By Meredith Farkas | December 29, 2007
Yes, it’s true… I am a woman. I’m also a librarian. In the world of librarianship, I don’t think about the fact that I’m a woman any more than I think about the fact that I’m Spanish-Ukrainian, Jewish, etc. I don’t feel like it should factor into my work or how people view my work. I just don’t think that way. I’m a feminist in that I believe men and women should be treated equally at work; given equal pay and equal opportunities. I don’t obsess over gender representation in everything so long as women were given equal opportunities to make it. I just really don’t think about gender that much with respect to my professional life, because I labor under the assumption that I am going to be given the same consideration as any other librarian; male or female. Frankly, I just realized that with my covering the exhibitors at the ALA Conferences, I am one of the few women covering vendor stuff for a major trade publication. But it didn’t occur to me at all until other things got me thinking about gender.
The first thing that got me thinking about it was a comment on my post regarding my realization about my lack of upward mobility at my place of work. I know that Anonymous New Parent was trying to raise my spirits, and for that, I’m appreciative. However, I was kind of surprised by the logic of the comment.
I myself am about your age, and now that I am a recent parent, my priorities in life have changed almost overnight. I was extremely ambitious and pretty career driven… however, now with a new baby, I am less worried about having a career where I can advance, and am more concerned about having a job with flexibility, so I can take the time with my family and baby that I need. You never know what life holds in store for you, and your idea of what is important in a career path may change overnight once you start a family and see the smile of your newborn baby. At any rate, I wish you the best, whatever the future holds for you! Please know that we are all rooting for you!
My first thought was how does s/he know I’m going to have children? I’m not pregnant. I’ve never written a blog post about having children. I don’t see any reason for people to assume that I am (or am not) going to have children — unless someone is watching my personal conversations with my husband. I completely agree that having a child is life-altering and you never know how you will respond to that change until it happens. I know career ambitious women who decided to stay home, and others who couldn’t wait until their maternity leave was over so they could get back to work. But the idea that I should feel better about my career because having a baby will make me less focused on my career seems to be relying on a few too many assumptions. And would anyone have said that to a man? I can’t even imagine that. And what if my Director saw it that way (though I don’t think she does)? Well, I don’t want her to have that job because once she has children she won’t be as career-focused. Isn’t that the logic that kept women from making partner in law firms and director in libraries? Women can’t be in management/responsible positions because when they have kids, they’re not going to be focused on the job anymore. I know Anonymous New Parent probably didn’t mean it that way, but if I shouldn’t worry so much about my career under the assumption that having kids will change my focus, why should anyone bother giving me (or any other woman of child-bearing age) a challenging, demanding and critical-to-the-functioning-of-the-organization job?
The second thing that got me thinking about gender was Penelope Trunk’s post about her getting fired from her column at Yahoo! Finance. I must admit that I often disagree with Penelope’s career advice, though some of her blog posts have left me nodding my head vigorously in agreement. Her writings about career, if nothing else, often shed a new light on things and get people thinking.
So the stated reason behind Penelope’s firing was that “financial content gets a higher CPM (advertising rate) than career content.” I would buy that. In spite of the fact that hers is a high-traffic column, I can’t imagine that Penelope’s audience would click on the same sorts of ads than many of the other Yahoo! Finance columnists’ audiences would. They should probably look for another place for her within the Yahoo! empire (since she does get a ton of traffic), but instead, they canned her.
So, here’s what transpired next (according to Penelope — obviously, this is just her take on the situation):
I asked if there’s another place I can write at Yahoo. This tactic is straight out of the book: Use your last moments to network, even if you are getting fired.
Here’s what my boss’s boss’s boss said: “You should write for Lifestyles*. That is more women oriented.”
Immediately I was reminded of when my column was cancelled at Business 2.0 magazine. After I had recently announced that I was pregnant and said I did not plan to take any time off from writing the column.
My editor told me, as he was firing me, “Now that you’re going to be a mom you should try writing someplace like Working Mother.”
Wow! Since I wasn’t at either of those exchanges, I can’t say whether all this happened like that not, but it wouldn’t shock me if it were true. Assumptions are made like that all the time. Well, she’s a woman with kids, she can write about being a working mother (as if she can’t write about other things she does in her professional life). When a man has a family, people don’t assume that he should write about being a working parent. For some reason, it is easier to think of a man’s personal life as being separate from his professional life than it is to think of a woman’s personal life as being separate from her professional life. Amazingly, yes, a woman can keep her personal and professional lives separate. A woman can do well in her profession with children. One commenter mentioned that the exchange reminded him of an episode of The Office where Michael Scott picked Stanley (a black man) for his company basketball team as “the secret weapon.” Of course, Stanley was one of the most un-athletic people in the world, but because he was black, Michael assumed that he must be good at basketball. A caricature, certainly, but subtle assumptions are made like that every day. I was once asked to do something at a job specifically because of my Spanish heritage (not because I speak Spanish, which I barely can, but because I am Spanish). Being Spanish is not a skill. It would be like someone saying “Meredith should handle the money because she’s a Jew.” Similarly, being a woman is neither a skill nor a handicap. Yes, there are women who can’t separate their personal and professional lives (men too). But there are plenty who can and they deserve to be treated the same as their male colleagues at work.
I am very lucky in that I don’t feel like I’ve ever been discriminated against because of my gender in terms of getting opportunities (whether I have been or not may be another story… I don’t know). I have a job where I do lots of techie stuff. I get asked to speak at lots of conferences. I was given a column in American Libraries writing about technologies. I wrote a book on technologies. I don’t feel like I have been given these opportunities because I am a woman or in spite of the fact that I’m a woman. I was given these opportunities because I’m good at what I do. And that’s all I want; a fair shake. If I found out that Leonard Kniffel wanted me to cover the exhibits because I was a woman, I wouldn’t do it. Fortunately, he asked me because he was looking for someone, I couldn’t afford to go to Midwinter and he wanted me there, he knows I can write, and probably also because Andrew Pace suggested that I should do it (Andrew is my hero).
Just as I don’t want to be discriminated against based on my gender, I do have some issues with my getting opportunities because of it. It makes me feel like being a woman makes me somehow less capable than a man to do it on my own. This is probably why I didn’t comment on the Web4Lib discussion about whether or not a scholarship for women to Code4Lib should happen. I’m a big believer in creating environments (in the classroom, at work, at conferences) that’s friendly for all genders. I’m a big believer in library schools encouraging women to take techie classes, just like I love seeing grade schools working to get girls interested in science and math. I’m not against the idea of a scholarship for women, but I am uncomfortable with it (not to make last year’s recipient, Nicole Engard, feel badly for getting it since she would have gotten it no matter who was in the competition. She’s that good.). And I understand Dorothea’s point about how it is a reminder of the gender imbalance, but if anything, I feel like it makes the chasm between men and women wider by saying, yes, women are different and they need a leg-up to get to where you already are. And while I know this isn’t the message anyone wants to send, to the people whose minds you want to change, this is precisely what they see.
I really do have a lot of mixed emotions about techniques to fix gender imbalances. I have been discriminated against because of my age and my gender by vendors at conferences. I remember how surprised my physics teacher was when I (not one of the guys) was the first to successfully finish a project we were working on in class (of course I soldered by finger in the process, but I soldiered through). I remember feeling uncomfortable in some of my History classes in college that were dominated by males and felt more comfortable expressing myself in classes like Women and the American Experience. I don’t know how to fix this stuff, but I know that scholarships won’t do it. I think that making women feel like they’re differently-abled (and making men think women are differently-abled) is not going to solve any problems and may even make them worse. I think we honestly need to start from the beginning. Start in elementary school. Start in the crib. Have science summer camps for girls. Teach computer stuff as part of a regular school curriculum. Have a no-tolerance policy for things that create environments where women don’t feel comfortable. People should be shamed when they make a sexist (or racist, or homophobic, or any other type of offensive) comment; we should create an environment where people who say offensive things are always taken to task for it.
I don’t have the answers and these are just my feelings. I’m sure many people feel differently and they’re entitled to. There isn’t any one perfect or proven way to fix these gender-related problems. I just know that I want to be held to the same professional standards as any man. Women are different than men, yes. Women have different struggles partially because they give birth and lactate. But that should only make a difference in one’s professional life and opportunities if the woman chooses to let it make a difference in her professional life. It’s a choice, not a necessity. And it’s not like men don’t struggle with many of the same issues themselves.
*I tried to find this Yahoo! Lifestyle and could only find it for Yahoo! Australia. I see articles about cooking, party planning, parental controls on computers, parenting, shopping, women’s health, fashion, and horoscopes. I also saw links to a section in Yahoo! Finance Australia called Independent Woman. Independent Woman? Can you imagine having a section called Independent Man? What a concept; a woman who controls her own finances. And when I looked at one of the articles, was more startled. It was called “Why Mummy Has to Work So Hard” and was basically about how, if women make slightly less than men, they’re basically working to pay the family’s tax bill, not to benefit the family at all. “Working mothers are often not really working to support their families, but to support the government.” The basic premise is that the tax system should better support women staying home with their children. (BTW, this article was published in Forbes magazine.) Ok, so what is not wrong with this argument? First of all, the idea that the person making less money is only supporting the tax bill is flawed. Secondly, the assumption that the woman is necessarily going to make less than the man is seriously 30 years out of date. Third, the assumption that all women want to and should stay home with their children is also not necessarily true for all women. There was also a great article that stated “shopping is synonymous to women. Women wouldn’t mind being in the shopping centre the entire day, even though there’s only one purchase they have to make.” Ummm… what? What’s weird is that this content is only in the Australian version of Yahoo! Finance. What’s up Australia?