Gender in Libraries

I was in a meeting this morning for the Maine Library Association, where I’m now (thankfully) the Past President. And as I was sitting there halfway into the two hour session, it suddenly occurred to me: I was one of two men in the room. The other 14 people there were all women. Hard working, dedicated, smart women who do a fantastic job at their careers. I’m going to try to write about some thoughts I had then. I hope I’m able to pull it off in an even handed, straightforward manner. Bear with me, please.

Really, it feels kind of silly to even be remarking on this. The library field is one that is fairly dominated by women, after all. So it’s sort of like me observing that the sky is blue, or water is wet. But I’ve been thinking about harassment and sexist behavior and speech quite a bit over the last few weeks. (Who am I kidding? I’ve been thinking it ever since the country elected a flagrant sexist and harasser into our highest office.)

The thing is, most days I don’t even notice. These are my peers and coworkers. Their gender doesn’t really enter into anything. But one thing that’s never happened to me in my years as a man working in a female-dominated industry? I’ve never been harassed. Never been made to feel out of place or less than anyone else. I’ve never heard any tales of that happening to any other man in the field, either.

So what makes it so that so many women in male-dominated fields end up being belittled, harassed, and ostracized? A big part of it, I think, is how many men grow up feeling entitled. Entitled to the things they want. As if anything they desire is sitting there waiting for them to take it. Some of that is on fathers teaching their sons. Some of it is on society’s attitude toward men. Some of it is in the portrayal of men in pop culture. But all of it swirls together to the point where some men just can’t see the difference. They can’t imagine a world where the people they are attracted to or the things they want aren’t attracted to them or don’t want them back.

Some of it is also because for years, women haven’t been well represented. Even as a man in an industry led by women, I’m still a man. I still start from a position of relative power, since I belong to the gender that dominates our society. Women don’t have that head start when they’re in the workforce. But one way or another, you’ve got men who have been programmed to think they’re all that and a bag of chips, and as soon as a woman shows up to have an idea that even mildly contradicts their worldview, they get all upset.

This line of thinking also ties in with other minorities in our country, whether we’re discussing race, orientation, or some other way of marking a person as “other.” It’s so much easier to dismiss a person as being less than you if you have never had to deal with that type of person before. Easy to ignore transgendered people if you know no transgendered people. Easy to treat women as objects if you’ve never really been friends with a woman before.

Generally speaking, I have gotten along better with women my entire life. Many of the guys in my high school just weren’t people I wanted anything to do with. When faced with a choice of who I wanted to hang out with, I would go with girls over guys almost all the time. That remains true today, in many ways. I’m not trying to hold myself up as the shining example of how to treat women. I don’t know if such a thing exists. I also can’t say I don’t notice what gender someone is when I’m interacting with them. I’m attracted to women. I’m not attracted to men. Does that make a difference in how I behave? How can it not?

I don’t know. My thought during that meeting wasn’t that we all need to be “gender-blind” or something like that. It was more . . . a general feeling of gratitude. Of appreciation that I have been accepted by that wonderful group as an equal. That I wish that sort of environment were one other people could enjoy. Where no one has to go to work and worry about being groped or hit on or discriminated against for their gender or orientation or the color of their skin.

And then I realize this post is just devolving into one big love fest and cry for equality. That’s not what I really wanted it to turn into. It just started with a single thought, and apparently that thought is elusive for me to really capture. Ephemeral. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.

One more note before I finish this up. In my religion, we’re often still taught how fundamentally different women and men are. And in some ways, I can see that. At least generally, stereotypically speaking. Often on my blog, I will speak up for women being included more in my church. For their opinions to be heard and paid attention to. For them to receive more leadership opportunities. I suppose that position stems from the kind of environment I have at work. I know firsthand just how much women are capable of, and I know what we as a people miss out on by not fully involving them.

Now, I’m sure there are some who would object, saying a woman’s place is in the home. That women are nurturing. And then they’d trot out the argument of how much they cherish their mother or grandmother. And again, I’m not here to denigrate mothers or women (or men) who choose to stay at home. But my experience shows me just what women are capable of, and just what I can get done when I’m working shoulder to shoulder with women as equals.

But again, this post is now getting out of hand. I guess I’ll just end it on a note of gratitude. Gratitude for the working relationships and acceptance I’ve enjoyed in the Maine library community as a whole, and my corner of it in particular. Did the rest of the post make sense? Perhaps not. But it felt like something I wanted to say, and I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for reading.

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