stint in Organic Chemistry II, my lab reports were spent more on what went wrong than what went right, perhaps a foreshadowing to the existence of this blog. Very few of my lab sessions ended with the experiment landing in the correct range, color, or whatever proper measurement I was (in theory) supposed to attain. So, invariably, I would be sitting at a computer and faced with a data section that had to make sense of. I had results, but I wasn’t sure what to make of them.

I felt that way today when I did my own little observational inquiry. On the heels of the flurry of activity around #LibTechGender panel and discussions (oversimplified and probably unfair short version: discussions of gender, race, sexual orientation, and other attributes within the library world) at the ALA Midwinter Meeting, I did a simple census of the bloggers and columnists at the leading professional trade magazines, Library Journal and American Libraries. Here are my results:

  • American Libraries: 7 columnists. 2 women, 5 men.
  • Library Journal: 13 columnists. 3 women, 10 men.
  • Overall: 30 columnists. 5 women (25%), 15 men (75%).

I would have also stated that all of them were white, but that’s an inference based solely from their profile pictures. As a friend pointed out on Friendfeed, it’s not strictly proven but I’m comfortable making an educated guess. If I’m proven wrong later, so be it.

Based on what I have gathered, I’m not exactly sure what to make of the data. There are loads of other pertinent information (e.g. sexual orientation) that would slide people into categories that have been discriminated against (or more discriminated against, if you prefer). It’s a vastly incomplete picture as it relates to having a meaningful discussion on the broader LibTechGender kinds of issues.

However, based on prima facie (thank you, one year of law school), the basic gender math doesn’t jibe. Using the ALA self reporting demographic survey (yes, I concede there are data collection issues with this), it turns the 80% female-20% male statistic on its head. It’s a female dominant profession in which the paid professional commentary is based mainly out of male viewpoints.  While I can’t conclude a lot of other things from my tiny data set, I can make that statement comfortably. These are the two main sources of professional information with in the librarian world. This reminds me of a very old discussion thread I remember in the Library Society of the World forums in which the question was raised about why so many men are given keynote or other prominent speaking slots. I wouldn’t imagine that the columnists and bloggers for those two publications would strictly follow the gender breakdown percentages, but to be completely inverted? Why is that?

That last question is mostly rhetorical; I am aware of the prevailing obstacles that keep women from participating in professional forums and activities. In limiting it to the data and discussion that I have here, I’m left with a few non-rhetorical questions: where does this data lead us? What else needs to discovered, considered, or otherwise measured? What’s the next level of inquiry that needs to take place? Personally, I don’t know. I really just don’t. I need to think on it for a long while.

I’ll close with this quote from a blog post by Chris Bourg that I made me think when I first read it:

We are a painfully homogenous profession – librarianship is overwhelmingly white and female, and library technology is overwhelmingly white and male. Gender bias and imbalance is a problem; but so too is racial underrepresentation. Librarianship didn’t just end up so white by accident, and it won’t change without radical and active interventions.  And I think we need to stop throwing our hands up and declaring it a “pipe-line” problem, and we need to throw our collective professional weight and expertise behind addressing those structural pipe-line problems.

And no, I don’t have specifics right now; but I know that there are people who have been working on this and who have experience and expertise to share, but whose voices we have not prioritized or amplified.  We need to do our research and we need to listen and learn.  And I trust that if we made social justice a true priority of librarianship – and not just one of our core values that we trot out from time to time – we could make some headway on creating & sustaining a more diverse workforce across libraries and library technology. But honestly, at some point we probably need to stop talking about it, and start listening and then start doing.