My Silence on Gender Issues in Libraries and Technology

I started writing this post a while ago and shelved it, waiting for more insight. Gender issues, technology, and librarianship is a huge issue. I didn't want to get something this important wrong, so I didn't finish my thought and hit the publish button. While I'm not certain I have more insight today, I do think it has become timely again and I want to air my thoughts this time, warts and all.

Attention Distribution Disorder

This week on the library blog Hi Miss Julie, Julie aired her discontent with the way attention is distributed to librarians. I have some trouble with some of the underlying assumptions behind the post, but it is undeniably honest and timely. It very clearly strikes a nerve and resonates with a lot of my colleagues in a way that is worth paying attention to. Make no mistake, this is an important issue.

The post also offers indirect but clear insults to people I am friendly with. The insulted are adults who can handle criticism or mild Internet bullying. However out of loyalty and fairness I want to be direct and point out what I perceive to be a lapse in manners. ( I hesitate to pick a fight and refuse to choose sides, but I am loyal to my friends and I respect Julie enough to take her own advice on speaking up when we witness a perceived wrong.)

The reason Julie's recent piece draws my response is that I couldn't figure out how to respond to it. She clearly has identified something about gender and power in our profession that resonates. I want to understand that better. I also observed that at least three eminent library speakers offered excellent advice on raising one's profile as a speaker. Their advice is spot-on, practical, and following it will lead to the desired outcome, but I didn't get the feeling her original post was seeking advice. I don't share some of the post's assumptions, but again, I didn't get the feeling that the appropriate response was to engage it in critical dialog. So I returned to the draft of this post that I had started and abandoned. When I read my earlier thoughts about gender disparity in libraries and technology I found my answer. The appropriate response to Julie's post on gender and attention was to listen to it.

So I sat down and read it again. I listened. I divorced it from the context of ongoing librarian Internet feuds or disagreements about whether books ARE stories or if they just CONTAIN stories. I tried to listen to the piece and it told me that gender influences attention in our profession in disturbing ways. A significant number of smart and competent librarians don't feel smart or competent because people like me get more than our fair share of attention. I don't have a metric for the attention economy, but I believe my work has received its fair share of attention. I believe I've done damn fine work and that my awards, attention, and paid speaking gigs are justified by my competence. But I'm not fool enough to believe that there are not smarter, more competent, and more eloquent librarians who toil in relative obscurity. It is unlikely that many of these overlooked librarians are male. That sucks. So this is what I've decided my appropriate response to Julie's post is: first listening carefully to what she has to say and then mourning the fact that many of my smart and competent female colleagues don't feel as brilliant and accomplished as they deserve to because our culture is diseased. This is a tragedy.

I have ideas on how we can change this on an individual scale and I have some problems with other things she wrote in the post, but since no one asked me, I'm just going to stick to listening and mourning at this time. It is a tragedy that competence and hard work do not always receive their just deserts. It is a crime that our culture allows this to happen to females so much more often than to their male counterparts.

Below is the post stub that generated these thoughts:

Mansplaining, 1reasonwhy, and gender issues in library technology leadership

Society, at least the American, educated, technological society that I inhabit most of the time, has a problem with gender. I'm probably not best placed to identify and describe this problem, so I'll just point to three examples. The first is explained clearly by Rebecca Solnit in 2008 Men Explain Things to Me. This piece has circumnavigated the Internet several times and each time it comes around again it has been heavily linked, liked, and retweeted. It has become the seminal work on mansplaining. My second example is the twitter hashtag #1reasonwhy. Each #1reasonwhy tweet relates one reason why there aren't more women in the video game design industry. Third is Roy Tennant's Library Journal piece : Fostering Female Technology Leadership in Libraries.

Looking at them in reverse order, these examples explain that libraires need more women in positions of technology leadership, that women in technology fields are often treated poorly, and that men (such as myself) may not be best placed to articulate or remedy this problem. It's the third point that gives me trouble. The first two seem well established. So let's work backwards through these and see if we can uncover additional insight when we get back to the sticky point.

Is Fostering Female Leadership a man's role? I don't know, but I want more of it.

First, Roy Tennant's piece on fostering female technology leadership in libraries. My response to this is: "Yes, please. Let's have more." I've been fortunate enough to work for two women who ran both libraries and campus IT. It seems natural to do things that way, but I know my experience isn't the norm. I've also had the very good fortune to be mentored by amazingly brilliant and technologically adapt women. Every job I've had in libraries and academe I've had the opportunity to be trained and mentored by brilliant women whom I am striving to accomplish enough not to bring shame to their legacies. I bring this up because I've been where Roy wants us to go (as a profession) and it is a wonderful place. Why hasn't it happened yet for more of us?

#1reasonwhy libraries need to do better: the rest of the world sucks.

Second, I want to compare this experience to my experience working in non-libraries IT. It ain't the same thing. Before library school I worked in a tech support call center where thousands of stereotypical male geeks toiled under the leadership of aging bros and fraternity brothers with MBAs. It. Was. Hell. Oh my gods it was awful. Having gone through that nightmare I believe I can empathize (without fully understanding what they go through daily) with the contributors to the #1reasonwhy hashtag. When the culture is actively hostile yet refuses to acknowledge that any privilege or oppression exists, a reasonable existence is not possible. If my first point was to acknowledge that I have it good because I have the good fortune to work for brilliant women, my second point is to acknowledge that my situation is relatively unusual and not everyone is so fortunate. Technology fields can be actively hostile towards those it needs the most.

Let me 'mansplain it to you:

Which brings me to my third point: Solnit's piece and mansplaining in general make me loathe to comment on gender issues. What do I have to contribute? (The fact I don't ask this more often is perfect evidence of straight-white-male-privilege.) More than that, what happens when I disagree with a woman on a gender-related topic? There does not exist a safe party line I could toe, even if I was inclined toward that kind of intellectual safety, but how can a guy struggling to be cluefull avoid looking like the buffoon in Solnit's piece? To use a line from Quentin Tarrantino (of all people): "the less a man makes declarative sentences, the less likely he is to look foolish in retrospect." Sometimes the appropriate answer risking looking like an ass and sometime the appropriate answer is silence.

My Silence

I'm not saying males don't deserve to speak, our opinions don't matter, or I need to be silenced. It's not that our voices doesn't have a place, but silence itself is a space to be filled. Cluefull men can leave pregnant silences to be filled by others. Others may be waiting for silences to be filled. Others may not be brought up and acculturated to believe that their words are desired and useful in all conversations. As a teacher, I see every week that the voices most comfortable speaking in class are not always the voices with the most to contribute. As a professional, something I would like to become more skilled at is offering my silence to my colleagues, especially in matters such as this. Gender equity is important, but I may not be the right person to talk about it. I may be the perfect person to be silent and listen.

Of course, I'm not silent now, I'm writing and adding my voice. I'm also not promising to submit to ideas that I find unreasonable. It's just that the more I think about this issue, the more convinced I am that finding ways to indirectly defer to previously silenced voices is the best way forward.


  1. Becky 2013-01-16 at 6:46 PM

    What a classy response! Thank you for highlighting this post and not saying much else.

  2. Andromeda 2013-01-17 at 5:53 PM

    Scattered thoughts —

    No, there’s no way for the dialogue to be safe. I feel the same way trying to talk about, say, racial diversity – I’m a white person who’s always lived in white places and so I’m necessarily clueless and I’m going to make mistakes along the way trying to engage in the dialogue and learn things, but I also think that trying to engage and learn (with humility and openmindedness) is better than not. I don’t expect people to patiently enlighten me on all their 101 stuff but I also hope I’ll encounter people who have some patience when I stumble, and similarly I hope I’ll have some patience for people who stumble along the way on gender issues. As long as they’re, you know. Engaged and learning with humility and openmindedness. As you appear to be.

    Men’s leadership — I think this *super is* a male role. It’s a problem when men think they get to be in charge of the whole process, or wave a magic wand and fix it or whatever, but, I mean, YES, people who are powerful and numerous have a role in solving problems. Things men have done that I have found useful include:

    * actually listening to what women say about their experiences and taking it seriously even if their experiences have been different

    * speaking in favor of diversity, anti-harassment, etc. (not just because it’s a nice thing, but because it demonstrates this is a way cultural capital can be spent in a particular community, AND because I kinda presume tech cultures are hostile until proven otherwise, and this lets me stop looking over my shoulder all the time, or at least feel like someone will have my back)

    Plus which, of course, men, can make sure women’s voices get heard in discussions (give them space to speak, notice when others aren’t), praise their tech skills or leadership (publicly or privately), give them meaningful responsibility that stretches their skills (if they’re in a project-management-type position), make sure they get the credit that’s due for their role in tech projects, not assume that women=newbie even though often it’s true…lots of stuff.

    Finally, the silence thing. I appreciate and respect your keeping silence. Certainly in the context of a discussion about men maybe getting automatic authority and prominence just because they’re men, men *shutting up* may be one of the best things they have to offer. At the same time, because you said something, now I know you’re an ally. And I didn’t before. And that’s a big deal to me. So, thanks.

  3. Kate Tkacik 2013-01-18 at 4:13 PM

    I appreciate the thoughtful response to Hi Miss Julie, but I can’t seem to wrap my head around why the answer would be silence? Granted this is my knee-jerk reaction to reading this through the first time, but this seems like a very narrow (read: male) response to a predicament; that there can only be one way to act, or not act.

    But instead of silence (granted, a silence open to listening), why not use your voice to ASK and invite. Invite those perhaps overshadowed colleagues to the table, ask them what they’re up to, and engage them in the dialogue of the profession. To include newbies, or women, or whatever, does not require you to exclude yourself. Use your power for good. Welcome the new. Inclusivity is the answer, not silence.

    Again, I do appreciate this post–and it’s a step forward in the conversation.

  4. Kate Tkacik 2013-01-18 at 4:21 PM

    Hah, my thoughts are scattered as well, but I as a mouthy student in the classroom, that was an apt comparison–sometimes sitting back and allowing silence did indeed create a comfortable place for others. So again, thanks for the post.

  5. Pingback: My Year of Reading Diversely « information. games.

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