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October 2014
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How do we get more women into systems librarianship?

I’ve been off line for a few weeks, wrestling with the house (we have insulation in our walls now! W00t!), and so I’m just now catching up on an excellent volley of blog posts about sexism in systems librarianship and it’s associated conferences, chat rooms, journals, etc.

I’d like to address a related issue: How do we get more women into systems librarianship in the first place?

We need to acknowledge the informal nature of the knowledge

From what I have observed there are no formal education programs that can teach you how to be a systems librarian. There are some LIS programs that teach you how to use email and Access databases, and other programs that take already experienced sys admins and teach them about libraries, and there are some programs (UNC SILS comes to mind) that do an excellent job of providing lots of informal on-your-own-time learning opportunities that surpass anything classroom instruction could ever offer. But really, if you want to become a systems librarian, you need to tinker, and hack, and goof around with open source, and even more importantly, you need to develop the mentality that it is okay to tinker and hack. You need a context in which to do this hacking. You need an apprenticeship.

In my experience, even people who are “self taught” (i.e. every single person I have ever met in systems librarianship) actually learned most of their skills from peers, whether online, or through a job, or through messing around with your roommate’s computer on the weekends. Think about what that means for women who are interested in the profession. It’s hard enough for women to participate in formal computer science education. Systems librarianship is one step removed from that. You can’t even sign up for a course. In order to receive the instruction, you have to somehow become friends with the people who have the knowledge and convince them to share it with you, probably over a period of years, probably after work and on weekends. Because chances are that the people with the knowledge are male, you have to negotiate lots of superfluous sexual mine fields that two men wouldn’t have to think about. (“Does he think I’m flirting with him because I keep calling him on the weekend?”) Also, more relevant to the blog conversation at hand, because these informal relationships are the only way for you to get the information you need, you might not call someone on sexist language or behavior that would otherwise merit it.

Caveat Lector has some great points about how spur-of-the-moment conference planning excludes women, and I would put the informal apprenticeship model I’m describing in the same camp. Now, before anyone jumps down my throat, let me be clear: THIS DOES NOT MEAN I DON’T LIKE SPUR OF THE MOMENT SYS ADMIN LESSONS, or weekend coding sessions, or late night networking parties, or whatever. I think they provide valuable contextual learning. But I do think we need to be explicit about what we’re doing, and who is and is not participating, and we need to put more time and thought into how to include women in those opportunities. Invite your web designer along to pull cable in the new data center. Take an old computer and get your intern to install linux on it, just to play. Make your student workers learn how to use a command line, so they can see it isn’t scary. And make sure women as well as men get these chances and challenges.

P.S. Again via Caveat Lector, I just read HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux. Awesome!


Comment from Dorothea
Time: July 28, 2006, 2:18 pm

In a word, yep.

Another reason the World’s Coolest Boss is just that. He lets me do whatever I need to, and only steps in when I ask for help or it’s an emergency (and we’re both batting about .500 on emergencies — I fix some, he fixes some).

I conquered CVS today. Sorta. :)

Comment from bess
Time: July 28, 2006, 2:35 pm

Hey, Dorothea. Congrats on conquering CVS. I love those moments when you finally win the battle of wills.

Comment from Liz
Time: July 29, 2006, 7:02 pm

You want women in systems librarianship? Make the automation vendor tech support not talk down to women when they call. IME whenever I have to call (and I think I do all of the things you suggest up there, and I am a woman) an automation vendor technical support line I have to get extremely technical with them before they’ll stop with the “did you restart the server? How about making sure the internet cable is plugged in” troubleshooting steps.

Drives me nuts.

Comment from bess
Time: July 31, 2006, 9:24 am

Liz, you raise an excellent point here. How can we make the automation vendors not talk down to women? Once I’ve had to strong arm a vendor, refusing to work with a certain tech that they kept sending out to our site. The vendor’s technician and I were alone in the data center and we set an install process running that was going to have to run for awhile. I said “What should we do now?” He put his arm around me and said, “Let’s get a hotel room!” (On what planet is this acceptable professional conduct?)

Luckily for me, this was a situation where I held all the cards. I immediately told my boss, and her boss, and the tech’s boss, and I flat out refused to work with him again. I gave them the choice between missing a major upgrade deadline, costing them lots of money and lots of bad press, and booting the jerk. I don’t think they actually fired him, but they assured me that he no longer makes site visits and that he was reprimanded. (I wonder if he even understands what he did wrong?)

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that, when we can, we need to be calling people on behavior. Some cases are clear cut, and some are more subtle, and each case needs a unique approach, but the nice thing about vendors is that you often have more power than the vendor might think. If someone on the vendor’s team is behaving inappropriately, it never hurts to remind everyone involved that YOU are the customer, YOU are paying the bills (perhaps indirectly, though your organizations’s budget, but still…) and you will damn well be treated with respect.

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