The Best Man for the Job Is a Woman? (Investigative Report)

Article excerpt

Why is it that cartoonists still choose to cruelly portray the typical librarian as a spectacled spinster glaring across the reference desk, daring to be defied? An acquaintance of mine--who is not known for frequenting libraries but is certainly a fan of cartoons--explained to me quite simply that librarians' apparent pent-up anger comes from the frustration of having been pigeonholed into a low-paid, female-only job that's lorded over by domineering male bosses. "They have to take it out on someone," he explained.

Thankfully, these images are not only grossly inaccurate, but they lost the last shreds of any relevance back in the dark ages of the previous century. The latest surveys from ALA, SLA, ARL, and ALISE are all very encouraging with respect to both gender balance and gender equity (see "Salary Surveys" on p. 24).

In many categories, parity has not only been achieved, but in a few cases, salaries for female librarians have actually surpassed those of their male colleagues. This accomplishment did not come about overnight. It's the result of much hard work and affirmative action, especially over the past 25 years by groups that have been set up to foster women's interests in the information industry (see "U.S. Information Professionals Women's Groups" on p. 24).

However, there's no room for complacency and still plenty of room for improvement. Social sexism and latent discrimination cause gender stratification to happen all too easily. Current social attitudes continue to identify men with technology. And as the library profession enthusiastically embraces the Information Age, technology-driven males continue to be favored for the top positions.

ALISE statistics show that while 75 percent of library information science (LIS) students are women, less than 40 percent of the library school deans/directors are female. What's happening to the other 35 percent? Is this gender stratification occurring through choice or because of discrimination? I asked two eminent information feminists if things really have improved over the past three decades.

Kathleen de la Pena McCook is a professor at the University of South Florida's School of Library and Information Science and is also co-author of the book The Status of Women in Librarianship, 1876-1976. She was chairperson of ALA's Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship (COSWL) in the 1970s.

Sarah Watstein is the director for academic user services at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has written about and campaigned extensively for women's studies and feminist issues since she started her information career in 1976. She was chairperson of COSWL from 2000-2002.

Sexual Discrimination?

"Twenty-five years ago," McCook reminisced, "I was charging around wildly with graphs and high ideals. And at that time, perhaps, there was much more sexual discrimination. Society was still thinking then that women couldn't do these jobs. People used to do visualization exercises along the following lines: Close your eyes and describe your ideal leader. Tall, commanding, strong voice. Nobody would say, 5'1", a woman. Yes, perhaps the same exercise would still give similar results today, but in those days we would need to resort to such tactics just to be considered for the leadership jobs, which is no longer the case."

But surprisingly, perhaps, McCook doesn't think that sexual discrimination is a significant factor in job applications. "If women show the same behaviors as men, then they can and will get the same jobs."

This was also the conclusion of "Career Profiles of Librarians," a 1983 study conducted by McCook and Leigh Estabrook for ALA. "We identified four behaviors that were important in determining choice of candidate for the job," said McCook. "They were 1) publications, 2)job mobility--the willingness to pick up and go, 3) willingness to take on policy-making positions in professional associations, and 4) having the necessary advanced degree. …