Male Librarians: Gender Issues and Stereotypes
Without question the Library profession is female-dominated. Decade after decade the ratio of female to male librarians remains roughly 4:1, although the mix is closer to 3:1 in academic libraries (Carmichael, 1992; Piper & Collamer, 2001; Gordon, 2004; Wiebe, 2004).
Men as librarians face some unique challenges and stereotypes that will be addressed using available literature. The surveys and statistics reveal common misconceptions regarding male librarians. The literature also allows men to speak for themselves as to why they choose this profession.
One of the greatest needs in the coming decades in Library Science is to recruit new and diverse talent. Understanding all available potential library students and removing hindrances or misconceptions about the field are vital. Men will certainly continue to play a vital role in the future of librarianship. Both sexes will need to work together to adapt to one another in the workplace and combat the challenges facing our profession.
The starting point for the study of male librarian issues is the landmark survey conducted by James Carmichael in late 1991. It remains the reference point for all ensuing research that has been conducted. Carmichael conducted a large sampling of male librarians by sending out 655 surveys. To his surprise Carmichael received 482 responses (a 73.58% return rate) (Carmichael, 1992). He attributes this response to cultural issues at the time such as the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings, although more recent writers have suggested that men are simply taking the rare opportunity to have their voices heard in a field where they are in the minority (Carmichael, 1992; Piper & Collamer, 2001). The survey reveals that the greatest stereotypical bias held against male librarians is the assumption that they are gay (over 80% expressed encountering this phenomenon) (Carmichael, 1992). Ironically, Carmichael’s own survey reveals a percentage of gay male librarians roughly equal to the percentage of gay males in American society (this isn't ironic). While many studies explored gender issues from a female perspective, his is the first to examine the male view of librarianship.
Within the same year of Carmichael’s seminal publication, another researcher published a paper on the “Glass Escalator” (Williams, 1992). Christine Williams surveyed 76 men and 23 women in the fields of Nursing, Elementary Teaching, Social Work and Librarianship. Her qualitative study found that men actually enjoy hidden advantages over women when entering these female-dominated professions. The advantage to men provides a glass escalator (as opposed to a glass ceiling) that encourages rapid promotion in their careers. Williams detected a contradiction amongst the women she interviewed in finding that they desire more men to join their field but then they resent the men in their field that they believe are advancing more rapidly than women (Williams, 1992).
In 1994 American Libraries published a follow up article by James Carmichael accompanied by an interview with three female librarians who expressed their responses to his research. Although the two articles largely disagreed on Carmichael’s findings, they each agreed that working together for improving gender equity in librarianship is their ultimate goal (Carmichael, 1994; Anonymous, 1994).
Two studies questioned the disproportionate number of men in the technology jobs of the profession. As the digital age progresses and spreads through all aspects of the library, there is concern that men may come to dominate the field (Hildenbrand, 1999; Greer, Stephens, & Coleman, 2001).
A 2001 survey revisited many of the questions previously covered by Carmichael’s work. 370 surveys were distributed with 118 responses given to the 24-question survey (Piper & Collamer, 2001). This study shows progress had been made in 10 years as men feel quite comfortable and content in their chosen career despite any obstacles or stigma they encounter as males in a female-dominated profession. Todd Wiebe published a study in 2004 that found most of the same stereotypes originally expressed by Carmichael are still prevalent. As a reaction to bias, many male librarians refer to themselves as Information Scientists (Wiebe, 2004).
The most recent study published was a qualitative survey in which three male librarians were interviewed in depth over a two-year period. This study was significant in uncovering an age bias in addition to gender bias (the survey participants were aged between 24 and 31) (Hickey, 2006). Hickey believes that further research of a qualitative nature is needed in order to explore male librarians’ actual experiences and adaptations to working in a female-dominated field (Hickey 2006).
The most common stereotype of male librarians has been that they are gay or effeminate (Carmichael, 1992; Piper & Collamer, 2001; Dickinson, 2002). Other common misconceptions about why men seek this career include the following: social ineptitude, lack of ambition, and failure at other fields of endeavor (Carmichael, 1992; Piper & Collamer, 2001).
Contrary to the stereotypes, the top reason that men choose to become librarians is due to a love of books and learning (Carmichael, 1992; Piper & Collamer, 2001). Secondary to that is previous work or life experience in libraries. The third reason is mere happenstance of exploring various career options (Carmichael, 1992). The most common reason that men choose this field can be summarized by this quote from a young librarian who stated, “I am a librarian because I love the work and believe in the principles exhibited in libraries… It is as simple as that” (Holland, 2007).
Many men complain about gender biases expressed in the workplace by either co- workers or patrons. The most common of these include being expected to handle physical tasks such as moving furniture, being expected to work night or weekend shifts for security, and being perceived as being in charge of female librarians by patrons (Carmichael, 1992; Piper & Collamer, 2001; Gordon, 2004; Hickey, 2006).
Some men have expressed concerns about sex discrimination in the workplace. This can be as simple as being excluded from interior decorating decisions (Piper & Collamer, 2001). More serious are men who were sexually harassed by female managers. The offenders expressed no fear of recourse since only females were in administrative positions in the particular library and would not take sides against another woman (Hickey, 2006).
On the other hand some male librarians have not sensed or experienced any issues of discrimination or harassment. A senior female librarian warned one male librarian at the start of his career of such gender bias, but he has yet to encounter any problems after two years on the job (Holland, 2007).
A common complaint expressed by some men and women librarians is the idea of a glass escalator for males in the field. Women expressed frustration at men promoted rapidly into management or administrative positions (Williams, 1992; Greer, 2001). Men are just as frustrated that they are often pushed up the career ladder when they are perfectly content in their present position. One male who desired to work as a children’s librarian was encouraged to move into administration after only six months on the job. He has stayed in his original position for 10 years but only by resisting promotion (Williams, 1992).
The concern expressed by Suzanne Hildenbrand that men would continue to dominate administrative and director positions has been questioned and contradicted by Paul Piper & Barbara Collamer. They point out that female library directors now outnumber males by nearly a 3 to 1 margin (Hildenbrand, 1999; Piper & Collamer, 2001).
Suzanne Hildenbrand has expressed grave concern that the digital age will actually have a negative impact on female librarians. Although females continue to outnumber males in Information Science (IS) programs, the ratio is much smaller than in general Library Science (LS) programs (Hildenbrand, 1999). She further points out that 71% of IS faculty are male while 61% of LS faculty are female; she believes that the nature of technology positions can lead to not only gender inequity but also economic inequity (Hildenbrand, 1999).
Piper and Collamer call for more research into why males gravitate towards the Information Science fields. Their belief is that it may be a response by men to distance themselves from male librarian stereotypes (Piper & Collamer, 2001).
The changing nature of the American workplace in the 20th century brought women into the workplace as never before. Women have come to especially dominate in certain fields that are now stereotyped as female professions (for example nursing, social work and librarianship) (Dickinson, 2002). Clearly, both men and women in our day must continually adapt to the changes taking place in employment by the opposite sex in non-traditional professions (such as male nurses or female firefighters). The amount of research that has been conducted on male librarians has not been abundant, but there is a slowly growing body of knowledge. What emerges is that the majority of men enter this field because they truly love the work. Libraries will need to find ways to encourage fairness and development of librarians in their chosen endeavors without regard to gender.
Further research is needed in many areas including studying both sexes to determine how to improve the field for current workers as well as finding ways to draw the best available candidates to library studies. Researchers should also continue to conduct qualitative studies on male librarians and how they adapt to a field in which they will (most likely) always be a minority presence.
Paul Goodson is an MLS student at East Carolina University and can be reached here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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