April 20, 2024

Fostering Female Technology Leadership in Libraries

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.

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. I understand the point of this piece is to highlight an issue, bring it into focus, and get people talking about the topic. I do, I do get that you are trying to be helpful. But the problem with men writing about this topic is that they literally have no idea on what it’s like being a woman in tech, so they guess. They have stories, and they have papers, and research and second hand experiences, but personal one on one experience? No. Cannot compre. Actually being treated as a second class citizen, dealing with sexual and verbal harassment, and other kind of abuse and profanity because you have boobs and a high voice? No.

    Here’s the thing – your ideas to change the “women in technology” culture are best condescending and at worst, patronizing.

    I don’t need someone to tamper down their jokes, encourage me specifically as I’m a woman, or “Be verbose and inclusive with explanations” (You do realize this is a fancy way of saying dumbing it down?).

    I don’t want or need special treatment. I want to be treated with respect and as my due right of having this knowledge and skills that I have earned on my own accord. I don’t *need* your help busting down the glass ceiling, what I do need is to be treated like a human being and not as special science project.


  2. Lisa, I get that as part of the privileged class I cannot possibly know what you’re going through as part of the oppressed class. Whites who joined with Black Americans to fight against racial segregation heard the very same thing, and just as legitimately. I get that. But unfortunately, until the privileged class takes up the fight it is too easy for others to continue to dismiss and marginalize the oppressed.

    It is disturbing, and yet true, that for many in the privileged class in this country they simply didn’t even begin to understand racial oppression until a white person impersonated a black person and wrote a book about his experiences. “Black Like Me” made it real for many whites (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Like_Me ) in a way that no black could in quite the same way. This isn’t to denigrate black (or female) voices, only to point out that it is the perspectives and contributions from _all_ that are needed, not just the oppressed. What you write will speak to some, and what I write will speak to others, and they are all pieces of the solution.

    You say that “I don’t need someone to tamper down their jokes…” and yet I’ve heard the opposite from other female colleagues — that such jokes create a hostile environment for women. For now, I’m still with them. And as for “dumbing down”, that is a gripe of mine overall — for anyone — and I included it here unfortunately not as a female-only thing, but as something that discourages newbies of any gender. Since it is discouraging to anyone new to technology, it is just another barrier that women have to overcome that shouldn’t have to. No one should have to.

    Any of us who labor to make things better want the future that you describe in your last paragraph. But the fact of the matter is that we aren’t there yet, or else I wouldn’t have to write this post to begin with. You aren’t a “special science project”. What you are is a member of an oppressed class who needs to be treated equally. And until you are, I will continue writing about it, talking to my colleagues about it, and taking criticism and kudos for it. If I can’t accept both with equanimity then I shouldn’t be doing this. But I can, and will. I work so that one day I won’t have to.

    • Roy:
      I agree with most of what you have stated above. However, keep in mind that your experiences in relation to women in you life is not indicative to all women, just as my experience is not indicative of all women. I very often forget that, so my apologies for not clarifying in you my earlier post.

      I would also be extremely careful with providing discussion on this topic, in the sense of facilitating it as a champion and speaking out for “all” women. Broad stroke generalizations, which I’m just as guilty of I will whole heartedly admit, in your post is what gnashed my teeth. Like your list of “ToDos”, because the treatment of human beings should be inclusive of all, not just some. And it is by this ToDo list that made me feel like a science project to be petted and poked, not a human who should stand to be your equal.

      Hopefully this makes my position more clear.


  3. I’m sorry, but I just can’t agree with the gist of this article.

    I was a programmer for more than a decade, working in corporate America. When the dotcom boom hit, there was a huge effort to get more women into the profession. Women flocked to computer science programs, but most never finished them, or simply didn’t remain in the profession for long. I worked with a number who did, but they were in the minority.

    It wasn’t because of a “locker room atmosphere.”
    It wasn’t because of a “good old boys club.”

    Ultimately, it got down to this: most hardcore tech work requires long hours of silence, concentration, and solitude. There isn’t much human interaction, and when it is necessary, it’s usually brief and to the point. The hours tend to be long, and many techies (particularly programmers) often have to work nights and weekends with little to no advance notice. The the tech world is a meritocracy, where knowledge is far more valuable than people skills. Acquisition of skills on one’s own time is the norm.

    Most women don’t want to work under those conditions. They want human contact, time with their families, and a more multifaceted life. They don’t want to spend 5-10 hours every weekend reading tech manuals.

    In addition, most successful tech folks originally spent years doing this stuff as a hobby. If you want to find more women who will make good techies, look to the female hobbyists. Spending 4 years on a computer science degree is not going to make anyone successful – they have to put in massive amounts of personal time to even hope to be competitive.

    Women are just as capable of doing tech work as men. They are just as intelligent and able to learn. The thing is, most simply don’t want to live that life or put in the ongoing time necessary to stay current. There’s nothing wrong with that, either.

    People who want to get into tech work can do so. Since it’s a meritocracy, most tech guys respect women who can hold their own.

    By the way, where are all the cries to get more men into traditional women’s jobs?

  4. >Lisa, I get that as part of the privileged
    >class I cannot possibly know what you’re
    >going through as part of the oppressed class

    Women have not been an “oppressed class” for a long time now. They have equal legal rights, and are readily accepted in most professions. When looking at the broader picture, men are no longer more “privileged” than women.

    The lower numbers of women in the sciences and engineering is largely due to a difference in what men and women tend to find interesting. There are far fewer male elementary teachers than female ones – is this a crisis that needs to be addressed with a big recruiting drive?

    • James, As a husband and the father of two daughters, now 19, I can state unequivocally that you are so wrong I can’t see straight. Let’s talk pay equity, or those who still want to take away their right to control what happens to their bodies, or objectification in the media, or body image projection that has teenagers throwing up or refusing to eat in order to achieve what they’ve been led to believe is what is required of them. Meanwhile, despite the fact that women outnumber men, we HAVE YET to elect a female President.

      AND, we STILL have not added the simple statement that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” to our Constitution. And why would that be? The facts are clear. Despite making some gains as a society, there have been setbacks, and still much needs to be accomplished before gender equality is a reality.

      One final thing — as men, we don’t get to say when equality has been achieved. Do you get that?

    • James:

      Women make 77 cents for every male dollar. When we make one for one, we’ll then not be oppressed.
      When I am not asked when I plan on starting a family during job interviews, then we’ll not be oppressed.
      When I’m standing in a computer store with my husband, when I request assistance on something and I’m ignored in favor of my husband, we’ll not be oppressed.

      When I receive emails from vendors on how to rack a server and the instructions include, “press the big blinky green button”, we will not be oppressed.

      And so on. And so forth.

    • I have yet to see a study that compares the income of men and women that includes all the variables. These include willingness to work long hours with little to no warning, unbroken years of experience (without years chopped off to raise children), aggressiveness in pursuing higher pay and better jobs, etc. Unless all the variables are included, you can’t say that women make 77 cents on the dollar vs. men when effort, dedication, and career development aggressiveness are equal.

      >When I am not asked when I plan on starting
      >a family during job interviews, then we’ll not be oppressed.

      Are you saying that is a normal question during job interviews in 2012, or just one that you have heard before? When I applied to work in a daycare center years ago, I was told (by several of them) that they can’t hire men for direct care work of that nature. Does that make men an oppressed minority, too?

      >When I’m standing in a computer store
      >with my husband, when I request assistance
      >on something and I’m ignored in favor of my
      >husband, we’ll not be oppressed.

      Do you demand the attention? When men don’t get what they want, they usually speak up. If you are passive about such things, that behavior will continue.

      >When I receive emails from vendors on
      >how to rack a server and the instructions include,
      >“press the big blinky green button”, we will not be oppressed.

      I get that, too. Vendors don’t always behave well. I set them straight very quickly. Do you?

    • >Let’s talk pay equity, or those who still
      >want to take away their right to control
      >what happens to their bodies,

      Men who object to routine circumcision are often ridiculed and shouted down. That’s control of our bodies.

      There are quite a number of conservation women who want to control other women’s bodies, as well. The misbehavior of the conservative right does not equal complete societal oppression.

      >or objectification in the media,

      Everybody gets objectified in the media.

      >or body image projection that has teenagers
      >throwing up or refusing to eat in order to achieve
      >what they’ve been led to believe is what is
      >required of them.

      Women are just as bad as men about criticizing other women’s bodies.

      >Meanwhile, despite the fact that women
      >outnumber men, we HAVE YET to elect
      >a female President.

      I have yet to see a good female candidate make a massive push to become president. When one does, I’ll vote for her, if she’s liberal. Things don’t get handed to anyone, though – a woman candidate needs to work just as hard as a male one to get there.

      >AND, we STILL have not added the simple
      >statement that “Equality of rights under the law
      >shall not be denied or abridged by the United States
      >or by any state on account of sex” to our Constitution.

      That does need to be added, but amended to “…on account of sex, orientation, gender, or ethnicity.”

      >still much needs to be accomplished before
      >gender equality is a reality.

      Along with that comes equal responsibility. Men are given far harsher sentences in court than women, on average. They still have a harder time winning child custody. They are typically presumed guilty on rape charges. Alimony still exists. Male rape victims are treated worse than female ones, and male rape jokes are not as vilified. Men tend to be held to far stricter gender roles. Female homosexuals and bisexuals are more accepted than male ones. On and one. We don’t have gender equality yet, but women are no more oppressed than men are – the good and bad evens out.

      >One final thing — as men, we don’t get to say
      >when equality has been achieved. Do you get that?

      Nor do women get to say when equality is achieved for us.

  5. Um, yeah.

    Grew up in the 60’s. In the South. Kudos, Roy, for bringing this stuff up. Again. And for asking for input.

    Lisa: show the respect you demand. You have some good points, and you have some issues that are getting in the way of those points.

    (1) As a matter of fact, people like Roy DO, indeed, have an idea of what it is like. There are people out there that happen to be of the male gender that do *get it* and not from stories or papers or research. Dismissing their sensitivity, which might be gained through a wife, sister, daughter, mother, or whatever, does not further the goal of fixing the imbalance.

    (2) yes, special treatment is not what you (or I) want or need. But that is not what Roy is talking about.

    (3) yes, respect would fix the problem. So what should respect look like here? That is the question, I think, that needs answering.

    For me, respect looks like a lot of the things Roy suggests, but then, I advocate those for everyone, not just women. One of the things I would like to see focused on more is the banter, jokes, and language. Someone once suggested to me, “If you wouldn’t say it in front of your 5 year old, don’t say it.” Someone else suggested “First, do no harm. It’s a lot easier to not offend than to repair the damage.” If the culture that perpetuates male domination of the tech side of libraries (or the tech field, for that matter) requires jokes, banter, and language that is potentially offensive to women (which it often is), then it is time to change that culture. Thanks, Roy, for starting the conversation, and being an advocate for change.


    • Carol:

      I don’t think I was being disrespectful. Brusque, sure, but not disrespectful.

      1. You’re right in the sense of that i dismissed his sensitivity, of which was not my intent. But I still feel like his approach was too heavy handed.

      2. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this – his ToDo list directing behavior specifically towards women, not all of human kind.

      3.That’s a good question. One that deserves more of a concrete answer then the near midnight is willing to give me right now.


    • Let’s see if we can steer the conversation away from me and how I may have stated things to solutions. This is _so_ not about me, and I don’t want to lose sight of the goal by arguing down in the weeds about things that don’t matter a hill of beans. I don’t need my ego stroked, I need a solution to the problem — or obviously many solutions. Let’s work on those and #makeithappen.

    • Roy:

      How about you start doing local initiatives to get women more involved in tech, whether in your own company or within your community? Then encourage others to start doing the same. In addition, how about you start interviewing or working with women outside of your own network (connect with others via others) to see what their experience is like for them and help them get their voices off the ground so that all voices can be heard and your experiences with women in tech will not be relegated to just the women you know?

      How about encouraging LibraryJournal to be more inclusive to women in tech by having these discussions being more open and ongoing rather than just in a blog format that will be forgotten by most in a day or a week?

      Here are some solutions. What else do you have to offer?

  6. So, I’ll go ahead and identify myself as someone driven well away from library IT by locker-room atmospheres I encountered in some corners of it — once or twice as target, usually as bystander, a couple of times as someone who (given my rather rhinoceroslike physical presence) has been chosen as a refuge by women being harassed at conferences. Worse, I’ve seen men in library IT defend indefensibly sexist and homophobic behavior.

    (Out of respect for Roy, I’m not pulling any of that filth into his comments. Besides, I’m not fond of recalling it, nor writing about it. It makes me angry. Still.)

    I — I personally, not speaking for all women — want that stuff to stop. I don’t want my library-school students running into it (much less being encouraged to perpetrate it) when they graduate. I appreciate Roy’s continuing efforts to make it stop. He’s done more than I have about it; I am grateful.

    To answer Roy’s question: I’ve taken to introducing myself to library-school students as “Hi, I’m Dorothea. All things geeky are mine!” It’s hyperbole (I have a year to teach myself enough Ruby on Rails to scrape by teaching a web-programming course…), but it’s useful hyperbole. Students don’t expect one of the school’s main tech instructors to be — well, me. Nor do they entirely expect how enthusiastic I am about it, much less that I have very little formal tech training. Makes ’em think.

  7. I’m a librarian who works in I.T. for a publishing company and in general I find that men in technology much more understanding, supportive, and respectful towards women than the many other areas. That said, there is a long way to go. I especially support the idea of mentoring and encouragement presented here.

  8. As an MLIS student with a background in CS, I really dislike the gender disparity in both fields. Being in the minority isn’t fun and I’ve definitely been in situations where a male programmer made me uncomfortable without him realizing that he was doing so. But for all we need to fix the gender problems in tech, I think we also need to fix the gender disparity in the library. That said, the issues around women in tech are often more extreme and behaviors absolutely need to change apart from even shifting the gender balance.

    I wish I had a magic bullet to fix this, but instead I’ll echo some of the comments from earlier. We need respect. We need mentorship. We need those in the majority to be conscious of how they are treating those in the minority. And we need to keep having these conversations.

  9. I find an interesting exercise in many debates is to look for a variable to change that would benefit both sides. Yes, we need more women in library tech. Yes, women can do the work. Yes, the culture can be alienating. And yes, the hours one devotes to it are outrageous, and this is undoubtedly a factor in some people’s decision making process. So if we just made it a less outrageously difficult field to participate in (including the dropping of the requirement to behave like an emotionless android), wouldn’t that solve a lot of problems? I know I’m not the only one who has trouble recruiting for a skill set I need, because we really do have a skill shortage in some areas. And yet in other parts of librarianship I hear that people have trouble finding work! What paths can we build from one group to the other? Can we make it a little more enticing than “After you get home, and get dinner on the table, and get the kids to bed, then study some more.” Because that is our current talent recruitment pitch.

    From the other side, I have trouble recruiting among the silicon valley set because I can’t offer stock options. So as long as I’m competing with money, I can’t compete. But what if I compete on happiness? Right now Apple is forcing its GIS team to work seven days per week indefinitely, and firing those who refuse. This is where the “I work any hours as long as you pay me more” mentality takes you. I think employers who focused on quality of life issues, like being home for dinner every night, in lieu of outrageous salaries, might improve their talent recruitment odds on all fronts.

    • ” we really do have a skill shortage in some areas. And yet in other parts of librarianship I hear that people have trouble finding work! What paths can we build from one group to the other? ”

      Good question, Bess.

      I know a fair amount of women outside of libraries, and not in programming jobs, who jump into volunteer tech projects, learning as they go (O.K., I know men who do that, too). Why isn’t it happening more in libraryland? What paths *can* we build? What are the obstacles, perceived and/or real?

      I will note that the volunteer tech groups I’ve experienced have been very much gender-neutral communities, but my experience with local groups may be the exception.

    • Loving the what-paths question.

      In talking to people who have been (mostly unsuccessfully) working their way through CodeYear, one of the things that kept coming up was protected time — they didn’t have time at work they could devote to it, so, as you say, they had to study after a long day — which just doesn’t work for an endeavour that needs your brain to be fully on. I’d like to spend some time exploring the obstacles to providing (or asking for?) that sort of protected time in library workplaces.

      I think there’s also often a problem of being the only one. Lots of tech people are the only one at their institutions, so they’re responsible for the creation *and* the maintenance *and* the advocacy *and*…well, yeah. And if you’re the one at your institution *and you’re just starting to learn* — what do you do when you hit a roadblock? Tech learning is profoundly more social than we usually give it credit for, and we need ways to connect people to social spheres that support and onramp newbies (or bring middle-skilled people to the next level). And it seems like we’ve got bits and pieces of this, with code4lib and LITA (and I cochair an interest group in LITA for precisely this purpose, though I’m still figuring out the most effective way to go about that), but it seems like it could all be more comprehensive.

      How to do this stuff is pretty much what takes up the entire back of my brain these days…

    • I think one perceived obstacle is the expectation that if you really cared about it, or had the aptitude, you would spend more of your free time volunteering with projects, open source, community, etc. And I say this as someone who has done a lot of volunteering with projects! I’m a big supporter of that, and I’m so glad there are so many good ones around. But notice the distinction between participating in them and participating in them on your own time. One thing that has not changed yet is that women bear disproportionately the burden of unpaid work in the family and in the household. Unpaid work is often work we do for love, but many of us already have PLENTY of work we do for love! I know it sounds radical in the current funding climate, but since the open source and open culture communities are so exciting and compelling, could we start building participation into job descriptions? So it counts as work time? Do we care enough about this to allow on the job training? Or would that project always get relegated to last place on everyone’s priority list, so we’re back in the position of expecting people to do in their spare time, only now it’s a job requirement?

      Also: We should write to the Ada Initiative and ask them for ideas. http://adainitiative.org

    • ++ on the Ada Initiative — they’re great.

      And yes, work time. The crush of urgent things vs. important things has been on my mind a lot too…the realization that Google’s 20% time, it’s not just a way to attract and retain creative people, it’s carving out time the urgent everyday is not allowed to touch *because that’s the only way you have space to invent the future*. Libraries often seem so consumed by their workflows that they don’t have time to invent the future. And this would be a way to carve that out.

      I wonder, though, if credentialism is a problem? Participating in open source, building your skills that way — it’s not something that gives you a certificate. Wonder if that’s an impediment, especially when you might need subsequently to be hired by people who are themselves not technologists, and thus might not know how to read the skillsets imparted by participation?

      I really loathe credentialism, but if we need to find ways to formally recognize skills in order to incentivize employers to protect time for them, well, let’s do that…

    • Bess said: “I know I’m not the only one who has trouble recruiting for a skill set”

      The last big IT position I held was as a senior network engineer at WorldCom (now MCI) before I left to finish my undergraduate in 2002. Upon graduation in 2005, when I went looking for works in my field (humanities/english), I was rejected time and again because my background was so heavy in IT, I was told over and over that I was going to leave $entrylevelposition to head back to IT land. So I went and got my first masters, finished it and went looking for jobs. Same thing as before. Went and obtained my MLIS, got out and saw all of these library systems jobs looking for people with heavy IT backgrounds.

      Annnd guess what? Nearly the same thing happened for the third time. Out of 114 applications and over 45+ interviews, one of the top reasons I would be rejected was the mindset I would be leaving to head back to the IT world. Which, at this point, is now 10 years in my past since my last IT job. [I’ve heard of similar experiences from men AND women who have similiar positions as me.]

      I’m a systems & web librarian at a local community college and the (at least the main one) reason why I was hired was because my boss, who is also a big computer geek, saw me as a younger version of herself. I came prepared with over a decade of professional IT experience + many, many years of my own hacking about that can never, ever be taught in library school.

      I definitely don’t think I’m alone in this, on any IT level, but I think that libraries have this invisible line when it comes IT they are afraid to cross. Either they don’t know what to ask for, they don’t know what they need, or they want EVERYTHING (because it all sounds good, right?) but don’t know how to ask for it or just assume we’ll be grateful for a job at this rate. So coming into a job interview, no one either knows how to answer my questions or they ask me things that are unrelated to the job.

  10. I lucked into a web/IT job within a library setting with little to no experience beyond my general interest in the topic. And even with a strong woman’s studies background in college and a strong feminist mindset, I found this article to be comforting and inspiring, not condescending or patronizing.

    I am extremely lucky to work with two men who have great social skills and who make me feel welcome and included in all aspects of the department, even when I am in way over my head. (This is not to say that I am not smart or that I do not bring my own valuable skillset to the table. It is just to say that there are things that I do not know and I am not made to feel stupid because of it.)

    But I have also worked with men who saw my lack of experience as a major flaw, who had no interest in working as a team and who generally wanted to speak to me solely in grunts. If these were the people I had to work with on daily basis, I would seek employment elsewhere, and most likely not in the IT department. Just saying.

  11. Karen Coyle says:

    The first step for men in technology is none of the ones above. The first step is to renounce the privileges that men enjoy. Equality means equality, and you can’t have it both ways: to be equal none of us can be privileged, and that means that some men (maybe many men) will feel a pinch if not a punch.

    Roy, I worked with you, although never closely (we were at opposite ends of the office, physically at least). Your enjoyment of privilege may have just seemed like “business as usual” to you, but I can say that it was quite visible. So the question is: are you ready and willing to be equal? To give up that extra bit of status that comes with having a Y chromosome? And even if you are, will the privilege go away? Not without effort, because it’s more outside you than inside you. It’s kind of like Mitt Romney saying he’d like to provide day care for single mothers so they can go to work; does he really think that’s the answer to the question of poverty? I don’t see him offering to live on their salary. You can’t “help” women — you have to change everyone and everything.

    When we’ve tried for equality (ERA, etc.) men have complained that it isn’t fair for women to get “help.” They’ve never complained about the help they get. So I say: look at your own life, your own rewards, and ask if they are fair. If you find some that aren’t, then speak up about those. Take apart the tower of privilege from the top, but be prepared to find yourself with less of view.

    • +1 (times infinity)

    • Karen, the fact that you think you know me is laughable. Indeed I have “given up privilege” as you put it. For but one example, I voluntarily left the LITA Top Tech Trends panel to make way for the committee to add more women, a number of whom I nominated in the process, and subsequently when the panel at one conference was again male-heavy I complained about at the session. I notice that they’ve largely been better about it since.

      But again, the attempt by you and others to make this about me is only damaging the conversation. It isn’t about me, it’s about all of us and what we can all do to change the situation. If that’s really what you want as well, then tackling the tough questions is more important than slinging mud.

      For example, you write about “renouncing the privileges that men enjoy”, but what, exactly, does that look like? If I get a request to speak, did I get that because I’m male or because I’m good? How are we as men supposed to parse that?

      The way I’ve attempted to do it is to advocate for women being everywhere I am or that I have any influence over. Changing “everyone and everything” sounds good but it isn’t something I can do alone. What I can do alone are the things I have been doing on a daily basis. It is those things we should be talking about — the kind of daily things men can do to change “everyone and everything” over time and the things women can do to help us do it. Insulting one of your best allies in the struggle hardly seems like a helpful strategy.

    • Karen Coyle says:

      Roy, you’ll have to find your own renouncing, but it’s clear that you still don’t understand. Let me put it as neutrally as possible: let’s say we have a world in which a few people earn $1M a year, and a lot of people earn $10K. What does equality look like? It isn’t going to look like everyone earning $1M a year. It doesn’t even look like encouraging those folks making $10K to take a few classes. Creating more equality is going to make a big difference for those used to $1M a year. But who, of the folks who make $1M/yr wants to give up a lot so that others can do better? If you think it’s just a question of encouraging those poor $10K folks to take a class, you are missing the point. So while this analogy used the measurable quantity of money, there is a similar analogy that could be written that talks of power and privilege. It’s much harder to quantify, both in terms of fairness and in terms of goals, but “equal” is going to be a step down for anyone who has had certain social privileges in the past.

      This isn’t about who gets on panels at ALA, it’s about things that are much, much more important. It’s about wanting fairness even when it really hurts. And it’s not about YOU but YOU brought it up and what you suggest is NOT a solution. So I’m telling you that.

  12. Roy,

    I don’t think you quite grasp the concept that as a white (assuming based on your picture) male, you are the epitome of the hierarchy of privilege in the world. So yes, this is *about* you and it’s not about you at the very same time. This is NOT, at least never my intent, to “mudsling” anything at you.

    What I am doing is pointing out what I feel are either bothersome or inaccurate statements in your post. I do find it highly fascinating that several women have said to you, “You know, we dig WHY you’re laying down here but we don’t agree with it for these reasons” only to have you tell me, tell us that how we perceive the world, the VERY experiences that you want to help make better, are wrong/inaccurate/fuzzy/whatever.

    You feel like you’re doing us a big service because you’re championing as you call it “the oppressed,” and we’re telling you this is how we want things to change and you’re choosing to ignore it. I gave you solutions at the top on how to start changing the conversation, which you also choose to ignore.

    To sum, if as a woman, in tech, I’m telling you that I find what you’re trying to sell to be just as problematic as inequality of women as a whole, and you tell me my intent is to make you look bad and how dare I criticize you?

    Do you not at least see the problem with what you’re doing? No matter how sensitive you feel you are or how much you feel you are doing a good thing(tm) to bringing this conversation to the public as a whole, your IMMEDIATE dismissal of anyone who disagrees with you and your statements that we’re mudslinging at you make you seem like an entitled jerk.

    Thanks, but no thanks.


  13. O.K., I’m seeing some pointless attacks on the messenger, and some good discussion about paths forward. Personally, I’d like to get back to the latter. The messenger happens to have a soapbox here, which he has used to initiate a conversation.

    What I’m hearing is that women here are not happy, either, about the gender disparity. I’m interested in hearing more about what institutions can do to reverse the situation. I like the suggestion about incorporating the “Google 20%” thing. Are there libraries out there that do that?

    What else can institutions do, and how can they be guided/directed/encouraged/forced? into doing the right thing? ;)

    • Karen Coyle says:

      I think a big question is what we can do *legally* in the US, because most public institutions cannot actually try to hire more women officially. We could wish that suddenly everyone would have a brain transplant and would not see technology as “masculine” and men as “heroes”. (See my piece http://kcoyle.net/howhard.html) We could “ask” managers to promote women based on some rational assessment of skills (which we do not currently have and I don’t know how we’d develop). We could begin a campaign in libraries for departments to take a look at their gender mix and do some “self criticism.” (Remember the Harvard math department case? Or the similar one at UC where it took qualified women 7 years in court to get the tenure they deserved?) Above all, we could start a conversation that makes it safer for women to come out against unfairness. But there is still the risk of backlash for a woman who speaks out, so we (and by we I mainly mean “we women”) need to be prepared to also tell our stories and to support those women who step forward. It’s like the struggle that rape victims have gone through, except that in this case the violence is against ones sense of self, not ones body.

      The reason why I hate things like “mentor more women” is that it can be cruel to mentor women unless the job opportunities are also there. Nothing like giving someone hope, then being passed up for promotion, right? So you really do not want to undertake mentoring unless you are also willing and able to promote women into positions where they can use their skills. And “mentoring”, while it is useful for all beginners in all fields, has an assumption that women are not progressing because they do not have the skills. I think there are plenty of women with good skills who have been left behind unfairly.

      We should also all work to make women more visible. When I worked at UC on the MELVYL project, I did an analysis of the staff, and it turned out that throughout the development of that system, one of the first online union catalogs (beg. 1982 until about 2000), from 2/3 to 3/4 of the technical staff was female. That includes DBAs, programmers, data designers, etc. Yet when I stood up in front of audiences and said: “Melvyl is a system designed by women” people (mainly men) in the audience recoiled. There was a lot of anger aimed at me. But if the stats had been reversed and someone had said, “Melvyl is a system designed by men” probably few would have batted an eye. We need to stand up and say: “Women did this!” It’s the only way that we will be visible. And to do that you have to be prepared to hear a lot of hate. (Yes, I get hate mail from men, still, whenever I speak out. Not particularly on gender issues, but if I espouse a strongly technical position. And not once has anyone come to my defense in public, although I get backchannel kudos from men who are afraid to speak out. I also know women who will not post out of fear of such attacks. This is the culture that has to change, but I don’t think there is any simple solution.)

    • >We could “ask” managers to promote women
      >based on some rational assessment of skills
      >(which we do not currently have and I don’t
      >know how we’d develop).

      Develop them the way most IT people do – by spending a significant amount of your free time on an ongoing basis teaching yourself, and disciplining yourself to work long hours without a lot of human interaction.

      IT work is like working as a lawyer or doctor. There is a huge sacrifice of time that has to be made to make it a career. That’s why it usually pays well. Where lawyers and doctors tend to interact with others a lot, though, IT work is largely solitary. You work all the time, mostly by yourself (even if others are sitting near you). That isn’t appealing to a lot of women in our society. Those that don’t mind it tend to be just as good at their jobs as men – they’re just few and far between.

      I was a corporate programmer for about a decade, did it on a contract basis for at least 5 more years, and have ended up being the IT person for the 10 years I have been a librarian. I have worked with some very intelligent and skilled women in the IT field. There is nothing limiting a woman from going into IT other than her desire to do the work, develop the skills, and adopt the lifestyle necessary for it.

      It would be wonderful if most IT jobs were limited to 40 hours a week, and massive amounts of training were provided by the companies and institutions for which they work. That’s never going to happen, though, because of limitations in budgets and the realities of money and profits.

      “Equality” doesn’t mean that each gender occupies 50% of the jobs in a given profession. An imbalance is not necessarily a problem. Men and women tend to flock to different professions, for many reasons. You can’t change what people like and dislike. I haven’t heard many people bemoan that relative scarcity of men in children’s librarianship positions.

      Success in any profession or business comes from dedication, hard work, and aggressive career development moves. In some professions, long hours are a necessity. In some, heavy people contact is a necessity – in others, the ability to be happy working alone is. The most important thing from a career standpoint is being aggressive about getting what you want – passivity is your worst enemy.

  14. Karen Coyle says:

    Oh, just found this again: Jeffrey Beall making fun of Diane Hilmann and I because we promote semantic web technologies (note that no men are made fun of in this video):

    In the end, history will show that Diane and I were way out ahead of the curve on SemWeb and Linked Data. Now the question is: when that history is written, will we be in it? See:


    • FWIW, As far as I can tell Beall spreads his hatred regardless of gender. I’ve been the target of it many times, as have other males. The fact that no men were made fun of in that video may be that no men in libraries rose to the level of you and Diane in terms of champions of the semantic web.

  15. Karen Coyle says:

    Roy, Yes, Beall is a nasty piece of work. The real question, though, is whether the same visibility that made Diane and I a target of his hate will also make us visible when people look back at this time of development of linked data. How do we women who are active and inventive avoid the invisibility that has been the lot of women in science and technology for so very long? I think that at least part of the solution is for women to speak up for themselves, and for everyone to speak up for women. For that to happen, first we all, men and women, have to *see* women. There’s a really great book by Joanna Russ called “How to Suppress Women’s Writing.” She’s a writer so that’s what she focused on, but much of what she covers can stand in any profession: “She didn’t really do it; a man did it for her.” “She was just copying what a man had done.” “She did it, but it was so easy anyone could have done it.” “She did it, but it wasn’t really very good.” If you read Russ’s book you start seeing these mechanisms all over the place. There are a number of articles by men explaining why it’s not really the case that Ada Lovelace invented the algorithm, although anyone can decide for themselves from her own writings — but what’s interesting is the effort that is made to refute it. I haven’t seen anyone trying to claim that Grace Hopper didn’t invent the operating system since there doesn’t seem to be much doubt; therefore, it just isn’t discussed. (She was criticized for making a nuisance of herself by going around telling everyone how useful it would be to have a computer operating system. Once she’d done it, silence reigned.) There are myriad ways to make women invisible. Remember the case of Hedi Lamarr and the invention of spread spectrum? I was on the EFF “Pioneers” committee when this fact was brought to our attention and someone (a man) felt strongly that we give her the award. The discussions were fascinating, to say the least. First we had to learn that Hedi Lamarr really was a brilliant inventor. That took a couple of rounds for all of us. Then, many on the committee were afraid that it would look too much like EFF exploiting her “pin-up” status to get press attention. Fortunately, we were able to reach a consensus that 1) she had indeed invented (with Antheil) something very important in the computer field and 2) being beautiful didn’t negate that.

    We do need to encourage women, but I think that getting due credit for their work, and seeing other women getting such credit, will be the best encouragement of all. We women can toot our own horns, but that’s generally considered improper (for men and women). So how about everyone take an action to be sure that women in your library or institution get credit where credit is due. “Thanks to Mary, who found this bug that we hadn’t noticed.” “The group headed by Jane just developed some important new software.” “I got this idea from hearing Jennifer talk about…” My gut feeling is that more men get these kinds of informal “attentions” than women, and it’s about camaraderie — that is, we’re all buddies here. Let’s add women to the “buddies” group. I’ve been careful not to report things like bugs or basic program awkwardnesses on public lists because I don’t want to put men to the defensive, yet I see men doing it and the response is usually “Thanks for catching that.” I think men are less defensive amongst themselves, but rather touchy at having a woman point out an error. We want it to be safe for women to do that so that everyone can see their contribution. I admit that I have at times used men friends as confederates when having trouble getting my ideas heard. In one multi-year working group, my confederate would wait a suitable amount of time after my suggestion was soundly nixed (out of a dozen, there were only two women, and one was rather quiet — not me, obviously), he would re-suggest it, it would be accepted, and the work would go on. I would like the upcoming generations of women to not have to do that.

  16. Nonamouse says:

    Woooowww, that escalated quickly. Do we all have chips on our shoulders? – Yes. Is it easy to take it out on someone online? – Yes.

    Instead of attacking why not take a step back from the keyboard, take some deep breaths, and work together. You all obviously want the same results, more or less. I’m all for debate and conversation, but you need to take the personal attacks out if you want to make any progress.

  17. Let me take this in a slightly different direction. I’m someone who has first hand experience of some of the unpleasantness that a woman in library IT can encounter at the hands of the old boys’ club mentality. Part of it is definitely an overall culture where men explain things to women, and women stand for it. But in libraries I think that often the root of the problem is how we delineate so strictly between the IT functions in a library setting and the “librarian” functions. At least in public libraries, as long as IT stuff is kept separate from library stuff in terms of the division of labor, you’ll be hard pressed not to have some level of “us vs. them”. And when one field is predominantly male while the other is overwhelmingly female, gender issues are bound to rear their ugly heads. I generally think that changing this is going to have to be a function of blurring the line between what makes someone an IT person and what makes them a librarian. Honestly, librarians are going to have to expand their ideas of how much technological knowledge is part of their profession.

  18. Rebecca Tolley-Stokes says:

    Some people chose to devote hours to learning IT skills whether it be as a hobbyist or in an formal educational setting. Likewise with other “high-paying” jobs mentioned by others such as medicine and law. Both of those professions were traditionally male and men working in those jobs were successful 24/7 on-call physicians and rainmaking lawyers brilliant at bilking their clients for billable hours because they were either single, had a partner at home taking care of their family & household, or had enough $$$ to pay staff to manage those caretaking activities. Perhaps this is/was the case with IT workers as well. But the argument made about women not wanting to invest the time or spend the time it takes to do IT is erroneous and overlooks the fact that women (and men as well) have many other roles outside of the workplace forcing our hands in choosing the work we do. It’s not “our” social nature (another erroneous gender stereotype) that we want to “chatter away and be social” we people keeping us from the IT jobs in libraries. It’s simple pragmatism. Work/life balance. Which, is impossible, btw.

  19. Wilhelmina Randtke says:

    Law isn’t the same as tech. It’s linguistic, so at some level fits the stereotype of women as more chatty. Especially, rainmaking has a “chatting away and being social” component, so would seem to fit the stereotype of women as social.

    For law there is a required degree, so statistics on entry to the field are easier to get. Women get Juris Doctorates at about the same rate as men, and that’s been true for twenty years. The numbers are maybe 45% to 55% in a year with a big difference in enrollment, and generally fairly close to 50/50 with more women enrolled in law schools in some years. http://www.catalyst.org/publication/246/women-in-law-in-the-us has a nice breakdown of enrollment by gender, and then if you scroll down has a summary of what happens with those degrees. Women get pushed out of law or into the lower paid areas of law (like solo practice, or remaining at associate level in a firm and not making partner).

    So, in law, women are largely excluded from the moneyed areas of practice, or leave the field sooner than men. They aren’t kept out at the very beginning entry level.

    In technology, I have the impression that women don’t enter the field in comparable numbers to men at all.

  20. Late to the party, but I wanted to toss in a couple things. When I stumbled across Roy’s piece today and read it, I instantly thought, oh my, the comments will be many and loud, and wasn’t disappointed. Great discussion overall with much food for thought.

    So anyone who knows me knows I’m male. My contribution here is to point out that I have two young daughters, so I’m watching firsthand how they are being socialized by the world around them and how they are being ‘taught’ what is important and what is not. Sadly, it’s not all that different from what I saw 30+ years ago when I was in school, when it was clear what was ‘appropriate’ for boys and girls. To counter this, I put technology in front of them: Linux, Arduinos, Pi boards, etc. As one would expect, they find it super cool. I just don’t want my girls to grow up in a world where technology–and hands-on facility with technology–increasingly drive the agenda of everything, subjecting those without the skills to take part in that economy to a subordinate role.

    One other comment: my library recently recruited for a highly technical librarian position where I had a hand in crafting the position. Our top two candidates were both women, and we hired one of them. They did it on their own (emerging as top choices), with their own skills, energy, and dedication. But, yes, I am pleased at the fact that my team is now a bit more diverse than it was.