Lets look at gender in Library IT

So. Let’s talk about library technology organizations and gender.

I attended LitaForum 2015 last year, and like many good attendees, I tweeted thoughts as I went. Far more popular in the Twitterverse than anything original I sent out was a simple summary of a slide in a presentation by Angi Faiks, “Girls in Tech: A gateway to diversifying the library workforce.”

The tweet in question was:

Lita Tweet: ALA is 87% white, 81% female. Library IT heads 2x as many men as women, and the men make more money despite having fewer years. #litaforum

That this struck a chord is shocking, presumably, to no one.

The slide that prompted my tweet references a 2009 article by Melissa Lamont that (a) you should read, and (b) briefly presents (among other interesting data) numbers from the 2014-2015 ARL Annual Salary Survey (paywalled).

What is the problem symptom?

Given the popularity of the tweet, I thought I’d dig a little deeper and see what I could find out about Library IT and gender, with the expectation that it would be pretty disappointing.

Spoiler alert: it is.

Before you start thinking, “But…I work in a library, where it’s all mutual respect and a near-perfect meritocracy as far as the eye can see,” well, think again. The overall message I received during conversations on the edges of the conference was that women — especially young women — are often ignored, and their talents squandered, in the higher-tech side of the library world. And when you move away from anecdotes and start looking at the data, well, the numbers are striking and no less upsetting.

  • At the beginning of 2016, Bobbi Newman published a great examination of the LITA Top Tech Trends panelists by sex. Roughly 2/3 of seats between 2003 and 2016 were men. 3/4 of repeat panelists were men.

  • The Lamont article mentioned before — and please, go read it — does some great original research enumerating what is likely a leading indicator: percentage of women authoring papers in library technology journals vs. more generic library journals (with the latter used as a control). First authorship in the higher tech journals goes to women about 34% of the time (JASIS&T is a low outlier with only 28%), while 65% of articles in the control journals have female first authors, mirroring pretty closely the percentage of women librarians in ARL libraries overall.

What are the data?

The numbers in my tweet suffer a bit from an apples-and-oranges comparison, with the ALA gender/race information coming from (wait for it…) the ALA, while the Library IT Heads numbers come from the 2014-2015 ARL statistics (Table 18).

Much (most?) of the IT work in libraries is, of course, done by “off-label” librarians — those hired to do a specific non-IT job, who are then pressed into service to do some programming or sysadmin or whatnot. However, we don’t have numbers for those, so I’m going to up the focus on the US ARL statistics for self-identified library IT departments, partially because I work in an ARL library, and partially because large academic libraries often have an internal, labeled IT department which makes counting easy.

Obviously, I’ve made a decision to give up generality in order to be able to make stronger assertions (e.g., LITA membership breakdown, were it available, might be more appropriate). I’d be very interested in looking at other data (or other slices of these data) if people have any available.

Categorizing Library IT positions

The ARL stats have a number of position categories, four of which obviously relate to Library IT and on which I’m going to focus here.

The leadership position I’ll treat as it’s own thing.

  • Department Head, Library Technology

The other three non-head IT positions I’ll treat as a group, giving this collection the whimsical name Library IT, non-head.

  • Library IT, Library Systems
  • Library IT, Web Developer
  • Library IT, Programmer

There are obviously other jobs that might or might not fit into library IT, depending on how a particular institution is structured. For example, at Michigan we have people who do markup for TEI documents and digitization specialists, neither set of which would obviously fall into one of the above categories. All those folks are part of Library IT on the organization chart at Michigan (and might not be at other places).

Let’s start with the non-head librarians and then look at department heads.

Library IT, non-head positions

61% of all US ARL Librarians are women, but only 29% of US ARL Librarians working in Library IT are women.

Overall, women outnumber men in ARL libraries by a substantial margin. The ARL report notes that, “the largest percentage of men employed in ARL libraries was 38.2% in 1980–81; since then men have consistently represented about 35% of the professional staff in ARL libraries,” (p. 15). That number is closer to 40% when looking at ARL institutions just within the US, as stated above.

So, we’ll call it 40% male librarians overall. How about in library IT?

In Library IT, men outnumber women by 526 to 212, giving us the 29% quoted above. That means there are about two and a half times as many men as women in library IT.

IT in general has been a male-dominated profession for a few decades now. A fairly recent article reports 2013 numbers that show women holding about 26% of jobs in computing, with many Big Name Tech Companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) doing significantly worse.

We also don’t know about non-librarians working in library IT (I would be considered one). Given the overall IT statistics, it’s hard to believe that including non-librarians would move the needle toward having more women employees.

So on the one hand, we’re probably doing a very-slightly-less-awful job of bringing in women than the IT world in general. On the other, well, it’s only very slightly less awful, and this in a profession that is majority-female.

Library IT Heads

63% of Department Heads for department other than IT in US ARL libraries are women. About 30% of Library IT Heads are women.

Given the numbers we’re about to look at, it’s worthwhile to note that the majority doesn’t always hold the power, a message driven home by this tweet from Amy Buckland:

Female Dominated

The library writ large, then, is female-majority, but not necessary female-dominated. Library IT, of course, is neither female-dominated or female-majority.

First, a broader look. Leadership positions in the wider, non-library IT world in general go overwhelmingly to men. Women hold positions at the CIO level in only about 17% of the Fortune 500. So, the baseline is terrible.

The ARL Stats for 2014-15 (table 30) show 91 US libraries that have a head of Library IT, 27 (30%) of whom are women. That’s about the same as the rank & file IT workers, but far different than the nearly two-thirds of other department heads that are women.

Many people presume this is indicative of what has been called the pipeline problem, the idea that it’s hard to hire women leaders because there aren’t many women coming up, and the lack of women in leadership roles make it harder to recruit women at the lower levels. This is a truth, but certainly not a complete truth.

Sex and salary in Library IT

The good news, such as it is, is that there is (basically) salary parity between men and women at both the IT rank & file and IT head positions.

The bad news is that this is one place where Library IT does better than the library on average. Across the whole library, men make an average of 5% more than women, an inequality that is true at every level of experience (ACRL table 38).

What does it mean?

The numbers give us what, of course, not why. For that explanation, many people initially grab onto the pipeline problem.

“Oh, woe is us white guys trying to do the right thing,” we lament. “We want to hire women and minorities, but none ever apply. There’s a pipeline problem.”

So let’s revisit our friend the pipeline problem. The problem is not just that the pipeline is small. The pipeline leaks.

According to the Harvard Business Review, 41% of women working in tech eventually end up leaving the field (compared to just 17% of men)

Women leave IT at a much higher rate than other positions. IT can be, in ways large and small, antagonistic to women. Odds are your organization is. For those of you who think otherwise, I challenge you to find a shortish young woman where you work and ask her if she ever feels ignored or undervalued precisely because she’s a shortish young woman. Ask her if she always gets attributed for her ideas. Ask her if her initiatives are given the same consideration as her male colleagues.

What can we do?

Admit that there’s a problem. And then talk about it.

That’s easy to say and crazy-hard to do. The more privilege one has — and I’m a white, well-educated, middle-aged male, so I’ve got privilege up the wazoo — the easier it is to dismiss bias as small, irrelevant, or “elsewhere.”

As to how to get a conversation started, my colleague Meghan Musolff enrolled me to help her with an ingenious plan:

  • Send out an invitation to talk about a diversity-related reading

  • Show up

Our first monthly meeting of what we’re calling the “Tech Diversity Reading Group” ended up drawing about 2/3 of the department (including the boss, who bought pizza) and revolved around the Rachel Thomas pipeline article from above. And yes, the conversation was dominated by men, and yes, there were some nods to, “But this isn’t Silicon Valley so it doesn’t apply to us” or “That doesn’t happen around here, does it?” and, yes, many of the women didn’t feel comfortable speaking out.

We got a lot of feedback, in both directions, but none of it was of the “this isn’t a problem” variety. It wasn’t perfect (or maybe even “good”), but we were there, giving it a shot.

And you can, too.

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