Last week I gave a talk at Internet Librarian for which I created a slide that highlighted the gender imbalances of various professions (see picture). I’ve worked in libraries my entire adult life, and yet I was still surprised by the gender imbalance in libraries — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 a stunning 86.2% of librarians were female.
And then it hit me.
I had been working much of my career in the rarified air of library technology, where the gender disparity is far different. I don’t have figures, but anecdotally it is almost flipped. And this needs to change. It doesn’t need to change for (simply) equity reasons, but because we need women in library technology. Diversity in your work force is a good thing. Diversity of perspectives, skills, experiences, and ways of working strengthen any organization.
When I was learning how to run rivers commercially in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I would often watch my colleagues as they ran difficult rapids. It soon became apparent to me who tended to be the best river guide. The best guide often was not who you thought they would be. We had guides who ranged from guys over 6 feet and 200 lbs. to women not much over 5 feet and light as a feather. It was the latter who tended to be among our best. This is why: they were forced to learn how rivers worked more thoroughly and with more nuance because they had to. They could not use brute strength to fix any problems they failed to detect beforehand.
So here’s the thing: finesse can prevent situations that brute force cannot extract you from. It was a lesson that many of us larger males learned the hard way. That’s about as far as I’ll go with pointing out how different perspectives and ways of working can help, since down that road lies the trouble that comes from attempting to point out gender differences as if there were monolithic and universal. They’re not, but they are still real.
Rather, I prefer to spend my time considering how we can change things. Here are just a few things we (and I mean me and you and you) could do to help:
- Work to change the culture. In many library tech situations, whether it is a chatroom or a server room, it’s still a men’s locker room atmosphere. The banter, the jokes, the assumed knowledge, all tends to be male based. We (and I mean me and you and you) need to work at tamping that down and opening it up. Not just for females, but for others who may not be privy to the inside jokes.
- Support and encourage women who try. It can be daunting to be one of the few females in a room (whether for real or virtual) full of men who are often full of themselves and their own accomplishments (I should know). Especially if you are new to the group. Lend a helping hand. Have her back. Provide advice when asked and support when needed.
- Recruit and support women who are interested. More women are interested in a tech career than care to survive the cultural gauntlet to make it. We (and I mean me and you and you) can help to change this.
- If you are well along in your career, mentor promising women. If you’ve been successful in technology librarianship you have knowledge, experience, and most importantly, connections. If you can use all of that on behalf of helping a tech-savvy woman advance in the profession, then we all benefit.
- Be verbose and inclusive with explanations, and spare with posturing. We’ve all been there. While learning something new, some much more experienced person drops an explanation on you that leaves almost everything of vital importance to the imagination. The idea is that if you don’t have the tenacity and the chops to stick it out then you’re not worthy. This is bullying, plain and simple. If you do it, cut it out. If you see it, jump in and help out.
There’s more we can do, I’m sure of it. But that’s a start. Let me know what you will do as a comment below.