There are moments of confluence in our day-to-day lives that can impact the way we see ourselves in the world. Sometimes they are moments of revelation and other times they are just a slight shift in perception, a tweak in the way we experience life. This month, which just so happens to be Women’s History Month, a convergence of personal and professional experiences have all centered around gender, womanhood, and librarianship. The events, in no particular order, include:
- Reading Roma Harris‘ Librarianship: The Erosion of a Woman’s Profession.
- Participating in a women faculty focus group at my college.
- Being interviewed for two different projects on intersections of gender, sexual identity, and race/ethnicity in LIS.
- A conversation with a dear cousin on the parallels between nursing and librarianship as “women’s professions.”
- Gearing up for an ACRL conference paper presentation on library instruction coordinators and gendered labor.
- Discussing casual sexism in academia with a handful of trusted colleagues and friends.
- Being called “unprofessional” by a male librarian for participating in the women’s strike.
Definitely a theme, right?
In living through these past few weeks and in writing this post, this has been the most intentional focus I’ve ever given to my identity as a latina, cis woman in highly feminized field within academia. It’s made me realize that there is so much in my professional life as an academic librarian and in my personal life that goes unsaid because to call attention to gender and intersectional gender identity on a daily basis is simply not done. It’s an academic exercise, a luxury. Something those “theoretical librarians” engage in while the “real librarians” do the “real work” in libraries.
Except it is not.
It is not navel-gazing to examine intersectional gender identity in academic libraries and academia more broadly, and here’s why.
Deeply Entrenched Patriarchal Structures in LIS
Roma Harris’ book was published in 1992, but reading it 25 years later, I’m struck by its relevance to my current work experiences. Despite being a feminized profession, we’ve somehow adopted masculine ideals in terms of what we value as a profession, how we seek to advance librarianship, and how we treat one another as librarians. Olin and Millet’s Lead Pipe article, Gendered Expectations for Leadership in Libraries, and Neigel’s LIS Leadership and Leadership Education: A Matter of Gender, thoughtfully analyze the ways in which, decades after Roma Harris critiqued librarianship for working towards a masculine ideal, LIS still models leadership–or more accurately, management/administration–as masculine labor. It’s a lose-lose set-up for women, who are viewed less positively when they perform both stereotypically masculine and feminine behaviors at work. This was abundantly clear to me after a colleague shared our library’s posters and flyers for Day Without a Woman with librarians at other institutions. I thought it was a bold move, an example of us taking action for other women in feminized professions–teaching, social work, nursing, childcare–who were not able to take the day off work. Yet we were immediately called out by a man for being “unprofessional” by not making ourselves available in service to others. It was hard to see those gendered expectations played out in front of a larger audience of our peers.
I’ve been seeing those same gendered expectations in my own research. Digging into the literature and interviewing instruction coordinators in preparation for an upcoming ACRL presentation, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that certain spaces and roles in libraries are more “for women” than others. Teaching in libraries is ultra feminized. The relational work that instruction coordinators do and the interpersonal competencies they possess should be highly valued, but are–by virtue of being women’s work–instead simply expected, unacknowledged, and undervalued.
It’s a bummer.
As Within, So Without
Then there are the expectations that accompany being a woman in academia. I wrote a few weeks ago about the power imbalance between faculty and librarians in most academic settings, but think it’s important to stress the role that gender plays in those interactions. The service ethos in which librarianship is rooted is complicated by our gender identity and the expectations attached to women at work. My cousin, who works as an oncology nurse, doesn’t understand why something so obvious as an overwhelmingly female workforce in a structurally masculine setting–hospitals, academia–is hardly discussed. I have to agree.
In speaking with women faculty and staff I confirmed that the casual sexism I experience on a daily basis is not just unique to women in libraries, but to women in academia more broadly. It wasn’t until we gathered to explicitly address these incidents and issues that we felt less alone, more validated, and more empowered to speak up in defense of one another. Examples ranged from outright sexual harassment to more subtle power plays: being told to smile more at the reference desk or in classes, being expected to take on more of a sympathetic listening ear to students, being talked over in meetings and undermined in our work, being casually touched by male colleagues who never do the same to one another and that contribute nothing to the interaction but making us uncomfortable.
There was an acknowledgement of our shared experiences and a desire to work to support one another to change it.
An Airing of Grievances?
I’m not entirely certain what the intent of this post is as I attempt to wrap it up. I don’t want this to be finger-wagging or an airing of grievances, but I do think that some cathartic purging is always needed when discussing events and ideas that impact us in such a deeply personal ways. In some ways I’m just trying to open a conversation. I searched for “gender” in ACRLog before beginning to write and was surprised to find so little that addressed gender identity, sexism, and LIS explicitly. Roma Harris would argue that it’s an intentional if not conscious effort to separate librarianship from “women’s work” by not talking about gender.
I’m heartened by the good, feminist research being done by my academic librarian colleagues and hope that this much-needed introspection continues in our profession. We are a discipline, a profession, a field of primarily women, and the way that gender plays out in our work is worth analyzing, discussing, pulling apart, and putting back together. It’s the only way we’ll create a feminist, inclusive practice of librarianship, which is perhaps the larger point I’m trying to make, but maybe just dancing around.