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.