By Meredith Farkas | August 27, 2006
There’s been a whole lot of hubbub about those crazy articles on Forbes.com about wives being compared to whores and the appeal to Forbes’ male readers to not marry a career woman. Honestly, how they allowed this insecure misogynist to publish this garbage, much less to become an editor at their magazine, is beyond me. It’s sometimes hard to believe that such ridiculous sexism still exists, much less with men in their 30′s, but there are still plenty of creeps out there. However, I do truly believe that most men today are happy to be equal partners in marriage and my husband was happy to take over a lot of the household chores while I was writing my book. And I have tried to pick up the slack for the past few months when he has been travelling a lot for work. That’s what marriage is all about. While the fact that it was published by a supposedly reputable magazine left me dumbfounded, I am not super-concerned about such obvious and ridiculously 1950′s-vintage sexism. Anyone with a brain will realize that what he wrote was absurd and anyone who is a sexist probably wouldn’t have their mind changed for anything anyways.
What really concerns me is the subtle sexism. The stuff you see happening and are not even sure that it is sexism. Like why do people always go straight to the men in the library when they have a tech question? Why do the guys in IT treat me like an idiot? Why do the male tech support guys at the database providers talk to me like I’m in second grade? Why do so few women speak at tech conferences? Why do the guys at some libraries move up the management ladder so much more quickly? When a Library Director at a University I was interviewing at last year told me that MY HUSBAND designed a nice Web site for me (umm… yeah… actually, I designed it) I knew that he was a sexist pig. But it’s the subtle sexism that worries me. That’s the stuff that undermines your confidence in yourself. It’s not anything explicit; just the feeling that you’re in a space where you don’t belong. I have felt that in many male-dominated spaces before, and I don’t think I ever really identified it as sexism. I usually just blamed myself for my discomfort. But perhaps there was something more. I just don’t know.
Why did I go from a very outgoing young girl who was always building stuff, excelling in school and auditioning for every school play to a teenager who wouldn’t even raise her hand in class to give an answer I knew was right? Why did I feel so uncomfortable talking in my college History classes that were dominated by men and yet found it very easy to express myself in my Women and the American Experience class (which was unsurprisingly almost entirely made up of women)? What subtle things went on in my formative years to make me this way? Maybe it was because I grew up in a house with an angry dad who yelled a lot and a mom who never had a career and yet was very intelligent and always excelled in school. Maybe it was the subtle (and not-so-subtle) comments she made growing up about the need for me to find a man to support me. I can remember certain small incidents in school that I hardly thought twice about growing up. The physics teacher who only paid attention to the things the guys were building who seemed shocked when I was the first person in my class to get a major project done (heck, I love working with capacitors, diodes and soldering irons!). Or my fourth grade teacher who always picked on the girls in the class and was so nice to the boys. There were some teachers who seemed to have much lower expectations of females. And yet, I always did well, so why did I feel this way? There was nothing so obvious in my childhood that I can point to and say “that was it! That’s why!” And that’s why I have always blamed myself for my lack of confidence, even though there clearly is something gender-related in it since I felt so much more confident in a group of women than in a group of men. I’ve slowly grown out of that lack of confidence, but I keep trying to figure out where it came from and keep hitting brick walls.
Where I work now, there are no other women in the library who are tech savvy. And most of them are un-tech savvy in the extreme. This puts them at a severe disadvantage because they have to let other people control the technological destiny of the library. And they have to depend on other people all the time, even when the solution to their problem is as simple as rebooting their computer. I would hate that. Before I started working there, the only people who knew anything about technology at the library were the two male librarians. I guess I just don’t understand why the women wouldn’t want to learn more about this stuff. And I have a hard time believing that it’s just because women raise children and don’t have time to learn this stuff. Rachel has a son and her brain hasn’t totally turned to mush, as is evidenced by her most recent terrific book and her always interesting columns. I can understand how being a woman and having kids would keep you from being on the conference circuit as much as, say, Michael Stephens is, but I can’t see why it would make you not want to learn about things important to serving patrons in libraries like social software, link resolvers, Web design, online courseware, etc.
I have been asked to give more talks in the past few months than I could possibly do without quitting my job (and in some cases, being in two places at the same time). I don’t feel like my gender has held me back in the least in terms of what I have been able to achieve in libraryland. But then again, I’m not in the really heavy tech worlds that Dorothea and Karen work in, so I’m quite willing to believe it’s different for them. But then again, when Roy was lining up people to write for TechEssence, he asked more women than men, and yet more men said yes (and thank you, Roy, for writing a terrific LJ column on trying to rectify the gender imbalance). Why is that? And Paul Miller also said that he had asked women to take part in Talking With Talis podcasts in the past and they had refused. Maybe it’s just the people they asked, but when I look at the list of presenters for the library track in HigherEd BlogCon, which anyone could submit a proposal for, there were definitely a lot more male participants than female (by a factor of 2 to 1). It’s just not something I understand, because I also hear women complaining that there aren’t enough women speaking about tech, and yet when there are opportunities like these that wouldn’t even take women with kids away from their kids, there are way more male participants than female. Which makes me wonder if some women are holding themselves back? And that may go back to how we have been conditioned growing up. I have no idea. On the other hand, when I was thinking about this Five Weeks to a Social Library project, the first people who contacted me and offered to lend a hand were women. It’s cool that we have an all-female group organizing this project, but honestly, it was only because they were the smartest and most willing people, not because they were women.
As you can see, I have very mixed feelings on this whole gender issue thing and I don’t quite know what to think. I’ve been hesitant to write anything about gender issues, because I don’t really feel like I fully understand it all myself and I certainly don’t know how to make things better. But I thought maybe a confused post might just be the best kind, because it raises questions. Sexism isn’t what it was in the 50′s. It’s not so overt and it doesn’t limit our opportunities as much as it did before. But it does still exist in many subtle forms that are much more difficult to identify and eradicate. But is it really the reason that there are fewer women participating in tech conferences? I don’t know. Has it kept me from succeeding in this field and getting speaking gigs? Definitely not. I’ve gotten much more recognition in the past year than I rightly deserve. And I only really know from my own experiences. But, like I said before, maybe it’s because I’m more on the idea side of tech than on the coding side. Maybe there still is an old boys network in the world of digital librarianship. Dorothea and Karen would certainly know better than I. But how do we fix it? I think it takes a lot more than putting more women in speaker roles at the Code4Lib and Access conferences, though that is a start. How do we change attitudes? How do we change the subtle messages girls get in schools that leads them away from tech and self-promotion in the first place? It’s not something I have any answers to.
Maybe you do?